Timothy Snyder has produced two extremely troubling books detailing the events that transpired in the lands caught between Hitler and Stalin. The first, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, details the years between 1933 and 1945 and the actions taken by both Hitler and Stalin. During that period 14 million non-combatants were killed in the bloodlands, a number far higher than the number of Jews killed. In most cases, people died not in an impersonal, industrial mode, but because another person, often a neighbor, shot them. The number of people who were capable of mass murder is truly frightening.
Snyder’s intent is not to overshadow the fate of the Jews with the fates of others, but to point out that what we think of as the Holocaust was, as a stain on humanity, even worse than we thought. He also tells us that the success the Germans had in killing Jews (and others) depended on the mass murders and deportations carried out by Stalin in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states and western Russia before the Germans arrived.
“In the name of defending and modernizing the Soviet Union, Stalin oversaw the starvation of millions and the shooting of three quarters of a million people in the 1930s. Stalin killed his own citizens no less efficiently than Hitler killed the citizens of other countries. Of the fourteen million people deliberately murdered in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, a third belong in the Soviet account.”
While the first book was focused on what happened, the second, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, tried to explain why things happened the way they did—and found it necessary to remind us that what happened once can happen again.
The Holocaust and Auschwitz are so tightly coupled that the association tends to obscure critical facts surrounding that period of time and the events that occurred. Most of the killing took place soon after the German invasion of Russian-controlled territories—before Auschwitz was established as a death factory.
“The word ‘Auschwitz’ has become a metonym for the Holocaust as a whole. Yet the vast majority of the Jews had already been murdered, further east, by the time that Auschwitz became a major killing facility. Yet while Auschwitz has been remembered, most of the Holocaust has been largely forgotten.”
“In the history of the Holocaust, Auschwitz was a place where the third technique of mass killing was developed, third in chronological order and also third in significance. The most important technique, because it came first, because it killed the most Jews, and because it demonstrated that a Final Solution by mass killing was possible, was shooting over pits. The next most important, and the next to be developed, was asphyxiation by the exhaust fumes of internal combustion engines. At around the time that these carbon monoxide facilities were coming into use, in early 1942, the policy of murdering all Jews was extended from the occupied Soviet Union and occupied Poland to all lands that fell under German control. Auschwitz became the major killing site for Jews in 1943 and 1944.”
The association of Auschwitz with the Holocaust is convenient for German memories. It provides a view in which a few people were involved in an impersonal mechanism for sending people to their death, and suggests the false impression that many Germans could have been unaware of the slaughter of Jews.
“It is possible that some Germans did not know exactly what happened at Auschwitz. It is not possible that many Germans did not know about the mass murder of Jews. The mass murder of Jews was known and discussed in Germany, at least among family and friends, long before Auschwitz became a death facility. In the East, where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them. During the war, wives and even children visited the killing sites; and soldiers and policemen and others wrote home to their families, sometimes with photographs, about the details. German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews, sent by post or brought back by soldiers and policemen on leave.”
Auschwitz is a convenient symbol of the Holocaust for the Russians as well because it was the only aspect of the Holocaust for which Soviets could deny any complicity. This association allows the slaughter to be viewed as a German problem, when, in fact, most of the Jews killed were actually Soviet citizens who were often murdered by other Soviet citizens providing assistance to the German invaders.
“This historical reality remains thoroughly politicized….that tens of thousands of Soviet citizens could contribute to the murder of further millions of Soviet citizens on behalf of a totally alien system, has never been addressed. It has instead been displaced.”
When we think of the Holocaust we should not focus on the image of Auschwitz, but rather on an image of an individual looking into the face of a man, woman, or child and pulling a trigger—perhaps hundreds or thousands of times. Most often the killing was of Jews, but the killers were capable of murdering whoever was brought before them.
“When the mass murder of Jews is limited to an exceptional place and treated as the result of impersonal procedures, then we need not confront the fact that people not very different from us murdered other people not very different from us at close quarters.”
What was it about the conditions in the bloodlands, starting in 1941, that made it so easy to prosecute this highly personal form of mass murder? Snyder says it cannot be explained as acts of rabid anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was common in every country in which Christianity took hold. It is comforting for some to believe that the inhabitants of the bloodlands were somehow more savage, and less civilized than themselves—a self-serving view that is difficult to justify. The Germans did try to generate pogroms as they moved into new lands, but found the process to be not very productive by their standards.
