LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN
letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.

Letters


‘Bloodlands’

The review by Richard J. Evans of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands may perhaps be described as the polemical equivalent of Operation Barbarossa: mean, massive, methodical and merciless, and aimed at obliterating all opposition (LRB, 4 November). Those who assume that study of the Third Reich and its crimes provides the sole or best perspective for judging the Second World War will no doubt be cheering. But they may be surprised to find how much resistance an overstated case can generate. In terms of scholarship, Evans has the edge in those parts of the story which depend on an analysis of German decision-making; Snyder stands his ground in the less familiar territory between Germany and Russia, where the killing grounds were concentrated and to which the title of Bloodlands refers.

One would be naive to ignore that the extreme differences of opinion between Evans and other reviewers of Snyder’s book betray the existence of deeper issues. Three spring to mind. First, since our Western countries waged war against only one of Europe’s two mass murdering regimes, we are emotionally conditioned to notice the sufferings of our enemy’s victims, but not of others; we are less disposed to identify with those ‘faraway’ peoples in the East who were killed either by our Soviet allies or by the Nazis and Soviets acting in turn. Second, by accepting the uniqueness of the Holocaust, we are apt to sideline all the other campaigns of mass extermination that proceeded alongside it. And, third, in the training of historians, we produce precious few scholars who are tooled up to examine all sides of the complex wartime panorama with equal expertise and empathy.

Snyder is far better equipped for this task than most historians. Apart from the lese-majesty of sniping at his seniors, his main offence seems to be that of challenging the magic circle of German and Holocaust interests which have dominated the landscape in recent decades. His work cannot be free of flaws, and may well need emendation. But he does not deserve to be maltreated as an egregious interloper fit only to be chased from the parish.

Norman Davies
Oxford

Richard Evans sharply attacks Timothy Snyder’s treatment of the origin and implementation of the policy of mass murder of the Jews. There is a vast literature on this topic, on which Evans is an acknowledged expert. But it is unfair to claim that Snyder misunderstands it. He does not claim, as Evans asserts, that the policy was adopted in revenge for the German setbacks outside Moscow in December 1941. Following Christopher Browning, he sees the adoption of this policy as the result of the euphoria of victory between September and October 1941. Snyder does argue that it was the Nazis’ inability to carry out their plans for a massive colonisation of the western Soviet Union in the aftermath of a Soviet collapse which led them, and Hitler in particular, to become obsessed with a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. This is an arguable point and perhaps downplays Hitler’s personal obsession with the Jews from his entry into politics in 1919. But it in no way undermines the general value of Snyder’s book.

What the book does show is not only how the Nazi and Soviet policies of mass murder can be compared but how they influenced each other. The purges of 1937 are linked convincingly to Stalin’s fear of encirclement and the threat he believed he faced from a chimerical alliance of Poland, Germany and Japan. In discussing these and subsequent purges, Snyder deals very effectively with the anti-semitic assumption that the Soviet regime was essentially controlled by Jews and that most Jews were Communists and most Communists Jews. He shows how already, by the outbreak of war in 1939, the number of people of Jewish origin in the NKVD had been greatly reduced, and describes the growing hostility of Stalin towards Jews, culminating in the postwar ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ purge.

Evans also attacks Snyder for overemphasising the sufferings of the Poles at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler, but Snyder’s figures for Polish casualties are lower than those usually cited, and they reflect the most recent research. He estimates Polish non-Jewish civilian deaths at German hands at around a million, and at Soviet hands around 100,000. A further million died ‘as a result of mistreatment and as casualties of war’. He also shows how the figure of six million Polish casualties (three million Jews and three million non-Jews) was invented by Jakub Berman, the éminence grise of the post-1944 Communist regime, to demonstrate the equivalence of Polish and Jewish suffering.

Antony Polonsky
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

‘The starvation policy of the early 1930s,’ Richard Evans writes, ‘was directed not specifically against Ukrainians but against kulaks, allegedly well-off peasants, who included many inhabitants of Soviet Russia.’ He views this ‘policy’ as a part of the collectivisation during which as many as five million people, mostly Ukrainians, died.

Had Evans read Bloodlands more closely, he would have noticed that, according to Timothy Snyder, the famine occurred after collectivisation had been completed. In 1932, there were no kulaks left to die in their villages: they had been deported earlier, during the so-called ‘dekulakisation’, intended to prepare the way for collectivisation. Because of this, as Snyder writes, during the famine ‘Ukrainian villages had been deprived of their natural leaders by the deportations of kulaks to the Gulag.’ It was the peasants who by then had become the collective-farm members who were starving and dying in 1932.

Roman Szporluk
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Richard Evans’s less than entirely positive review of Timothy Snyder’s book may or may not have been influenced by Snyder’s own less than positive review of Evans’s latest book in the New York Review of Books.

