Silence about the Holocaust after 1945

Image: Holocaust memorial at Camp Westerbork, The Netherlands

Each of the great evils of the twentieth century — the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag — was shrouded in silence and concealment for decades after information became available to the world. In the case of the Gulag, the Soviet government exercised great effort to keep the facts of the prison camp system quiet, and the Communist parties of Western Europe minimized or obfuscated the facts that were publicly available. (Anne Applebaum documents much of this shameful record of secrecy and obfuscation in Gulag: A History.) A similar story of secrecy and lies can be told about the Holodomor.

Most inexcusable is the silence that greeted the facts of the Final Solution after the end of hostilities in 1945. The evidence of mass killing was everywhere — extermination camps, burial pits in Poland and Ukraine, first-person observations, the writings of contemporary observers like Vasily Grossman, and the Nuremberg trials. And yet there was little public recognition or discussion of the magnitude of the evil committed by the Nazi extermination plan, and their national collaborators, until the 1960s and 1970s.

Stimulated by discussions beginning in 1988 in Michigan at the first Holocaust Memorial Center in the United States, a group of scholars undertook to write a set of country studies on the reception of the Holocaust across Europe, North America, and Japan. The results are presented in a massive 1996 volume edited by David Wyman, The World Reacts to the Holocaust, which is highly relevant for our project of “confronting evil in history”. Most of the countries surveyed in this volume did not confront history honestly; rather, they constructed more comfortable narratives that minimized the involvement of their own citizens in the Holocaust, and sometimes minimized and “normalized” the mass killings of Jews themselves. In his introduction David Wyman writes that during the 1950s “the most difficult and sensitive questions about the Holocaust had barely been raised. These issues included … questions about the guilt of the German people, complicity and collaboration in the countries under German occupation, the failure of non-Jews to attempt to save their Jewish neighbors, and the very limited rescue efforts on the part of the outside world. Nor were these issues confronted during the 1950s; instead, in that decade the Holocaust all but disappeared from public consciousness in most of the world” (xix).

Here is the table of contents and list of countries studied:

The book demonstrates an important feature of Holocaust history — the fact that much of the killing, and many of the documents, took place in Eastern Europe, in countries that came under Soviet control during and after the war. The Soviet government was slow to make available to the public records and documents that could provide a reasonably full understanding of the Holocaust in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. Wyman writes, “Until the later 1980s these [Soviet bloc] countries all followed the Soviet Union’s approach to the Holocaust: they universalized it and forced it into a Communist ideological mold. The destruction of the Jews was seen as merely a small part of racist fascism’s murder of millions of Eastern European civilians” (xxi).

A number of the essays make the point that media events played an important role in Western European and North American countries in bringing awareness of the Holocaust to a broad audience. These include the US television series Holocaust (1978), Marcel Ophuls’ two-part French documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), and Claude Lanzmann’s French documentary film Shoah (1985).

Here I will provide highlights from three of the country studies, to give a sense of the depth and detail of the essays. There is still much to be learned about the Holocaust and the way that various publics and governments have been willing to face the truth about their pasts honestly.

France, David Weinberg

David Weinberg’s article on documents the French government’s desire to “sanitize” the history of the Vichy years and the circumstances of the deportation of sixty to seventy thousand Jews from France to Nazi extermination camps. The issue of return of spoliated property — homes, businesses, other forms of pre-war wealth — was highly contentious in France in the postwar years. Further, thousands of Jewish children had been separated from their parents, and the task of reuniting families was both logistically and socially difficult. But most significant was the political interest that postwar governments had in concealing or distorting the collaboration that had occurred during the German occupation and the Vichy regime. “For much of the early postwar period the tragic events surrounding French involvement in the Final Solution were masked by governmental concerns with reconstruction and reconciliation…. The result was the gradual emergence of a national myth that viewed the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen during World War II as resisters to Nazism and portrayed the Vichy regime as an aberration whose traitorous deeds resulted from the venality and fanaticism of a crazed few” (18). One result was a resurgence of the far right in France: “Government amnesties brought many collaborators back to France after years in exile, and in the early fifties there was a noticeable increase in neo-fascist and neo-Nazi activity on the part of the extreme Right” (19). Weinberg also documents a resurgence of anti-Semitism in French society and politics in the 1950s. He describes the highly convoluted development of French political culture during the 1960s and 1970s, in which anti-colonialism converged to some degree with anti-Zionist, or anti-Israel, sentiment among activist youth. An important event in shifting French public awareness of the Holocaust and the Vichy years was the capture and trial in 1983 of Klaus Barbie, the chief of the Gestapo in Lyons and the prime mover in the deportation of French Jews. Barbie was also a notorious murderer of captured members of the Resistance (including Marc Bloch). Preparations for trial created a great deal of debate in France, and Barbie was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison, dying in prison in 1991. (Here is a detailed treatment of the Barbie trial; link.) Weinberg closes on a pessimistic note: French leaders as recently as Mitterrand preferred to remain silent about the crimes and collaborations of the Vichy years (35), and there has not yet been a clear and honest reckoning of the war years.

Poland, Michael Steinlauf

Poland’s postwar history was determined by the imposition of a Soviet-style Communist regime. Returning Jews were unwelcome in Poland, in large part because of conflict over spoliated properties. Numerous pogroms took place in the first two years following the end of the war, including the shocking pogrom at Kielce that resulted in the murder of at least 42 people (112). (Steinlauf gives some credence to the possibility that the NKVD may have deliberately provoked the violence at Kielce.) Steinlauf describes 1956 as an important turning point in Polish political history, the “Polish road to socialism”, resulting in an anti-Stalinist regime that was more pragmatic than its predecessors. But this change of regime also permitted a resurgence of anti-Semitic attitudes in society and within political elites. Largescale emigration from Poland to Israel and other countries took place, reflecting the conviction by the Jewish population that Poland would never be a welcoming home for them. The Communist government — before and after the change of orientation in 1956 — continued to ignore the Nazi extermination of Jews in favor of “Poles and citizens of other nationalities”. “Under Communism, Auschwitz became a monument to internationalism that commemorated the ‘resistance and martyrdom’ of ‘Poles and citizens of other nationalities,’ In consultation with the International Auschwitz Committee, a group of survivors and relatives of victims dominated by veterans of the largely Communist Auschwitz underground, barracks in the original work cam were turned over to twenty countries for use as ‘national pavilions.’ One of these structures became a ‘Jewish pavilion'” (117). Every part of this story represents denial: denial of the Jewish identities of the victims, erasure of the Nazi extermination goals of the camp, and inflation of the number of victims in order to suggest that comparable numbers of “Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and other non-Jews” were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Auschwitz could thereby emerge as the central symbol of Polish martyrdom, but within an inclusive internationalist framework” (117). Even the monument at Treblinka, where only Jews were killed and which is specific about the Jewish identities of the victims there, was publicly described in Poland as “800,000 citizens of European nations” (119).

This pattern of Soviet obfuscation resulted in a national narrative “whose effect was to marginalize, or ‘ghettoize,’ its subject” (120). Poland’s political history between 1956 and 1989 was complex and contentious, and anti-Semitism played a recurring role. 1968 manifested a student movement in Poland, state repression, and a serious official intensification of anti-Semitic actions and policies, in the form of an anti-Zionist campaign. (This is the period when Bauman and Kolakowski were force to leave Poland; linklink.) The period of the Solidarity movement, according to Steinlauf, produced greater honesty and openness about the tragedy of the extermination of the majority of Poland’s Jewish population. Steinlauf quotes an especially interesting literary exchange between Czesław Miłosz and the literary critic Jan Błoński, concerning Miłosz’s poem about the Warsaw ghetto “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto”; (link): “Błoński explained that Poles had blocked the memory of this part of their history because ‘when we consider the past, we want to derive moral advantage from it … we want to be completely clean. We want to be also — and only — victims.’ … Błoński suggested that the only remedy was to see the past fully, without defensiveness, and then to ‘acknowledge our own guilt, and ask for forgiveness'” (139).