“If the killing of 1941 involved locals, then perhaps it was a result of local antisemitism rather than German politics? This is a popular way to explain the Holocaust without politics: as a historically predictable outburst of the barbarity of east Europeans. This sort of explanation is reassuring, since it permits the thought that only peoples associated with extravagant antisemitism would indulge in disastrous violence. This comforting and erroneous thought is a legacy of Nazi racism and colonialism. The racist and colonial idea that the Holocaust began as an elemental explosion of primitive antisemitism arose as Nazi propaganda and apologetics. The Germans wished to display the killing of Jews on the eastern front as the righteous anger of oppressed peoples against their supposed Jewish overlords.”
Snyder suggests that for understanding what transpired we must recognize the unique political situations that occurred in the various regions of the bloodlands. The survivability of Jews depended a lot on which country claimed them as citizens. Germans occupied several countries in Western Europe, such as France, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands, but retained the governments in them in order to run the countries. In order for Germans to gain access to most of the resident Jews, the officials of the given country would have to provide them with the Jews. This happened to a different degree from country to country, but as a rule, the stronger the occupied government was—meaning the degree to which it had maintained the prewar government—the greater the probability of survival. The Germans in the occupied countries—and even in Germany itself—seemed driven by the need to obey laws. Consider the fate of Victor Klemperer a German Jew who was a noted scholar.
“Because Klemperer was a German citizen with a non-Jewish wife, he was not subject to the general policy of the deportation and murder of German Jews. Since his wife did not divorce him, he, like many such German Jewish men, survived.”
Consider the experience in France.
“The French placed Jews without French citizenship in camps. The Germans wanted to take such people, but only insofar as the Germans themselves could consider them stateless. Crucially, Nazi malice stopped at the passport: As much as Nazis might have imagined that states were artificial creations, they did not proceed with killing Jews until states were actually destroyed or had renounced their own Jews. The French were willing to round up Jews from Hungary and Turkey, for example, but the Germans were unwilling to kill such people without the consent of the Hungarian and Turkish governments. Germany was entirely willing to murder Jews of Polish and Soviet citizenship, since it considered those states to be defunct. Germany was also willing to take and murder French Jews, but only under the condition that French authorities first stripped such people of citizenship.”
“A large majority of French Jews, about three-quarters survived the war.”
It would be in the regions where the prewar government was totally destroyed that the Germans received the most help from local residents, and were most efficient in their killing. In fact, the bloodiest regions were those where a double governmental destruction occurred.
Under the terms of the German-Russian nonaggression treaty, Russia was allowed to take control of not only the eastern regions of prewar Poland, but also Finland and the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The Russians occupied the Baltic States in 1940, destroyed the existing governments, and killed or shipped to work camps everyone who might be a problem. Included in that category were members of government, past or present, anyone who might be a leader or opinion maker, and people who had too much property or money. They formed a new government that lasted about a year until the Germans invaded and drove the Russians out, establishing yet another new government. Estonia, having suffered this fate, could be used by Snyder as an example of how these regions differed from those who were merely occupied by the Germans. In particular, he compares the fates of Jews in both Estonia and Denmark, similar countries with small Jewish populations.
“During the war both were under German occupation, both were subject to the Final Solution, and both were declared judenfrei—free of Jews—by their German occupiers. And yet the history of the Holocaust in each land could hardly have been more different. In Estonia, about 99 percent of the Jews who were present when German forces arrived were killed. In Denmark, about 99 percent of Jews who had Danish citizenship survived.”
“In no country under German occupation did a higher percentage of Jews die than in Estonia, and in none did a higher proportion survive than in Denmark.”
Was the difference related to a more intense anti-Semitism in Estonia than in Denmark?
“In fact, Estonian Jews were equal citizens of the republic, which took in some Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany. Denmark, by contrast, turned away Jewish refugees after 1935.”
Denmark was allowed to maintain their government in place after the German occupation. The Germans had neither the manpower nor the will to coerce Denmark into treating Jewish citizens differently than other citizens. Germany did wish to have Denmark declared free of Jews. This was accomplished by Germany tacitly agreeing to let Denmark ship all of its Jews to Sweden, which, as a nominally neutral nation, but one aiding the Germans economically, wished to score points with the allied nations.