Charles Coutinho
New York

Richard J. Evans writes: Let me begin by reassuring Norman Davies that I don’t regard anyone as an ‘interloper’ in my ‘parish’; there are plenty of excellent historians (Bogdan Musial is one of them, for instance) who have written illuminatingly on the sufferings of the Poles, Ukrainians and Belorussians at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler, and good work in this area should be welcomed; I just don’t think Snyder’s work contributes much of value to this field of inquiry.

Accepting that the Nazi extermination of the Jews was in some key ways unique does not mean sidelining other campaigns of mass extermination such as those pursued by Stalin; but it doesn’t mean equating them either. Indeed one of my complaints about Snyder’s book is that it sidelines all kinds of mass extermination that took place outside his ‘bloodlands’. Nor do I, as Antony Polonsky claims, attack Snyder for overemphasising the sufferings of the Poles at the hands of the two dictators. On the contrary, if Davies and Polonsky care to read the first chapter of my book The Third Reich at War, they will find thorough coverage of the mass murders and deportations carried out in eastern Poland at Stalin’s behest, as well as a lengthy account of Nazism’s genocidal policies towards the Poles.

I can’t see how Polonsky can justify his revival of the German historian Ernst Nolte’s discredited claim that Nazi and Soviet policies of mass murder influenced each other by referring to Stalin’s purges of 1937, which took place some years before Hitler had embarked on any policies of mass murder. Nor can I recognise Snyder’s account of the genesis of Hitler’s extermination of the Jews (in a chapter entitled ‘Holocaust and Revenge’) in Polonsky’s claim that he argues that this policy was a product of ‘the euphoria of victory’. The entire argument of the chapter is that the policy was adopted as an act of revenge for the defeat of Operation Barbarossa. Perhaps Polonsky should read it again.

I accept Roman Szporluk’s point about the mass deportations and famines of the early 1930s, but it misses the central issue, which is that they did not just affect Ukrainians, as Snyder claims, but other ethnic groups as well, including Russians, as the Russianist Donald Rayfield has pointed out in a recent critical review of the book in the Literary Review.

Finally, Charles Coutinho does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder’s book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted almost all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and East European history. At the time I wondered what made a supposedly serious historian fall into such egregious error. After reading his book, I now know: it’s Snyder, not me, who has an incorrigible desire to drive out fellow historians he sees as ‘interlopers’ from what he considers to be his own ‘parish’.


Adieu, madame

Terry Castle remarks that Virginia Woolf ‘intriguingly chose to review’ Ma double vie by Sarah Bernhardt in the Cornhill Magazine (LRB, 4 November). The Cornhill was then edited by Reginald Smith, and as Andrew McNeillie explains in the first volume of his edition of Woolf’s essays, ‘In practice the “choice” seems largely to have been Smith’s.’ He insisted that she and Nelly Cecil, the alternative reviewer, should review biography as having greater appeal to his readers than the poetry or fiction they might have preferred. This insistence caused Virginia Woolf also to review biographies of John Delane, editor of the Times, and Theodore Roosevelt for the Cornhill, worthies about whom she knew even less than she knew about Sarah Bernhardt.

Anthony Curtis
London W8

Having recently read and translated more than 100 previously unpublished letters from Sarah Bernhardt to Dr Samuel Pozzi, her physician, lover and lifelong friend, I can report the discovery of a different Sarah from the one portrayed by Terry Castle. She was a caring mother (not only of Maurice but also to her young sister Régine and her niece Saryta); an incredibly hard-working woman; and most of all, a devoted friend and generous hostess – witty, amusing and often playing the role of great actress, but equally often sending it up. She and Pozzi met in 1869, when he was a young medical student in the Latin Quarter and she had just had her first success at the Odéon. They were lovers for ten years and it is clear from the many notes she dashed off to him in breaks at rehearsal that the liaison was physically entirely satisfying for her. Pozzi, who became known as the father of French gynaecology, undoubtedly set the bar for sexual performance very high – it isn’t surprising that Mounet-Sully and other potential lovers of Bernhardt’s failed to clear it.

Unfortunately Sarah Barnum, the false and malicious diatribe by Marie Colombier, an actress of minimal talent and anti-semitic bias who fell out with Bernhardt after her first, very successful US tour, continues to be the basis of many of the allegations of Bernhardt’s supposed sexual ‘dysfunction’, including those of Robert Gottlieb and his reviewers.

Caroline de Costa
Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology
James Cook University School of Medicine, Cairns, Australia

Terry Castle remarks in passing that Sardou referred to some of his vehicles for Sarah Bernhardt, among them Adrienne Lecouvreur, Fédora and La Tosca, as ‘shabby little shockers’. Can’t be right, for I came up with those words to characterise Puccini’s Tosca in Opera as Drama (1956). For some reason – alliteration? aptness? – the epithet caught the fancy of the opera world, which still feels compelled to bring it up and (usually) decry it every single time Tosca is mentioned. That it has found a niche, however tentative, in your contributor’s lexicon is a further indication of its ubiquity, if not its cogency.