Steinlauf depicts the period in Poland from 1989 to the mid-1990s as one in which the situation has improved. There is a greater willingness to speak openly about anti-Semitism in Poland — past and present. Historical memorials have been corrected to more accurately reflect the overwhelming majority of Jews killed in Sobibor and Treblinka (144). And Steinlauf records the decision by the Polish government in 1990 to correct the inscriptions at Auschwitz, replacing reference to “four million people” murdered at Auschwitz with this passage:Let this place remain for eternity as a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. About one and a half million men, women, children and infants, mainly Jews from different countries of Europe, were murdered here. The world was silent. Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1940-1945. (145)

Steinlauf concludes his article with these hopeful words (in 1996): “Half a century after witnessing the Holocaust, Poles are freely confronting the memory of the experience for the first time. It is far too soon, however, to speculate about the meaning of this confrontation. It will gradually assume a coherent form only in the decades to come” (145). The final qualification is prophetic, since in the past decade Poland has seen nationalist politicians and legislators seeking to — once again — silence honest acknowledgement of Polish responsibility during the time of the Holocaust.

Lithuania, Dov Levin

Dov Levin notes that the culpability of Lithuanians in the Final Solution is deep. Even before the German invasion began, murderous pogroms occurred in many communities in Lithuania. “Unlike the pogroms in Russia and Ukraine at the turn of the century, which had been organized mainly by the anti-Semitic and archconservative political vigilantes known as the Black Hundreds, in Lithuania, especially in the smaller towns, Jews were actually murdered by former neighbors, classmates, and customers” (333). Only days before the German invasion a massacre in Kaunas (Slobodka) of 1200 men, women, and children was undertaken by “armed Lithuanians who called themselves partisans”. 2000 more Jews were murdered in the same place in the next few days (333). After the arrival of German forces and Einsatzgruppe A, “Lithuanians were soon accepted … as auxiliaries attached to German units” (333). 90% of Lithuania’s Jews perished by the end of the Holocaust in Lithuania, the majority before December 1941.

Following the retreat of the German forces from Lithuania following the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet Union re-established control over Lithuania. It enforced its party line concerning the Holocaust, especially concerning the deaths of Jews, emphasizing “innocent Soviet citizens” rather than Jews as the primary victims. A quantity of documentary evidence was collected by the Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, but the museum was only permitted to operate for four years. Upon closure its valuable materials and documents were stored in a variety of places, including “book depositories of the Lithuanian SSR, where it was inaccessible to scholars and other interested persons” (338). Soviet authorities soon became unwilling to pursue complaints about stolen property, collaborators, and other crimes that had occurred during the German occupation (337). “Although many war criminals were eventually arrested and tried, the authorities generally avoided dwelling on the widespread nature of Lithuanian wartime collaboration with the enemy” (339). Levin observes that conditions for the surviving or returning Jewish community improved in the post-Stalin period, and there was an increase in publication of books and articles about the experience of the Nazi period in the 1960s and 1970s (340). However, diaspora Lithuanian communities began a campaign of obfuscation concerning Lithuanian responsibility for the killings of Jews (342). Within Lithuania the situation was different, according to Levin; “by the end of 1987 and early 1988, articles began to appear in the Lithuanian press … severely criticizing past sins of both omission and commission in reference to the memory of the Holocaust” (343). After the collapse of Communist rule in Lithuania the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Republic issued a statement in May 1990 signed by President Landsbergis, according to which the Supreme Council “unreservedly condemn[ed] the genocide committed against the Jewish people during the years of the Hitlerite occupation in Lithuania and state[d] with sorrow that among the henchmen who served the occupying power there were also citizens of Lithuania” (345). Levin notes the subsequent emergence of extreme anti-Semitic nationalists in Lithuania. He also highlights several important themes or myths that have taken hold in Lithuania that have the effect of misleading the current generation about the grim realities of the past: idealization of the past concerning Jewish-Lithuanian relations; symmetry between Jewish and Lithuanian behavior during World War II; tendentious exaggeration or distortion of proportions; reciprocity in punishment of war criminals; and euphoria about the present and utopian optimism for the future (347). 


These are just three of the fascinating country cases included in The World Reacts to the Holocaust. Every essay contains material that will be surprising to the non-specialist. There are common themes, however. Both in the Soviet bloc and in Western Europe there is a residual level of anti-Semitism that expresses itself periodically. In all parts of Europe there have been political and nationalistic reasons for concealing or obfuscating the past — for the sake of national unity, for the sake of economic progress, for a desire to move on. And yet each case makes it clear that no country can thrive if it is unwilling to honestly examine its past, to reckon with the inexcusable things that its citizens have done in prior decades, and to commit to a process of recognition, acknowledgement, and sorrow for the murders and atrocities committed in its name. Finally, it is important to recall that each of these narratives ends in the early 1990s. Much has happened in European politics that has given new force to right-wing nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism that makes the overall cautious optimism of the volume quite uncertain. It would be highly interesting to see followup articles on these countries to see how things have developed in the twenty-six years since the volume was first published.

(A few examples of poetry relevant to the question of remembrance of the Holocaust are collected in a separate post; link. Powerful and evocative poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russia), Wim Ramaker (Netherlands), Czesław Miłosz (Poland), and Vasily Grossman (Ukraine) are provided there.) 

Frankl and Shalamov on existence in the camps

Image: Viktor Frankl

Image: Varlam Shalamov, NKVD photo
Viktor Frankl, born in Austria in 1905, had the tragic misfortune to be swept up into the maelstrom of the Final Solution. He was an impactful psychotherapist, both before and after the war, and his experience in Auschwitz and other Nazi camps had a deep impact on his view of the human being’s emotional life. Frankl invented the field of logotherapy. He expressed some of his Auschwitz experience — initially anonymously — in Man’s Search for Meaning.

Varlam Shalamov was born in 1907 in Vologda, Russia. He supported the Russian Revolution, but sided with Trotsky rather than Stalin. He became a victim of Stalin’s purges and spent 1937-1951 as a political prisoner — a zek — in various Kolyma slave-labor camps, the harshest part of the Gulag. After his release in 1951, and following another two years in Kolyma as a non-prisoner medical assistant, he began writing a series of stories capturing the experience of the slave labor camps of Kolyma. These writings were initially circulated as samizdat, then published abroad in translation in 1966, and finally published in Russian in 1978. Many of those stories are collected in Kolyma Stories, and they provide stark, unadorned still-life images of moments of cruelty and almost unendurable hardship in the camps in the far north, from the point of view of a long-serving zek

Frankl’s account of life in Auschwitz is detailed and grueling. He describes arrival at Auschwitz, labor, food, starvation, the cold, beatings by the guards, and severe physical suffering. Laconically he reports that of the 1500 prisoners in the train that brought him to Auschwitz, 90% were immediately consigned to the gas chambers. And he speaks honestly about the dehumanization created by existence in a death camp.

On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles–whatever one may choose to call them–we know: the best of us did not return. (19)

But this is not Frankl’s last word on dehumanization. He returns to the question late in the memoir, and finds that this descent into a brutish, dehumanized fight for existence was not universal. Rather, Frankl finds room for optimism about the capacity that human beings have for courage and for maintaining their ability to choose their responses to suffering.

It is worthwhile comparing Frankl’s descriptions with “lessons learned” by Shalamov in his years of forced labor in the prison camps of the Gulag. In his introduction to Kolyma Stories Donald Rayfield quotes a fragmentary text from 1961 in which Shalamov describes “what I saw and understood in the camps”. With these 45 terse observations Shalamov provides his most explicit statement about what the experience of Kolyma was for him.

1 The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

3 I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

15 I realized that one can live on anger.

16 I realized that one can live on indifference.

17 I understood why people do not live on hope—there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will—what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.

31 I am convinced that the camps—all of them—are a negative school; you can’t even spend an hour in one without being depraved. The camps never gave, and never could give, anyone anything positive. The camps act by depraving everyone, prisoners and free-contract workers alike.