On the other hand, when the Germans moved into Estonia they found a country with no credible government. The elected government and the participants were all dead or gone and replaced with what could be referred to as collaborators with an invader. To many, Germany would arrive as a liberator. Those who collaborated with the Russians were at least tacit accomplices in the murder and internment of their own countrymen, leaving them little option but to play the same role for the new invaders. The Germans also noted that many of those the Russians had sent to far off camps were Jews with property that had been confiscated by their neighbors, who would have an interest in seeing that those Jews never return. And there was also the long propagated Judeobolshevik myth which blamed the Jews for Russian communism. In many countries the Germans took over from the Soviets, the Jews were a minority of the collaborators, but more than proportionately represented. The final gift provided the Germans by the Soviets was to kill all the native prisoners and leave them behind as they retreated and left their collaborators to fend for themselves. There was also the issue of food. The German army was forced to live off the land. The disruption of the multiple invasions did not help food production. The argument that fewer mouths to feed would benefit everyone was easy to make.
Germans would often provoke pogroms when entering a new country. They knew that this was inefficient as a method of killing Jews, but it was a useful technique for spotting people who were willing to kill. If local recruiting methods failed, the Germans had accumulated millions of Russian prisoners during the war. They began by letting them starve to death, but they soon realized that given the alternative of starving, many of these would be willing to participate in the killing. The net result was that between the Germans themselves, the Russian prisoners, and locals, there were sufficient numbers of people willing to kill. And it was difficult to ascribe this to anti-Semitism because the killing always involved other groups as well as Jews. In Estonia, the Jews were a small fraction of those ordered killed, but the Germans still had little trouble finding willing killers.
“Because there were very few Jews in Estonia, the number of non-Jews was relatively more important than elsewhere. All of the 963 Estonian Jews murdered under German occupation were killed by Estonians, usually policemen. About ten times as many non-Jewish Estonians were killed by those same Estonian policemen.”
It is the availability of all those people the Germans found who were ready to become mass murderers that should concern us. What exactly are the conditions under which “people like us” become capable of killing other people like us?
Snyder talks long and often about political situations for which Estonia is an example and Denmark is a counterexample. He emphasizes the “double occupation” scenario as being of particular importance in triggering such a response. Clearly there is a correlation between mass murder and political considerations, and some truth in his hypothesis. But it was Snyder who emphasized that it was important to focus not on the “impersonal procedures” associated with Auschwitz, but on the very personal procedure involved in putting a bullet in a person standing nearby and looking directly into one’s eyes. Snyder’s political theories seem just a bit too impersonal to be satisfying, and perhaps a bit too specific to the unique conditions of World War II. And one yet has to explain the willingness of the Germans to become mass murderers. They created the politics Snyder says is necessary for mass murder, they did not suffer from it.
A previous discussion suggested that the conditions that would explain the observed mass murders were some combination of peer pressure, respect for authority, and a sense of being mortally threatened. One could attribute the motives of the killers the Germans recruited in the bloodlands to this combination of factors and arrive at a more useful paradigm than the more complex political construction of Snyder.
Consider this passage from Snyder discussing a letter written home by a German soldier.
“Even as the German army was advancing east in huge numbers, the German killers presented their actions as defensive. To shoot Jewish babies in Mahileu was, as one German (Austrian) explained to his wife, to prevent something worse: ‘During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse. The death that we gave them was a beautiful quick death, compared to the hellish torments of thousands and thousands in the jails of the GPU [Soviet secret police organization]. Infants flew in great arcs through the air and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water.”
This soldier, after a decade of Nazi propaganda, could blame the capitalist Jews and the Bolshevik Jews for threatening Germany from all sides and forcing them to go to war. He was also under severe peer pressure as his comrades were also participating in the killing, as well as having the excuse that he was just following orders.
This soldier could have been a postman or a school teacher in civilian life, but conditions were capable of converting him into a mass murderer. That is a lesson that must be learned from the Holocaust.
As an aside, Snyder provides us with a revealing quote from Hitler.
“The extermination of the Jews was a victory for the species, regardless of the defeat of the Germans. As Hitler said at the very end, on April 29, 1945, Jews were the ‘world poisoners of all nations.’ He was sure of his legacy: ‘I have lanced the Jewish boil. Posterity will be eternally grateful to us’.”
Take a man with some oratorical skills, an absolute certainty in his beliefs, and an obsession with a perceived enemy; give him power and terrible things can happen. Hitler and the Holocaust are unlikely to be repeated. But mass murder occurs regularly. People like Hitler are always among us; the important thing is to not let them come to power.
Adam Gopnik wrote a piece for The New Yorker before the election directed at those who were worried about the rise of Donald Trump. It included this warning—one we should continue to take to heart as we move forward.
“He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn’t so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis. The radical progressives decided that there was no difference between the democratic left and the totalitarian right and that an explosion of institutions was exactly the most thrilling thing imaginable.”
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