Who remembers the Poles?
Richard J. Evans
- Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
Bodley Head, 524 pp, £25.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 08141 2
‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ Adolf Hitler asked his generals in 1939, as he told them to ‘close your hearts to pity,’ ‘act brutally’ and behave ‘with the greatest harshness’ in the coming war in the East. It’s often assumed that in reminding them of the genocide of at least a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, Hitler was referring to what he intended to do to Europe’s Jews. But he was not referring to the Jews: he was referring to the Poles. ‘I have sent my Death’s Head units to the East,’ he told the generals, ‘with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the living space that we need.’
Over the past couple of decades, historians have been steadily uncovering the true extent of Nazism’s genocidal ambitions in Eastern Europe. A month before the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, leading German military, economic and agriculture officials, following the direction indicated by Hitler and Göring, adopted a ‘Hunger Plan’ that prescribed the removal of food supplies from the areas shortly to be conquered, in order to feed German troops and civilians; the inhabitants of eastern Poland, the Ukraine and Belarus were to be left to starve. This was soon trumped by a more ambitious plan, pursued by the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, and officially adopted just over a year later. According to the General Plan for the East, ethnic Germans were to be settled in Germanised towns and agricultural estates all across Eastern Europe, which, Hitler fantasised, would be linked to the Reich by high-speed railways and autobahns. Anywhere between 30 million and 45 million Slavs living in the region were to be left to die, deliberately deprived of food and medical care. The plan envisaged that some 85 per cent of Poles, 64 per cent of Ukrainians and 75 per cent of Belarussians would perish in this way.
As Timothy Snyder reminds us, the Nazis made a start on this scheme of racial annihilation with the blockade of Leningrad, which led to the death of a million of its inhabitants, and the deliberate murder by starvation and disease of more than three million Red Army prisoners of war who fell into their hands during the massive encircling movements with which the Wehrmacht defeated the Soviet forces in the first months of Operation Barbarossa. Many more civilians perished in the towns, villages and country areas invaded by the Nazis in the second half of 1941. Already hundreds of thousands of Poles had been expelled from their homes, enslaved, deported to Germany or killed.
But the Nazis were by no means the only architects of the suffering that the people who lived in this part of Europe had to endure in the 1930s and 1940s. Hitler’s enemy in the East, Joseph Stalin, was just as murderous in his pursuit of a utopian programme, different though Stalinist Communism might have been from the hierarchical racist ideology of the Nazis. Up to five million people, mostly Ukrainians, were sacrificed to the Bolshevik plan to collectivise agriculture in the early 1930s; three-quarters of a million Soviet citizens perished in Stalin’s purges later in the decade; during the war, the transmutation of Stalin’s vision from social revolution to patriotic defence of the Russian homeland led to the forcible deportation of millions more – Poles, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and other ethnic minorities – under conditions so appalling that hundreds of thousands died.
Altogether, Snyder reckons, some 14 million people perished in this part of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s as a result of policies enacted by the Nazis and their allies, or the Soviet Communists and theirs. Snyder describes these countries – Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, the Baltic states and the western fringes of Russia – as Europe’s ‘bloodlands’. This was where the vast majority of Europe’s Jews lived, and they also bore the brunt of the genocidal thrust of Nazi policy. Initially, Snyder argues, they were killed as useless consumers of much needed foodstuffs. But once Barbarossa got into difficulties a month after the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Hitler began to see the mass murder of the Jews as an end in itself, an act of revenge against an imagined Jewish world conspiracy. At this point, Himmler’s SS task forces began shooting Jewish women and children as well as Jewish men; and as German forces suffered their first serious reverses in the East in December, Hitler went over to an unrestrained policy of annihilation, resulting in the creation of the death camps and the murder of virtually the entire Jewish population of the ‘bloodlands’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 32 No. 23 · 2 December 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Vol. 32 No. 24 · 16 December 2010
Charles Coutinho coyly suggests that ‘Richard J. 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’ (Letters, 2 December). Evans gallantly concedes the point. But surely the real issue is quite distinct: a matter of generations. Politically there is not much distance between Evans (left or new left as the case may be) and Snyder (transatlantic centre-left). There is, though, an enormous generational difference: Evans belongs to the British New Left generation, he grew up under the shadow of E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and later of the German Sonderweg debate. Snyder grew up instead under the shadow of the Historikerstreit, the end of Communism and the fallout of post-Communism. This explains much of the animosity of the discussion.
Università del Piemonte Orientale, Alessandria, Italy