44 I understood that moving from the condition of a prisoner to the condition of a free man is very difficult, almost impossible without a long period of amortization. (Kolyma Stories, introduction)

There are many similarities in the lives of prisoners in Auschwitz and Kolyma. Both Frankl and Shalamov focus on the extinction of ordinary human emotions of kindness and friendship under the conditions of an extermination camp or force-labor camp. Both describe the condition of an almost absolute empire of arbitrary and capricious power wielded by the guards. And both highlight the crucial centrality of the basics of human needs: food, shelter, a warm place to sleep. Here is an observation from Frankl that is reminiscent of the experience of Shalamov as well. After describing the prisoners who ladled soup to the starving prisoners Frankl recalls that most of them “favored their friends” with a potato or a ladle from the bottom of the pot. But occasionally there would be a soup provider who did not look at the prisoners and gave everyone the same. Frankl writes of the ones who showed favoritism, whom his readers might want to condemn:

But it is not for me to pass judgment on those prisoners who put their own people above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same. (58)

Shalamov too talks about food and its centrality in the life of the starving prisoner:

Supper was over. Glebov took his time licking his bowl clean, then carefully raked the bread crumbs off the table into his left hand, which he lifted to his mouth so as to lick every crumb off his palm. Without swallowing them, he could feel the saliva in his mouth greedily covering the tiny lump of bread in a thick layer. Glebov could not have said whether it tasted good. Taste was something different, too weak compared with the passionate, oblivious feeling that food gave him. Glebov took his time before swallowing; the bread melted in his mouth and it melted quickly. (“At Night”)

And he refers to the crippling cold of life in Kolyma:

But there was no letup in the cold, and Potashnikov realized that he could not stand it anymore. Breakfast gave him the ability to endure an hour’s work at most, and then he was overcome by tiredness and the cold got to his very bones: an idiomatic expression that was literally true. All you could do, so as not to freeze to death by lunchtime, was to wave your pickax or spade about and hop from one leg to the other. The hot lunch, the notorious dumpling soup and two spoonfuls of porridge, did little to restore your strength, but it did warm you up. Once again, you had the strength to work for an hour, after which Potashnikov was overcome by a desire, if not to get warm, then just to lie down on the sharp edges of the frozen stones and die. But the day still came to an end and after supper, with a drink of water and a mouthful of bread, which all the workmen took back to the barracks, never eating it with the refectory soup, Potashnikov would immediately lie down to sleep. (“Carpenters”)

Shalamov’s observations about camp life are bleak. Few human emotions survive the Gulag; only anger, passivity, and opportunism survive. Frankl’s memoir leaves a different impression. He makes an observation about his inner life in the camp that it is entirely foreign to Shalamov:

The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. (49)


This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past. When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. (50)

Shalamov’s stories make us think that the Kolyma extinguished all humanity. But Frankl’s assessment of life in Auschwitz is different; the possibility of remaining human persists.

Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances? We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. (74)

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. (76)

These ideas about agency and choice play an important role in Frankl’s theories about logotherapy and “man’s search for meaning”. As Frankl puts it in the companion essay, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”, “Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life” (108). And Frankl plainly believes that his observations in Auschwitz and his own personal experiences confirm that human beings can seek meaning in their lives under even the worst imaginable circumstances. Frankl acknowledges that only a minority of prisoners “kept their full inner liberty” (76); but the possibility exists for all of us.

Both Frankl and Shalamov faced long odds against survival from their experiences. Both survived. But their subsequent lives were very different. Even the photographs of the two men seem to suggest very different orientations towards life: Frankl almost always with a gentle smile, and Shalamov with a serious glare. Shalamov’s life was shattered. His physical health was ruined by Kolyma, his family disintegrated, and he lived in hard circumstances through the end of his life. He wrote poetry and stories, but it is hard to see from available biographical information that he took happiness and satisfaction from his life after his release. Frankl, on the other hand, seems to have survived as a remarkably whole human being. He describes in the final pages of the memoir the personal difficulties faced by survivors, but he seems to have transcended the horrors that he experienced in Auschwitz and other camps. He too had suffered physically from the great hardships, cold, and hunger of the years in Nazi death camps. His first wife Tilly, about whom he wrote movingly in the memoir, had died in Belsen Belsen concentration camp, and he also lost his father, mother, and brother in Nazi extermination camps. He had lost a great deal — family, friends, health — and had suffered great trauma. And yet he had a highly productive career following the end of the war and liberation of the camps, and he seems to have had a satisfying and happy life. 

One can ask an obvious question: did Frankl’s ideas about the importance of finding meaning in one’s life actually contribute to his own ability to go beyond the “depersonalization” experienced by survivors? 

De-mythologizing Ukraine under Nazi occupation

Ukraine was quickly and violently occupied by the Nazi military in 1941 in the onset of Hitler’s Barbarossa plan for defeat of the Soviet Union, and the most intense and extensive period of the campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe quickly ensued. Massacres of the Jewish populations of villages, towns, and cities throughout the Ukraine occurred within weeks and months, from Miropol (link) to Kiev and Babi Yar. The Ukrainian people suffered enormously during the years of fighting from 1941 to 1944. But it is also clear from history that Ukrainian people participated in Nazi atrocities and war goals in numerous ways. Since the 1990s there have been major efforts by Nationalist parties in Ukraine to sanitize its World War II history, and to provide a mythical and heroic narrative for nationalist Ukrainian military organizations and units including the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). (OUN was a far-right, pro-fascist organization. The UPA was created in 1942 as the paramilitary arm of the OUN-B (the radical wing of OUN led by Stepan Bandera).)

Anna Wylegala is one of the historians who has made a serious effort to come to grips with the politics of memory in Ukraine since the 1990s. Her co-edited volume (Wylegala and Glowacka-Grajper, The Burden of the Past: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine), provides an important contribution to a better and more honest rendering of Ukraine’s history during 1941-44. As the editors make clear in their introduction, Ukraine’s history during World War II has been subject to two different kinds of lies and myth-making efforts: the Soviet effort to paint Ukraine as thoroughly pro-Nazi and fascist from 1941 to 1944, and the post-Soviet Ukrainian nationalist effort to paint Ukrainian militia and military formations as purely nationalist and defensive. And the memory of these events in different regions of Ukraine became indistinct following the end of the war: “After the war, the memory of some of these atrocities became hidden or even forbidden during the communist era, which itself has also generated a new set of tragic memories” (Wylegala and Glowacka-Graijper, p. 2). Further, the ultra-nationalist parties that have gained dominance in Ukraine, including Svoboda, have a very distinctive interest in securing their view of the facts in the public memory. What is difficult to reconstruct is the historical truth of the matter.

The situation in Ukraine during World War II was undeniably complex. As Snyder emphasizes frequently, it was subject to “double occupation”, eventually triple occupation, under Stalin, Hitler, and Stalin again. It had been devastated by the effects of forced collectivization, mass starvation, and mass deportations by the Stalinist regime only a few years earlier. And — again paraphrasing Snyder — it was subject to “state smashing”, with almost no functioning institutions of state by the time of the Nazi invasion. Serhii Plokhy notes the strategic alliance that was possible between the Nazis and the OUN nationalists in The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. “Many in Ukraine welcomed the German advance in the summer of 1941, hoping for the end of the terror unleashed by the Soviet occupation authorities in the years leading up to the war. This was true not only for the recently occupied regions of western Ukraine but also for central and eastern Ukraine, where the population never forgave the regime for the horrors of the famine and collectivization” (264). So there was an existing basis of potential support among Ukrainians for the invading Nazi forces, along the lines of the wisdom, “the enemy of our enemy is our friend”. And OUN-B, soon after its split from the smaller and more moderate faction of OUN, quickly formed common cause with the Germans: “In February 1941, they [Bandera’s faction] made a deal with the leaders of German military intelligence (Abwehr) to form two battalions of special operations forces from their supporters. One battalion, Nachtigall, was among the first German troops to enter Lviv on June 29. The next day it took part in the proclamation of Ukrainian independence by members of the Bandera faction of the OUN. This spelled the end of German cooperation with Bandera’s followers” (Plokhy, 264).

So it is true — the history of Ukraine in 1940-44 is complicated. And yet it is crucial to confront the realities of Ukrainian actions during the war honestly. Honestly confronting its history, as Vasily Grossman insisted, is the only possible foundation for a nation’s creating a better future for itself. Here are a few important contributions from several historians who have attempted to do exactly this.Timothy Snyder was one of the earliest English-speaking historians to examine Ukrainian complicity in atrocities in 1943 in his 2003 “The Causes of Ukrainian-Polish Ethnic Cleansing 1943” (link). This article was one of the earliest expressions of the line of argument that Snyder developed later in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

The ethnic cleansing carried out by the OUN-B against Poles in 1943 was a deliberate strategy aimed at securing an ethnically pure post-war Ukraine:

Yet by April 1943, after three and a half years of war, the Ukrainian nationalist Mykola Lebed’ proposed ‘to cleanse the entire revolutionary territory of the Polish population’. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains’ka Povstans’ka Armiia, UPA) then cleansed the Polish population from Volhynia. Ukrainian partisans killed about fifty thousand Volhynian Poles and forced tens of thousands more to flee in 1943. (202)

The OUN-B, true as ever to its radicalism, interpreted the party programme in a more decisive fashion than OUN-M, and followed a more ruthless strategy. It meant to pre-empt the return of Polish statehood by expelling the Poles from west Ukraine before the war was over. (213)

Snyder describes the rapid process through which OUN-B formed the paramilitary UPA in March 1943 and initiated violent ethnic cleansing almost immediately. It is interesting to note that Plokhy expresses an agnostic position on the violence that occurred in Volhynia in 1943: “Ukrainian and Polish historians still argue over whether the OUN leadership sanctioned Ukrainian attacks on Polish villages and, if so, on what level. There is no doubt, however, that most victims of the ethnic cleansing were Poles. Estimates of Ukrainians killed as a result of Polish actions in Galicia and Volhynia vary between 15,000 and 30,000, whereas the estimates for Polish victims are between 60,000 and 90,000 — two to three times as high” (276). Plokhy’s book was published in 2015 — twelve years later than Snyder’s article. So his agnostic stance about the role of OUN is puzzling; does he disagree with Snyder’s reasoning and historical scholarship? 