Joseph Kerman
Berkeley, California


Browne’s Gamble

Stefan Collini’s analysis of the Browne Report avoided the tired newspaper debates about class and asked instead what will happen if we follow Browne in seeking to create a higher education system whose sole concern is the generation of capital (LRB, 4 November). My own teaching experiences indicate that the damage is already being done. Collini describes Browne’s vision of a system in which university courses live or die according to the level of ‘student satisfaction’. All other things being equal, a student who achieves high marks will feel more ‘satisfied’ with his or her course than one whose marks are low. The pressure on tutors to inflate grades – already very considerable – will, under Browne’s system, be all the greater when jobs might depend on students’ ‘satisfaction’: to award low marks or even a fail – an assessment that the present system has contrived to make a near impossibility in most institutions – would be in effect to fail your own course and to deter your own potential consumers. It isn’t difficult to see why universities might want to make their courses less and less demanding, with predictable results: poorly qualified graduates who are less likely to be valuable to employers and to the economy.

Matthew Barr
Falmer, Sussex

Stefan Collini is technically correct in stating that the number of university students doubled ‘overnight’ in 1992. However, it would be wrong to assume that granting university status to polytechnics radically changed the number of students in higher education. The proportion of 18 to 21-year-olds in higher education had already doubled in the five years before 1992, largely because more people were staying on after 16 following the introduction of GCSEs in 1987. One response to the increasing numbers was to shrink the real value of the means-tested maintenance grant paid by the LEA; another was to remove students’ entitlement to housing benefit and income support during short and long vacations in stages between 1986 and 1990; a third was the formation, 20 years ago, of the Student Loans Company, initially to offer loans to top up the maintenance ‘package’ to the level of the LEA grant of ten years before.

Stephen Longstaffe
University of Cumbria

Despite the powerfulness of his argument – or maybe because of it – Stefan Collini’s comprehensive critique of the Browne Report leads me to despair: why do those who question the value of free market approaches persist in attacking economic rationality in general? Collini presents us with two options: either we continue to understand universities as having an important ‘public cultural role’ or we redefine them ‘in terms of a purely economistic calculation of value’. This is to take entirely on its own terms the neoliberal view that the economy operates independently of culture. Those of us who have a serious concern with the direction educational (and other) policy is taking must find ways to preserve a public cultural role for universities not in contravention of economistic calculations but as a result of these calculations.

Lois Lee
Department of Sociology, Cambridge

It was an out-of-fashion courtesy on the part of Stefan Collini in his magisterial dissection of the Browne Report not to draw attention to the author’s dismal record as chief executive of BP – culminating in the recent oil spill, for which the blame has fallen on his unfortunate successor. Why a failed businessman in his retirement should be asked to advise a failed government on how to make our universities cost-effective is a mystery. What we would appear to have done is first to convert technical colleges into universities and now attempt to reshape universities as technical colleges. This would seem to be neither wise nor prudent: our universities earn a lot of money educating foreign students who recognise their traditional virtues.

John A. Davis
Cambridge


Obama v. LBJ

David Bromwich is wrong in his assessment of Obama as ‘gradually coming to resemble … Lyndon Johnson’ (LRB, 18 November). It is true that Johnson was partly undone by his insistence on persisting with the Vietnam fiasco, inherited not just from Kennedy but more importantly from Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles. But the Great Society was much more than a ‘large social programme … spun out to unite the country at home’. It was the core of what Johnson wanted to accomplish as president, and it was achieved with very little compromise. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 dwarf anything that Obama has achieved in his first two years.

Gerald Carpenter
Sequim, Washington


What if he called him Raud?

Jeremy Harding, in his account of the 1943 Casablanca conference where General Giraud first met De Gaulle, doesn’t mention Giraud’s reported insistence on calling him just ‘Gaulle’ (LRB, 4 November). In doing this, he was following the traditional rule in France for addressing people with a ‘de’ in front of their name: drop the ‘de’ whenever the name is not preceded by ‘Monsieur/Madame’ or the given name. Hence: ‘Tocqueville’ (not ‘De Tocqueville’, as often heard and written outside France), but ‘Monsieur de Tocqueville’ or ‘Alexis de Tocqueville’ (note the lower-case ‘d’.) Giraud forgot that this rule doesn’t apply when the name is monosyllabic. Angry to have his name mutilated, De Gaulle wondered what Giraud would say ‘if I called him “Raud”’?

