New thinking about European genocide and the Holocaust

Image: names of Holocaust victims

It sometimes seems that some questions in history are resolved, finished, and understood. At various times the industrial revolution, the outbreak of World War I, and the French war in Indochina fell in this category. And then a new generation of historians comes along and questions the assumptions and certainties of their predecessors, and offers new theories and interpretations of these apparently familiar historical happenings. the narrative changes, and we understand the historical happenings differently. Sometimes it is a matter of new evidence, sometimes it is a reframing of old assumptions about the time and place of the happening, and sometimes it is a shift from agency to structure (or the reverse). And sometimes it is the result of new thinking about the concepts and methods of history itself — how historians should proceed in researching and explaining complex events in the past.

The occurrence and causes of the Holocaust seem to fall in this category of important historical realignment in the past twenty years. After a period of several decades in which the central facts of Nazi war against Europe’s Jews were thought to be understood — horrible as those facts are — but beyond any serious doubt about causes, extent, and consequences. Perhaps Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961, captured that postwar historical consensus; Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (1975) falls in that early wave of scholarship as well. But recent historians have offered new ways of thinking about the Nazi plan of extermination, and important new insights have emerged.

Where did the Holocaust take place?

One of those groundbreaking historians is Tim Snyder, with his books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder argues that the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews has been importantly misunderstood — too centered on Germany, when the majority of genocide and murder occurred further east, in the lands that he calls the “bloodlands”; largely focused on extermination camps, whereas most killing of Jews occurred near the cities and villages where they lived, and most commonly by gunfire; insufficiently attentive to the relationship between extermination of people and destruction of the institutions of state in subject countries; and without sufficient attention to Hitler’s own worldview, within which the  Nazi war of extermination against Europe’s Jews was framed. And perhaps most striking, Snyder links the mass killings of Jews with the almost equally numerous mass killings by the Soviet state of peasants, Poles, Ukrainians, and other non-Russians in the same region. Here is Snyder’s delineation of the bloodlands and the re-centering that he proposes for the way that we think about the Holocaust:

The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century. (kl 444)

Here is a map in which Snyder indicates the scope of the bloodlands of slaughter.

Snyder’s approach to the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews in Bloodlands is striking and original, but the approach it takes is not unique. Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992conceptualizes the topic of mass murder in the period 1933-1945 in much the same geographical terms. Here is the abstract of Prusin’s book:

ABSTRACT The book traces the turbulent history of the borderlands that before World War constituted the frontier‐zones between the Austro‐Hungarian, German, and Russian empires and in the course of the twentieth‐century changed hands several times. It subscribes to the notion that internal socio‐economic cleavages and ethnic rivalries — the most common patterns to the East European landscape — were at the root of conflicts in the borderlands. However, its dominating thrust is predicated upon the notion that the borderlands’ ethno‐cultural diversity was in basic conflict with the nationalizing policies of the states that dominated the region. In peacetime, when the state’s control over all forms of social relations was unchallenged, it acted as the highest arbitrator, manipulating the conflicting claims of rival groups and maintaining relative stability in its domain. But in the time of crisis, when the state’s resources became strained to the limit, suspicions of the groups deemed less loyal to the state blurred the concept of internal and external enemies and entailed the persecution of allegedly ‘corrosive’ ethnic elements. Simultaneously, state‐violence was sustained and exacerbated by popular participation and acquired its own destructive logic, mutating into a vicious cycle of ethnic conflicts and civil wars.

Christian Gerlach reviews the two books together in American Historical Review (link).

Large factors that have been overlooked

In Black Earth Snyder offers another kind of re-centering of the Holocaust, this time by attempting to identify the consistent worldview through which Hitler came to put the extermination of the Jews (of the entire world) as his most important goal. Snyder refers to this as Hitler’s anti-scientific “ecological” theory of race, in which Hitler attributes everything bad in the world to the Jewish people. He places Hitler’s ideas about “Lebensraum” into the context of this batty ecological thinking. So Snyder makes a point about anti-Semitism: was Hitler just another instance of a European anti-Semite, carried to a lunatic extreme? And Snyder’s view is that the truth is much more horrible. Hitler’s war on the Jews derived from a deeply held worldview, not a superficial cultural attitude.

Snyder also introduces a new line of interpretation of the causes of the Final Solution by emphasizing that mass murder by the Nazi regime depended crucially on destroying the state institutions of other countries that might otherwise have interfered with the mass murder of their Jewish citizens.

In 1935, German Jews had been reduced to second-class citizens. In 1938, some Nazis discovered that the most effective way to separate Jews from the protection of the state was to destroy the state. Any legal discrimination would be complicated by its unforeseen consequences for other aspects of the law and in bureaucratic practice. Even matters that might seem simple, such as expropriation and emigration, proceeded rather slowly in Nazi Germany. When Austria was destroyed, by contrast, Austria’s Jews no longer enjoyed any state protection and were victimized by a majority that wished to distance itself from the past and align itself with the future. Statelessness opened a window of opportunity for those who were ready for violence and theft. (Black Earth, pp. 84-85). 