John-Paul Himka provides additional historical detail concerning the murderous ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews conducted by the UPA / OUN during 1943 in “Former Ukrainian Policemen in the Ukrainian National Insurgency: Continuing the Holocaust outside German Service” (link). Himka demonstrates that a significant portion of the paramilitary forces involved in these actions were Ukrainian policemen who had deserted en masse from German police units within the preceding months, and had already had extensive training and experience in annihilating villages. UPA and its political leadership in OUN-B pursued strategies of murderous ethnic cleansing against Poles and Jews using these and other paramilitary forces. Himka reports testimony from a Ukrainian prisoner: “In addition to continuing to murder Poles while ostensibly tolerating national minorities, OUN and UPA remained largely antisemitic. Responding to Soviet interrogators, Ukrainian prisoner Volodymyr Porendovsky stated that in 1941-1942, OUN openly preached a racist ideology, called for the annihilation of the Jews, and took part in their murder” (144).

Himka provides extensive evidence of the killings of Jews and Poles by UPA forces in the forests of Volhynia. Here is testimony from a Jewish survivor from the forests of Volhynia: “Vera Shchetinkova recalled how she hid with about eighty-five other Jews in the general vicinity ofSarny, a raion capital in Rivne oblast, in mid-January 1944. The Banderites discovered their bunkers and decided to destroy all the Jews who lived in them. In her view, the Banderites wanted no witnesses left when the Soviets came” (145). And another account of witness testimony: “Many Jews found refuge in the houses abandoned by the Poles, while others hid in the nearby forest. Jasphy estimated that there were several hundred Jewish refugees in the vicinity in the fall of 1943. They made contact with the Banderites, who said that they would not kill Jews, so the surviving Jews of the area went to work for them. This lasted until early January 1944. On the 4th of the month, she learned that all the Jews living near the former Polish houses had been killed by the Ukrainians (she in the meantime had moved to another part of the forest). She and a few others hid in the hay in a barn. The next day, some Ukrainians came searching for them with pitchforks, but missed them by a meter. She stayed in that barn for eight days. In her opinion, the Banderites had deliberately gathered the Jews together to kill them” (145).

Here is a very interesting piece of historiographic reasoning by Himka to rebut the Ukrainian nationalist claim that it was the Germans who committed these acts of murder against the Jews in the forest:

However, overriding Friedman’s doubts and Shankovsky’s defensive explanation are at least two key arguments: the testimonies generally refer to a time after the summer of 1943, when the German offensive was said to have occurred; and more testimonies of the liquidation of the labor camps and the luring of Jews from hiding have come to light, indicating a pattern of activity. We do not have testimonies, on the other hand, from Jews who survived the UPA labor camps and witnessed no attempt at liquidation; nor do we have any survivor testimonies indicating that the Germans liquidated UPA camps in the crucial period of winter 1943-1944. (150)

Here is Himka’s assessment of the survivor testimony evidence: “Considering the context, the number of testimonies that are extant is impressive and indicates that these systematic murders of Jews must have been a widespread feature of the Holocaust in Volhynia. I see no reason to doubt the essential story that these testimonies tell” (149). Himka acknowledges that there is a wide range of uncertainty concerning the number of Jewish victims of these campaigns, ranging from a few thousand to a few tens of thousands. But the intentions and willingness of UPA-M were clear: to continue a campaign of mass murder against Jews and Poles even after the Germans had lost their military foothold in Ukraine.

Swedish historian Per Anders Rudling addresses a different part of Ukraine’s troubled history: the collaboration of Ukrainian military and paramilitary forces with the Nazi occupiers of Ukraine. In particular, Rudling focuses on the military goals and activities of the Ukrainian Waffen-SS Galizien unit. Rudling elucidates the historical realities that are concealed by current attempts by nationalist politicians in Ukraine to sanitize the Waffen-SS Galician. His account, “‘They Defended Ukraine’: The 14.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS(Galizische Nr. 1) Revisited”, is published in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (link). (Here is a short account of Rudling’s findings about new efforts at mythologizing the Waffen-SS in Ukraine and Estonia, posted in Defending Historylink.) Nationalists have tried to represent the Waffen-SS Galician as a Ukrainian self-defense force. However, Rudling demonstrates in great detail that it was fully incorporated into (and loyally committed to) Nazi war aims and plans. (Snyder also refers briefly to the formation of a Galician Waffen-SS division (link; 214).) Rudling goes into substantial detail about the history and behavior of this unit. He documents several crucial and historically well established facts: The Ukrainian Waffen-SS division was recruited specifically in support of Hitler and his war goals agains the USSR; the unit actively conveyed Nazi ideology, ethnic cleansing, and anti-Semitism through training of its soldiers and officers; and the Ukrainian Waffen-SS committed mass killings and atrocities against Ukrainian Jews and Poles.

The organizers of the Waffen-SS Galizien emphasized the importance of the unit for Hitler’s New Europe and a Nazi victory: ‘All call-ups to Ukrainians for the Division have been geared towards their planned deployment, not for Ukraine or Ukrainian culture, but rather as the contribution of the Ukrainian ethnic group in the battle to defend against Bolshevism and for a new Europe.’ (338-339)

Rudling makes it clear that the effort to romanticize the Ukrainian Waffen-SS as a purely nationalist military organization devoted to securing the independence of Ukraine is simply unsupportable. Here is just one well-documented atrocity committed by the Ukrainian Waffen-SS: the massacre of Poles and Jews at the Polish village of Huta Pieniacka, near Lviv:

A 2003 investigation by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance into the massacre concluded that:

“the crime was committed by the 4th battalion of the 14th division on February 28. On that day, early in the morning, soldiers of this division, dressed in white, masking outfits, surrounded the village. The village was cross-fired by artillery. SS-men of the 14th Division of the SS “Galizien” entered the village, shooting the civilians rounded up at a church. The civilians, mostly women and children, were divided and locked in barns that were set on fire. Those who tried to run away were killed. Witnesses interrogated by the prosecutors of the Head Commission described the morbid details of the act. The crime was committed against women, children, and newborn babies.”

In 2005, the Institute of History at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences arrived at the same conclusion—that the 4th SS Police regiment indeed killed the civilian inhabitants in Huta Pieniacka. (347)

In addition to the atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS Galizien troops, Rudling provides evidence showing that UPA bands participated in the murders that took place during those two days of wanton killing:

The participants from the UPA bands, who at that time had arrived in the village . . . together with the commander of the Volhynian band also surrounded the village and did that, what the Germans did, that is burned houses and various buildings, and drove the residents into the Roman Catholic Church. Those who tried to hide were shot on the spot, and shots were fired at those running. After that, as the ring that encircled the village was dissolved and the operation came to an end, the residents were being convoyed to the barn and the houses, locked up, and burned. There were four or five barns, filled with the residents of Huta Pieniacka, about 700–750 people, all of whom were burned. The above mentioned pogrom continued from eight in the morning until two or three in the afternoon. (351-352)

Rudling provides documentation of other atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS Galician in eastern Poland, including the burning of villages and murder of all inhabitants. And he documents the engagement of the division in Slovakia, conducting similar “pacification” campaigns against Slovak nationalist activism, including repression of the Slovak National Uprising.