François Thouvenot
Uriage, France

Jeremy Harding makes no mention of the man whom De Gaulle thought of as his fer de lance, General Leclerc – or to give him his real name, Philippe de Hauteclocque. From small beginnings in Chad and Libya in 1940 harrying the Italians, to his leadership of the Free French 2ème Division Blindée from Normandy to Hitler’s lair at Berchtesgaden (eight years ago I met veterans of his division who insisted they had reached the Eagle’s Nest before the Americans), Leclerc was largely instrumental in validating De Gaulle’s assertion that his was the real France, because it kept on fighting.

In August 1944, Leclerc took the surrender of the German governor of Paris, and a year later represented France at the capitulation of Japan on the USS Missouri. He was killed in 1947 in an air accident on the Algerian frontier with Morocco.

Edgar Lloyd
Cowbridge, Glamorgan


The Problem with AV

Whatever Ross McKibbin may say, opponents of AV are not ‘cave dwellers’ (LRB, 18 November). AV maximises the votes of extremist candidates, since anyone voting for them knows their second preference votes will still count, while the second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated have no impact on the result, though as many as 40 per cent of the votes may be affected. In constituencies where the Labour and Lib Dem candidates are the leading contenders, for example, only the second preferences of Conservative, UKIP and BNP supporters will matter. It is possible, however, that if their own candidate is defeated, Labour voters would prefer to be represented by an ‘honest-to-God’ Tory than a ‘pragmatic’ Lib Dem. The second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated should take precedence over those of the least successful candidates. Under the standard counting procedure, AV is demonstrably less democratic than first past the post.

Bill Myers
Leicester


Vivid, but curious

Michael Hofmann’s opening salvo in his review of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters is vivid, but curious: ‘He is a stuck harpsichord record, knocking out … shards of shrilly hammered phrases’ (LRB, 4 November). You can hammer on a piano; a harpsichord only plucks, and no amount of hammering will make it any shriller.

Gerard McBurney
Chicago


What to say of the newly-weds

The reason Malcolm Andrews objects to Tom Paulin’s positive reading of the end of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is that he takes into account only the final two lines of the poem (Letters, 18 November). Like Paulin I have always found the intensely moving last line indicative of ‘a swelling sense of fertility and alert purpose’ (even if I couldn’t have put it so well) and this response is surely conditioned by earlier lines in the final stanza. Larkin has expressed his wonder and his irritation at the farcical aspects of weddings – the ‘nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes’, the ‘uncle shouting smut’ – but once he has got them off his chest, as so often in his long major poems, he turns, with a marked change of tone, to the serious: ‘and it was nearly done, this frail/Travelling coincidence; and what it held/Stood ready to be loosed with all the power/That being changed can give.’ This long sentence, flowing purposefully forward in enjambed lines, culminates in the significant notion of ‘all the power that being changed can give’, signalling a solemnity we also find at the end of ‘Church Going’, ‘Dockery and Son’ or ‘The Old Fools’.

Alison Mace
Blakeney, Gloucestershire


Blent

M. Smithurst suggests that Larkin got the word ‘blent’ from Byron’s ‘in one red burial blent’ (Letters, 18 November). But maybe he got it from Twelfth Night, where Viola says of Olivia’s complexion: ’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white/Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.’

Christine Shuttleworth
London W12


Comanche from Germany

Gilberto Perez says that it wasn’t John Ford’s practice to cast whites as Indians in his films (LRB, 18 November). It’s true that he did sometimes cast genuine Indians in small, usually non-speaking roles. Chief Big Tree has a part in Drums along the Mohawk and another in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. But Ford never gave a large part to an Indian actor. Scar in The Searchers has blue eyes because he is played by Henry Brandon, a German whose name was originally Heinrich von Kleinbach. Brandon also plays the Comanche Quanah Parker in Ford’s Two Rode Together; the other Comanche role in that film is played by the black actor Woody Strode. In Fort Apache the Apache chief Cochise is played by the Mexican actor Miguel Inclán, and in Cheyenne Autumn the Cheyenne roles are played by Sal Mineo (of Italian extraction) and by Dolores del Rio, Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, all Mexicans. It’s a moot point whether casting blacks and Mexicans as Indians can be considered more enlightened than casting whites.

Incidentally, it was David Selznick, not Walter Wanger, who wanted Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper as the leads for Stagecoach.

Edward Buscombe
London N1


Holy Moly!

John Gray calls the US government ‘archaic and dysfunctional’ (LRB, 21 October). Holy Moly! Our government is archaic and dysfunctional? The US House of Representatives is the most responsive political body in the world. When the people are unhappy, they throw the bums out, as they did on 2 November. Our government will limp along just fine, thank you, and if gridlock is what we get, so much the better if it prevents Obama from passing any more heavily bureaucratic programmes we can’t afford.

Martha Buddecke
Albuquerque, New Mexico