Snyder believes that these attempts at refocusing the way we understand the Holocaust lead to a conclusion: bad as we thought the Holocaust was, it was much, much worse. Referring to the Red Army photographs and films of German concentration camps that reached the West, he writes: “Horrible though these images were, they were only hints at the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction” (Bloodlands, kl 476). 
Both of Snyder’s books have been controversial in the field of Holocaust studies. Some critics are concerned that Snyder diminishes the significance of Nazi extermination of the Jewish people by intermingling his treatment with Stalin’s campaigns of mass murder against peasants, Poles, and other enemies (e.g. Thomas Kühne’s excellent review in Contemporary European Historylink). Kühne also faults Snyder for subscribing to the “Great Man” theory of history, while paying little attention to the agency of ordinary people in the conduct of mass murder. Kühne writes, “The two Great Men who made the history of the ‘bloodlands’ are Hitler and Stalin, of course.” Others have criticized Black Earth for a leaving a sort of disjunct between the theoretical claims of the opening chapters and the actual historical narrative in the substantive center of the book (e.g. Mark Roseman’s review in American Historical Reviewlink).

Ordinary perpetrators

Kühne’s point about “agency” within mass murder identifies another important theme in Holocaust scholarship since 1980 or so — the motivations of the ordinary people who participated in the machinery of mass murder. A number of historians and sociologists who have asked fundamental questions: who were the “front-line workers” of the machinery of murder? What were their motives? Were they Nazi ideologues? Were they coerced? Was there some other basis for their compliance (and eagerness) in the horrible work of murder? Kühne’s own book The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century takes up this theme. And a major field of research into ordinary behavior during the Holocaust was made possible by the availability of investigative files concerning the actions of a Hamburg police unit that was assigned special duties as “Order Police” in Poland in 1940. These duties amounted to collecting and massacring large numbers of Jewish men, women, and children. Thomas Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992) made extensive use of investigatory files and testimonies of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and came to fairly shocking conclusions: very ordinary, middle-aged, apolitical men of the police unit picked up the work of murder and extermination with zeal and efficiency. They were not coerced, they were not indoctrinated, and they were not deranged; and yet they turned to the work of mass murder with enthusiasm. A small percentage of the men of the unit declined the shooting assignments; but the great majority did not.

At Józefów a mere dozen men out of nearly 500 had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder. Why was the number of men who from the beginning declared themselves unwilling to shoot so small? In part, it was a matter of the suddenness. There was no forewarning or time to think, as the men were totally “surprised” by the Józefów action. Unless they were able to react to Trapp’s offer on the spur of the moment, this first opportunity was lost. As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out. (74)

Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) used mostly the same materials but came to even more challenging conclusions — that a deep and historically unique kind of anti-Semitism in Germany underlay the entire structure of mass murder.

It is my contention that [explaining their actions] cannot be done unless such an analysis is embedded in an understanding of German society before and during its Nazi period, particularly of the political culture that produced the perpetrators and their actions. This has been notably absent from attempts to explain the perpetrators’ actions, and has doomed these attempts to providing situational explanations, ones that focus almost exclusively on institutional and immediate social psychological influences, often conceived of as irresistible pressures. (7)

There is not a very large difference in substance between the books by Browning and Goldhagen: ordinary men did horrible things, knowing that they were horrible. But these books created a large debate among historians. (Here is a symposium organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum including extensive contributions by Goldhagen and Browning; link.)

Another important example of research on “ordinary people committing mass murder” is Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Gross provides a case study of a single massacre of Jews in a small Polish town during the Nazi occupation, but not ordered or directed by the German occupation. Instead, it was a local, indigenous action by non-Jewish residents in the town who gathered up their Jewish neighbors, forced them into a barn, and burned the barn, killing about 1600 Jewish men, women, and children. What were their motives? Gross refers to a culture of anti-Semitism at the local level; but he also refers to an eagerness on the part of non-Jewish townspeople to expropriate the property of the Jewish victims. (Here is a valuable article in Slavic Review by Janine Holc (link).) Gross raises the question of individual responsibility, but as Hole observes, he is ambiguous about how he views individual, collective, and national responsibility in this case, or in the larger tragedy of the extermination of Poland’s Jewish population (456).

So what do these new contributions to the historical study of the Holocaust matter? For all of us, they matter because they promise to provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how this horrific part of our recent past came to be — the institutional, political, ideological, and local circumstances that facilitated the mass murder of the majority of Europe’s Jewish population. And there are contemporary consequences that should be considered: does the extremism that is found in radical populism in so many countries, including the United States, create the possibility of horrific actions by states and peoples in the twenty-first century as well? Snyder apparently believes so, at least insofar as a slide from democracy into authoritarian government based on nationalistic ideologies is a possibility (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century).

These new developments in the field of Holocaust history also create an important reminder for historians: historical events are large, complex, multifaceted, and conjunctural. This means that our understanding of these events, both large and small, can always be improved, and sometimes progress in our understanding involves large shifts in perspective and analysis. We see things differently after reading some of these historians. For example, we may be led to think of the occurrence in different spatial or temporal terms. Was the story of the extermination of Europe’s Jews a German story or a story located on a large, multinational map? Is it best told through national histories or a more synthetic approach? Are extermination camps the most important parts of the story, or are the many thousands of sites at which organized killing occurred more important? Can the story be told in broad strokes at a high level, or does it depend crucially on the micro-processes through which it came about? How much do we need to know about the motivations of participants at the high level and the street level?

Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) undergo paradigm shifts, following which we view the natural world differently and investigate it with different tools. Current developments in historical research on the Holocaust support the idea that historical thinking too undergoes paradigm shifts.

(An interesting resource on the topic of new research on the Holocaust is the Defending History website (link). Based in Lithuania, this site is dedicated to maintaining high-quality historical understanding of the Holocaust and resisting the resurgence of new forms of extremist rightwing anti-Semitism.)

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