Rudling summarizes his findings and recommendations in these terms:

While not claiming to provide a full and complete account of the unit’s history, this essay sets out some of the problems associated with the partial rehabilitation of the unit. Issues such as the unit’s institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism, its commitment to Adolf Hitler and the victory of Nazi Germany, and the involvement of officers, soldiers, and affiliated police regiments in atrocities call for more research and further inquiry into the unit’s past. The problem it raises are not only historical, but also political and ethical. (368)

Here again it is interesting to consider Plokhy’s treatment of the Waffen-SS Galician division of Ukrainians in The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Here too he takes a less critical view than one might expect (as was noted above with respect to the responsibility of OUN-B for murderous Polish ethnic cleansing). Plokhy does not emphasize the Nazi ideology of the division or the atrocities in which it was involved. “Backed by mainstream Ukrainian politicians and presented to Ukrainian youth as an alternative to going to the forest to join the Bandera insurgents or staying under imminent Soviet occupation, enrollment in the division seemed a lesser evil to parents who sent their sons to join its ranks. Most would soon have reason to regret their choice. Trained and commanded by German officers, the division got its baptism by fire in July 1944 near the Galician town of Brody” (279). This interpretation seems to line up more closely with the “rehabilitationist” line than the “face the dark facts of history” line.

In light of the real and documented history of the Waffen-SS Galician division, its loyalty to the war aims and person of Adolph Hitler, and its involvement in multiple atrocities against civilians in Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia, the “rehabilitation” of the organization is roughly as repellent as the rehabilitation of the Nazi Party itself. These were not “freedom fighters”; they were willing auxiliaries within Hitler’s unrestrained campaigns of murder and extinction. This history needs to be remembered in its painful details.

None of these sources have shed light on another form of Ukrainian responsibility during the Holocaust, the role of Ukrainian Auxiliary Police to carry out the transport, confinement, and murder of Jews. Gabriel Finder and Alexander Prusin address this question in “Collaboration in Eastern Galicia: The Ukrainian police and the Holocaust” (link). Finder and Prusin look at the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police (UAP) as the “institutional epicentre of Ukrainian collusion with the Nazis in this region in the destruction of the Jews” (95). They believe that the readiness of Ukrainians to enter the UAP and to serve as facilitators of mass murder of Jews derived from the nationalist ideology demanding ethnic purity in Ukraine, and (like Jan Gross) an economic impulse to take advantage of the sacking of Jewish property and lives, on the other hand. “An intended consequence of this partnership was the eradication of the region’s Jews, in which the Ukrainian police actively took part” (96). “When Germans expelled Jews from their apartments and shops in Lwów in conjunction with the Ukrainian auxiliary police, Ukrainians as well Germans moved into them” (97). 

Here is the description of UAP roles in the execution of mass killings of Jews in Ukraine, as described by Finder and Prusin:

From its inception, the Ukrainian police played an integral part in the German destruction of the Jews in eastern Galicia, especially in ghetto clearances (Aktionen). They would form a cordon around ghettos on the threshold of mass deportations to discourage and impede escape. They apprehended and herded Jews to the edge of town for mass executions or to the tracks of railway stations, which they guarded while Jews were being killed or loaded into trains. During these operations they did not recoil from acts of violence, including killing. On a number of occasions Ukrainian policemen often implored their German superiors to allow them to kill Jews during Aktionen. Their role in the destruction of east Galician Jewry was not, however, limited to Aktionen. They maintained surveillance in Jewish neighbourhoods. They demanded their share of spoils from defenceless Jews. They kidnapped Jews off the streets for shipment to labour camps, which they helped guard. They pursued Jews in hiding, including those hidden by fellow Ukrainians. They combed the surroundings of labour camps for Jewish escapees from the camps. They joined raids into the forests in pursuit of Jewish partisans. They frequently killed Jews on their own initiative. (106-107)

Several fundamental facts about Ukraine’s World War II history today seem undeniable. (1) There was substantial collaboration between Ukrainian nationalist parties in 1941 and the Nazi occupation, and Ukrainian nationalists regarded the Red Army as being as much of a threat to Ukrainian interests as the Nazi armies. (2) The OUN was committed to violent ethnic cleansing and anti-Semitism throughout its history. This included the explicit intention of expelling the Polish population from the region. (3) The formation of the Waffen-SS Galizische division represented a full engagement between volunteer Ukrainian forces and Nazi military and genocidal aims. (4) Ukrainian nationalist parties — the OUN — were strongly engaged in the goal of driving Poles out of western Ukraine, and in 1943 OUN-B forces engaged in a merciless campaign of ethnic cleansing in Volhynia to that end. These efforts included organized attempts to kill the surviving Jews taking refuge in the forests of Volhynia. (5) The “triple occupation” of Ukraine created surprising configurations and alliances, and as Snyder documents, many Ukrainian police and administrators who had served the Soviet system prior to the German invasion, also served the German military administration.

Bauman on the Holocaust

There sometimes seems to be an important intertwining between personal biography and a person’s sociological and historical imagination. Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was a Jew of the generation in Poland who were destined to die — most did in his generation of Polish Jews — and he was exposed at various times to the murderous regime that conducted this campaign of death. And by the 1960s Bauman had become a sociologist of global importance. It would seem apparent Bauman’s language and mental maps of the world were shaped by his experience in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Soviet Union during the searing decades of the 1930s and 1940s. Bauman had direct experience of the Nazi terror in Poland after 1939. As a Polish army officer in the Soviet Red Army he witnessed the Majdanek death camp and the horrors that it encompassed, and he witnessed the totality of the Nazi program of murder upon his return to Poland in 1945. And he served as a senior army intelligence and communications officer in the post-war Communist regime in Poland.

How did these life experiences influence Bauman’s sociological imagination and his interpretation of the events of the 1930s and 1940s in Poland and elsewhere in central Europe? Bauman’s personal life story involved direct experience of the Holocaust in Poland and the horrific tragedies, personally experienced, of German genocide and murderous warfare. Bauman himself witnessed and experienced some of the worst suffering of the Holocaust. And yet in his sociological writings in Poland through 1968 he never addressed the topics of genocide, totalitarianism, or the Nazi period. He turned to topics having to do with the fate of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust only later in life — in the 1980s, when he was over sixty. It appears that he was led to write Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) only after reading his wife Janina Bauman’s powerful and moving account of her own experience in the Warsaw ghetto in Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-1945 (1986; link). And, when he does turn to the Holocaust, it is through the lens of his critique of modernity and the cult of rationality. The book is not a profound contribution to understanding the realities or historical horrors of the Holocaust; in fact, the results are banal and not especially insightful.

The Holocaust was born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization and at  the peak of human cultural achievement, and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civilization and culture…. The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or a malady of our civilization — rather than its horrifying yet legitimate product — results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament…. Modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition. Without it, the Holocaust would be unthinkable. It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable. (x, xii, 13)

Here is Ali Rattansi’s summary of Bauman’s view of the Holocaust in Bauman and contemporary sociology: A critical analysis. Fundamentally Bauman sought to understand the Holocaust as an expression of modernity:

This truth could not, for Bauman, be denied by viewing the Holocaust as only a peculiarity of German history or Hitler’s evil personality and the cruelty, the moral decrepitude and sometimes the sheer indifference of those who in one way or another were implicated in such vile deeds. The effect of any such interpretation is to see the Holocaust as only something to do with Germany or Germanness, thereby absolving everyone else of responsibility, and, in particular, of shifting the blame away from the typical characteristics of modernity so widely taken for granted. For Bauman the factors involved were indeed ‘quite ordinary and common’; but they had come together in a historically unique encounter. The taken for granted civilisational framework which in fact harboured the seeds of the Holocaust consisted of the modern nation-state, the concentration and centralisation of the means of violence in its apparatuses and the adoption of a bold and sweeping project of social engineering by those in command of this immensely powerful state. The capacity of the leaders was enhanced by the dismantling of all sources of opposition and the possession of a particular modern apparatus of administration: a state bureaucracy. Science and modern technology had their own crucial role to play in the terrible sequence of events. It is in the combination of these common features of modern civilisation within a particular historical period that Bauman finds the basic causes of the Holocaust. (kl 753)

It is striking that Bauman’s diagnosis of the Holocaust seems to have had more to do with his own in-depth experience of a totalitarian state as a functionary and eventually a victim in post-war Poland than with his childhood and adult experience of Nazi extermination: “the concentration and centralization of the means of violence”, “a bold and sweeping project of social engineering”, the “capacity of leaders [being] enhanced by the dismantling of all sources of opposition”. This is a diagnosis that puts the responsibility for the Holocaust most fundamentally on the features of a totalitarian state.

Moreover, according to Bauman’s diagnosis, genocide is a circumstance that emerges within the conditions of modernity:

I propose that the major lesson of the Holocaust is the necessity to treat the critique [of modernity] seriously and thus to expand the theoretical model of the civilizing process, so as to include the latter’s tendency to demote, exprobate and delegitimize the ethical motivations of social action. We need to take stock of the evidence that the civilizing process is, among other things, a process of divesting the use and deployment of violence from moral calculus, and of emancipating the desiderata of rationality from interference of ethical norms or moral inhibitions. As the promotion of rationality to the exclusion of alternative criteria of action, and in particular the tendency to subordinate the use of violence to rational calculus, has been long ago acknowledged as a constitutive feature of modern civilization — the Holocaust-style phenomena must be recognized as legitimate outcomes of civilizing tendency, and its constant potential. (Modernity and the Holocaust, 28)

Modernity would not have got where it has if it had relied on things as erratic, whimsical and thoroughly unmodern as human passions. Instead, it relied on the division of labour, on science, technology, scientific management and the power to make a rational calculation of costs and effects — all thoroughly unemotional stuff. Stephen Trombley’s remarkable study does for the ‘execution industry’ what the work of Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim did for the murderous enterprise of the Nazis: it shows beyond reasonable doubt that the setting which in modern society which makes mass production and unstoppable technological rationalization possible. Aly and Heim documented the crucial role played by the medics, psychologists and countless others — in making mass extermination on a previously unheard-of scale feasible. (Modernity and the Holocaust, Afterword, 247)

But here is a crucial point to ponder: is the Holocaust a singular and evil event, or is it simply a manifestation of “modernity”? Bauman seems to be inclined down the road described by the second branch here; and that seems to be a mistake. To generalize the facts of the Holocaust to a few concepts characteristic of “modernity” rather than a particular period of suffering, evil-doing, and historical particulars seems to ultimately result in placing it beyond our reach. And yet, fundamentally, we want the generations prior to and following the Holocaust (including our own) to take responsibility for what occurred — not dismiss it as the inevitable consequence of the modern world.

Here is one of the more personal passages in Modernity and the Holocaust on the intriguing idea about the moral importance of shame rather than rationalization from the final chapter:

The issue is that only the liberating feeling of shame may help to recover the moral significance of the awesome historical experience and thus help to exorcise the spectre of the Holocaust, which to this day haunts human conscience and makes us neglect vigilance at present for the sake of living in peace with the past. The choice is not between shame and pride. The choice is between the pride of morally purifying shame, and the shame of morally devastating pride. (205)

The inhuman world created by a homicidal tyranny dehumanized its victims and those who passively watched the victimization by pressing both to use the logic of self-preservation as absolution for moral insensitivity and inaction. No one can be proclaimed guilty for the sheer fact of breaking down under such pressure. Yet no one can be excused from moral self-deprecation for such surrender. And only when feeling ashamed for one’s weakness can one finally shatter the mental prison which has outlived its builders and its guards. (205)

It is interesting to compare this abstract reflection with a passage from Janina Bauman’s wartime diary from the Warsaw ghetto, which she quotes in Winter in the Morning.

‘Don’t you think the way we live is highly immoral?’ I asked. ‘We eat our breakfast, lunch and supper, we occupy our minds with the French Revolution or Polish poetry, or just which one of us L. fancies the most; then we go to bed with a good novel and peacefully fall asleep. At the same time they are starving and dying.’ ‘There’s nothing we can do for them,’ said Zula sadly, ‘for the hundreds and thousands of them.’ ‘Of course not. But for some of them perhaps? Each of us for somebody?’ ‘Would you and your family be willing to take home these two begging boys?’ asked Hanka very seriously. ‘To share not only food but also beds with them, live with them for better or worse?’ I had no ready answer to her question, and the more I think about it now, the clearer I see the answer is ‘no’. (J Bauman, Winter in the Morning, 42)

Did Zygmunt Bauman himself have to face such choices — in Poland, in the USSR, or in Poland once again as a political officer and informant? Is the experience of shame that he describes here one that was for him also a current human situational emotion? Izabela Wagner raises the question of culpability in Bauman’s service as a political officer and informant in the Polish KBW (Internal Security Corps) during the imposition of Soviet-style dictatorship in Poland (Bauman: A Biography, 110-132); and she comes to a forgiving conclusion. Bauman did not inform meaningfully on others — either his own circle or others. But what about the implications that Bauman himself may have drawn — about an evil regime in whose service he was an active agent for several years? Did he experience this emancipating shame about his involvement in an authoritarian Communist regime in Poland?

Modernity and the Holocaust is an unsatisfying book, in that it fails to meaningfully address the historical and human specificity of the Holocaust. Bauman subordinates the Holocaust to a dimension of “Modernity” — an abstraction, and lacking the deliberation and compassion demanded of the particular experiences of so many millions of people throughout east and central Europe. But these ideas have little of the sharp and penetrating insight of memoirs of survivors like Primo Levy or the contemporaneous writings of Vasily Grossman.In 2009 Bauman wrote “Jews and other Europeans, old and new”, where he reflects on the situation of European Jews in the twentieth century; link. This piece is more specific about the circumstances of European Jews than anything included in Modernity and the Holocaust. But it continues to link the war on the Jews to the failure of the modernization project in Europe. The emphasis is on nationalism and spurious assimilation.

In the late nineteenth century the great European project of nation-building was set in motion. It was meant to end in a Europe of unified nation-states, each of with its own language, history, traditions and a people undivided in its loyalty. The local or ‘merely ethnic’ communities would be effaced, subsumed into the homogeneous nation. Assimilation was the means whereby outsiders would become insiders, strangers would become citizens.

The Second World War, and the Holocaust, brought this project to its tragic and murderous end, laying bare the contradiction at its heart. Outsiders could not be assimilated since their loyalty was, by definition, always voluntary and therefore always seen as untrustworthy. As the historical epitome of the European outsider, Jews accordingly remained suspect despite all their ingenious efforts to assimilate. They experienced first-hand the ambivalence of the assimilatory drive, which was, from their point of view, to become like everyone else, and, from their hosts’ point of view, to deepen belonging by emphasizing difference. (121)

But once again — all theory, no compassion, and no real “micro-sociology” of the historical circumstances of the Jews of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and the vibrant cultural and intellectual Jewish life that was part of the 1930s in central Europe. General sociological theory does not help to explain the Holocaust; instead, we need to trace the contingencies and pathways through which murder on a continent-wide scale came to be, and we need to reckon what we have lost. Grossman is more right than Bauman — “Ukraine without Jews” is a horrendous, tragic, and irreplaceable loss to humanity, and it cannot be subsumed under the arch of the sociological theory of modernity.

And how about the question of intellectual formation with which we began above? Do Bauman’s writings about the Holocaust reflect a worldview and sociological framework notably shaped through his lived experience? It seems clear that the answer is no. Bauman’s intellectual framework is one of pure sociological theory, and this he gained through his graduate education and professional activities as a professor of sociology in Warsaw. There appears to be a very sharp line between Bauman’s history as a Jewish teenager in Poland, a refugee in Molodechno, and an officer in the Red Army during the re-occupation of Ukraine and Poland, and his subsequent framing of the history he had lived through in Modernity and the Holocaust. (See this earlier post for more extensive discussion of Bauman’s intellectual development.)

Jedwabne as memory and history

In July 1941 a terrible massacre of Jews took place in Jedwabne, a town in eastern Poland. The town consisted of some 3,000 residents, about half of whom were Jewish. On July 10, 1941, weeks after the German army took control of the town from the Soviet Red Army (according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), a largescale action of mob violence against the Jews of Jedwabne took place, leading in the end to the murder of almost all of the Jewish population of the town. (Jan Gross estimates the death count to be about 1,600 men, women, and children.) Most horrifically, the largest number of these victims were herded into a barn which was set afire; everyone inside the barn was burned to death. Similar massacres occurred in nearby villages in the same week, in Wąsosz (July 5; link) and Radziłów (July 7; link).

Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2000) attempted to gather together the historical evidence available about the massacre and to provide a fact-based narrative of what happened on that awful day. His account, and the issues about Polish Catholic complicity in anti-Semitism and murder that it raises, have created a great deal of debate in Poland.

Several major questions have dominated the historical debate over what happened at Jedwabne:

  • Was the massacre ordered or instigated by the Germans?
  • Was ambient hatred of Jews among inter-war Poles responsible for this willingness to murder fellow human beings?
  • Was resentment against Jews for “collaboration with the Soviets” during the short period of Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland a primary factor in hostility to the Jews of Jedwabne by their neighbors?
  • Was Jedwabne typical of a common experience in rural Poland in 1941?

Journalist Anna Bikont undertook in 2000 to provide a fresh review of the events of Jedwabne, and the results are provided in The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne (2004). Her book is a remarkable work of investigative journalism, involving careful review of existing archives and interviews with a surprising number of persons who were present in Jedwabne on that terrible day. In almost every large detail Bikont confirms Gross’s key factual claims.

Bikont provides substantial documentation of the high level of anti-Semitism in eastern Poland (and the Łomża region in particular), promulgated by the extremist National Party and the Catholic Church. (The publication Catholic Cause was a frequent source of anti-Semitic exhortations.) These conclusions are based on her interviews, publications of the Church and the party, and investigative reports by the Interior Ministry. “In an Interior Ministry report of February 3, 1939, we read, ‘Anti-Semitism is spreading uncontrollably.’ In a climate where windows being smashed in Jewish homes, stalls being overturned, and Jews being beaten were daily occurrences, one case from Jedwabne that came to trial in 1939 concerned an accusation made against a Jewish woman” (51).

Bikont documents rampant anti-Semitism in the historical record. Here is a statement from her interview with Jan Skrodzki, who witnessed the brutality and murder in Jedwabne as a six-year-old child:

I often hear there’s no anti-Semitism in Poland now. I always say, ‘There are a lot of anti-Semites in my family, and of the people I know, every other one, or maybe every third, is anti-Semitic, and I could easily have been, too.’ And where did we get our anti-Semitism? The priest preached it from the pulpit, that fat Father Dołęgowski. And Poles in Radziłów lapped it up because they were uneducated or completely illiterate. Envious of Jews because they were better off. While Jews were working harder, organizing their work better, supporting each other. (235)

Bikont shares a few lines from her interview with Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew in the Bialystok Institute of National Remembrance:

AB: You say, “The perpetrators of the crime, strictly speaking, were the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings—a group of at least forty men … They actively participated in committing the crime, armed with sticks, crow bars, and other tools.” Let us try to trace how you came to the description you gave of the atrocity in your final findings. You read Gross’s book … (589)

Here is Prosecutor Ignatiew’s summary conclusion:

I can state that the perpetrators of the atrocity were Polish residents of Jedwabne and its surroundings, at least forty men. There is no proof that the townspeople in general were the perpetrators. To claim that there was a company of Germans in Jedwabne is as implausible as maintaining the whole town went crazy. Most people behaved passively. I can’t judge where that passivity came from. Maybe some people felt compassion for the victims but were terrified by the brutality of the killers. Others, though they may have had anti-Semitic views, were not people quick to take an active part in actions of this kind. (600)

Prosecutor Ignatiew disagrees with Gross’s account on two details. First, he believes the total number of murdered individuals was significantly fewer than the 1,600 reported in Neighbors. And second, based on his investigation he believes that the killings were instigated and encouraged by the Germans, though not commanded or organized by them. The evidence available to him supports the conclusion that the number of uniformed Germans was very small on the day of the killings. 

Antony Polonsky notes that Gross’s book created great discord about Poland’s history on its publication. Polonsky reviewed the debate about Jedwabne as it has unfolded in Poland in his important 2004 article, “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” (link). Polonsky is a well-respected scholar of Jewish history, and especially of the history of the Jews in Poland, and his treatment of the facts and the historiography of Jedwabne is judicious and credible. The question of Polish culpability and collaboration is important; but in his view, the genocide was chiefly the work of Germany. “The primary responsibility for these crimes clearly lies with the Nazis” (128). But this conclusion is about the genocide of Poland’s Jews throughout the period — not specifically at Jedwabne.

Polonsky addresses the question of whether the murderous violence in Jedwabne occurred because Christian Poles believed that Jewish Poles had been disloyal under Soviet occupation. Polonsky takes a nuanced position on this question. He believes that this suspicion and resentment played a role in elevating anti-Semitism in 1940, and he notes that it was natural for the Jewish community to suspect that Soviet rule would be less harmful to them than Nazi rule. But he does not appear to believe that this was a primary cause of the murderous actions of ordinary Polish people in July 1940.

In addition, Jewish collaboration with the new Soviet authorities aroused widespread Polish resentment. It is undeniable that a fair number of Jews (like the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, a considerable number of Ukrainians, and even some Poles) welcomed the establishment of Soviet rule. In the Jewish case, this welcome was natural: it is explained by a desire to see an end to the insecurity caused by the collapse of Polish rule in these areas and the belief that the Soviets were less hostile than the Nazis and the resentment of Polish anti-Jewish policies in the interwar period. There was, in addition, some support for the communist system, although this was very much a minority position within the Jewish community. While the Soviets did offer new opportunities to individual Jews, they acted to suppress organized Jewish life, both religious and political, dissolving kehillot, banning virtually all Jewish parties and arresting their leaders. Jews made up nearly a third of the over half a million people deported by the Soviets from these areas (which inadvertently saved many of them from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis). Under these conditions, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population here very quickly lost whatever illusions they might have had about the Soviet system. (140)

Further, Polonsky and Michlic in their introduction to The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (2009) suggest that the Łomża region was exceptional for the degree of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism it exhibited in the years before Germany’s invasion:

Such evidence as we have, both Polish and Jewish, suggests that the Łomża region in northeastern Poland where Jedwabne is located, an area that had long been a stronghold of the extreme right, was the only area in which collective massacres of Jews by civilian Poles took place in the summer of 1941—when the region, previously occupied by the Soviet Union, was reoccupied by Nazi Germany. (The Neighbors Respond, 45)

Polonsky and Michlic suggest that pogroms like these in the northeast were uncommon elsewhere in Poland, and that similar pogroms occurred in western Ukraine on a much broader scale. They quote research by Marco Carynnyk documenting largescale pogroms in 1941 in more than thirty places in western Ukraine, resulting in deaths estimated between 12,000 and 35,000. By that account, then, Łomża region atrocities (including Jedwabne, Wąsosz, and Radziłów) were not typical of the experience of Polish-Jewish communities in most of Poland, and were more similar to the localities of western Ukraine.

Another important resource on the active involvement of non-Jewish Poles in the murder of Poland’s Jews is Jan Grabowski’s “The Polish Police: Collaboration in the Holocaust” (link). Grabowski documents the substantial role that the “Blue Police” (Polish nationals in a reconstituted police force under Nazi command) played in implementation of Nazi Jewish regulations, including confinement in ghettos in Poland’s major cities. This role included carrying out mass executions of Jews. Here is an example of Blue Police involvement in an aktion in Węgrówa small Polish city:

On the day of the Aktion in Węgrów, the German-Ukrainian Liquidierungskommando, with the assistance of the Blue Police, local firefighters, and so-called “bystanders,” murdered more than 1,000 Jews in the streets of the city. Another 8,000 Jews were marched to the Sokołów railway station, eight miles distant, and delivered to Treblinka. The Liquidierungskommando left Węgrów the following day. Their job, however, was far from complete: more than a thousand Jews remained hidden inside the ghetto. In the subsequent days and weeks the Polish Blue Police and the local firefighters conducted intense searches and found most of them. They either killed these Jews themselves, or delivered them to the German gendarmes for execution. (11)

Grabowski and Barbara Engelking were sued under Poland’s recent libel and defamation laws, created by the Law and Justice Party government, for publication of their book Night without End on the basis of statements about Polish individuals who were responsible for crimes against Jews. Engelking and Grabowski were first found responsible for libel against a descendent of Edward Malinowski and ordered to publicly apologize. This verdict was profoundly chilling to historians conducting historical research on the Holocaust in Poland. An appellate court took note of the negative effect the lower court ruling had on academic freedom and reversed that finding in August 2021 (link).

Polonsky makes a key point in both “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” and the introduction to The Neighbors Respond, that parallels Tony Judt’s arguments in “The Past is Another Country” (link) — that confronting the ugly truths about the past is essential to moving forward to a democratic and peaceful future. Polish society has had difficulty in confronting the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the atrocities of the Holocaust and the political realities of Communist rule in Poland, and the current government is emphatic in its efforts to “sanitize” the telling of this history. In Judt’s phrase, the current government prefers myth to truth. Gross, Grabowski, Engelking, Michlic, Polonsky, and a whole cohort of historians of Poland, both inside Poland and abroad, are working hard to discover the truth.

Telling the truth about genocide and totalitarian terror

A central question in the past year or so in Understanding Society is how historians and philosophers should confront the evils of the twentieth century. It seems clear that studying these processes fully and honestly is a key part of the answer, both for scholars and for ordinary citizens. We need to confront the truth about ugly facts about our history. In his documentary article “Treblinka as Hell” Vasily Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

But telling the truth about acts of genocide, atrocities, and state crimes is not easy. This is partly true for reasons of psychology and identity — as LaCapra has argued, the horrors of the Holocaust are locations of trauma, and trauma is difficult to confront (link). But there is a more material barrier to truth-telling when it comes to genocide and state repression: the states and groups that commit or collaborate in these atrocities are very interested in preventing knowledge of their crimes to become public. And they are generally very willing to use coercion, violence, and massive deception against those who attempt to learn the truth and make it public. Truth-telling, therefore, can be career-ending or life-ending.

This situation was especially acute during the years of Soviet dictatorship in the USSR and its dependent states in Eastern Europe, and most pointedly for writers. Anyone who lived in these countries in the 1930s through the 1980s knew a great deal about the facts of dictatorship, arbitrary arrest, state lies, and the prison camps in the Gulag. But writing openly and honestly about these facts — or even whispering about them to trusted friends — could lead to arrest and imprisonment or death. So how could gifted and principled authors deal with this contradiction during Soviet times? 

A substantial number of writers during the Soviet era became willing accomplices in the ideology, propaganda, and crimes of Stalinism (and the Leninist regime that preceded). But some did not. And many who did not, did not survive the purges of 1938 and later years. 

There were a few noteworthy exceptions — writers who maintained a degree of independence and honesty, but whom good fortune permitted to survive. Consider for example Mikhail Sholokhov, a highly prominent writer from the Cossack region of the Ukraine whose Don novels became among the most popular fiction throughout the period; who became a close confidant of Stalin; and yet who persisted in expressing the suffering of the peasants of the Ukraine (his neighbors) during the 1930s collectivization and the war of starvation that Stalin waged against them. Sholokhov maintained a degree of independence and integrity, even as he navigated censorship and the NKVD. (Brian Boeck’s biography of Sholokhov, Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov, is an excellent source on Sholokhov’s life and writing. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.) Sholokhov was not entirely admirable — he is accused of sharing the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist period more generally (including sometimes his comments about Vasily Grossman). And he never wrote or spoke publicly against the genocide of the Jews during World War II, the mass exterminations that occurred across the Ukraine, or the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism following the end of the war. For example, his 1943 short story about Nazis at war, “The Science of Hatred,” does not mention atrocities against the Jews and other innocent people; link. But he was willing to speak some of the truth of the failures and criminality of Soviet persecution of the peasants of the Ukraine — and that was a considerable political risk. 

But consider another singular and important case in point: the life and writings of Vasily Grossman (link). (Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, is an excellent treatment of his life and work.) Grossman was born as a Jew in the Ukraine in 1905 (the same year as Sholokhov), and in early adulthood he became a writer. He gained a degree in chemistry and worked for several years in a coal mine and a factory. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 he attempted to volunteer for military service, but was rejected for health reasons. He was accepted as a war journalist, and he traveled with the Red Army through its most desperate fighting, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad. His journalism from the front was among the most highly respected in the Soviet Union. It was honest, penetrating, and very sensitive to the conditions of life for the average Soviet soldier in combat. 

Grossman was personally aware of the program of extermination that the invading German army was waging in the western territories of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries through his active combat experience with the Red Army. Grossman’s mother had remained in their home city, Berdichev, and in 1941 the Jews of Berdichev were rounded up and massacred. Here is Grossman’s account from about 1944 about the massacre of Berdichev (link), included in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. In a period of only two days over 20,000 Jewish children, women, and men were killed by gunfire, rifle butt, and brutal beatings — including Grossman’s mother. (Estimates range from 20,000 to 38,536 Jewish victims during the summer of 1941.) The Communist Party and the Stalinist government of the USSR were unwilling to provide an honest account of the campaign of murder and extermination against the Jews of Eastern Europe during 1941 and subsequent years, and Grossman’s directness and honesty in his journalism and in Life and Fate are exceptional. As noted in the earlier post, Grossman was the first journalist to provide extensive details about the workings of any Nazi death camp, as a result of his arrival at the site of Treblinka with the Soviet 62nd Army in 1944. His essay, “Ukraine without Jews,” is an enormously important contribution to the effort to understand the true significance of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Grossman’s experience in the Ukraine before the war and with the Red Army gave him a dramatic view of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. He witnessed the forced collectivization of agriculture and campaign of starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, the crushing terror of the late 1930s, and the creation of the Gulag in the 1940s. He thus witnessed the massive totalitarian atrocities committed by Stalin’s apparatus in the name of communism and the total power of the Communist Party, resulting in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens and hundreds of thousands of writers, engineers, functionaries, and other “enemies of the people”.

During his years as a war correspondent Grossman continued to have great respect and admiration for ordinary Red Army soldiers, but the command staff and political officers soon became contemptible to him.

Grossman wrote two important novels based on his experience at Stalingrad. Both were massively long — well over 1,000 pages. The first, Stalingrad, was published in the USSR under the title For a Just Cause in 1943 but was quickly withdrawn from the public by Soviet censors. The second, a masterpiece of world literature, was Life and Fate, and had a much more grim view of the Soviet state and of Stalinism. In 1961 the manuscript was seized (“arrested”) and Grossman was told that it could not be published for 250 years. He was expelled from the Writers Union — his primary source of income — and his health began to decline. He wrote several other novels, but died of stomach cancer in 1964 at the age of 59.

There were several themes which drew Grossman into conflict with the Stalinist censors, and with Stalin himself. First was the fact that Grossman understood very well that Hitler’s genocidal plans of extermination were directed primarily against the Jews of Europe — not random victims of war. But the Soviet party line was to refrain completely from “separating” Jewish victims from other “Soviet citizens” who died at the hands of the Nazis. This was an ideological principle, but it also derived from resurgent anti-Semitism in the USSR as well. This accounts for the Soviet, and later Ukrainian, refusal to place a memorial at Babi Yar in honor of the tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children killed there in 1941.

Second, Grossman wrote honestly about ordinary workers and soldiers, including their shortcomings. He was not primarily interested in making heroes of coal miners or infantrymen, and was very explicit about alcohol and other forms of “anti-socialist behavior” among workers. The censors, in contrast, wanted to see novels and stories in which workers were portrayed heroically.

The third line of conflict had to do with the totalitarian and murderous grip of Soviet rule itself. Grossman was especially aware of the massive harms created by Stalin’s decimation of the Red Army officer corps through purges before the war and his pig-headed interference with military strategy in the conduct of the war, leading to several million unnecessary casualties and prisoners of war. Grossman was revolted at the behavior and abuses of the state and its functionaries during the conduct of World War II, and he found ways of expressing these views in his writings — most clearly in Life and Fate. Grossman was a critic of Stalinism before it was either fashionable or safe to do so. Here is a passage from Life and Fate on the Gulag and the political prisons:

In other times, before the war, Krimov often walked past the Lubyanka at night and wondered what was happening behind the windows of that sleepless building. Those arrested were locked up in prison for eight months, a year, a year and a half, while the investigation was ongoing. Then his relatives received letters from the fields, they discovered new names: Komi, Salekhard. Norilsk, Kotlas, Magadan, Vorkutá, Kolymá, Kuznetsk, Krasnoyarsk, Karaganda, Nagayevo Bay … But thousands of people who were imprisoned in the inner Lubyanka prison disappeared forever. The prosecution informed the relatives that they had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence”, but there were no such sentences in the camps. Ten years without the right to correspond almost certainly meant that they had been shot. (853)

Consider finally the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago exposed in great detail the horrendous crimes and scope of suffering created by Stalin’s reign of terror through secret police and prison camps. Born in 1918 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the Soviet Union came a decade or more later than that of Grossman and Sholokhov. He served in the Red Army as an artillery captain, and was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD in 1945 for critical comments about Stalin that he had included in a private letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of labor in the Gulag. He was cleared of charges in 1956. 

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag is a massive documentation of the experience of life in a labor camp in the extreme north, the tundra and the forest, of the USSR. It begins with the arrest and progresses through the many hardships and deprivations created for the prisoners by the state. The aftermath of the arrest:

For those left behind after the arrest there is the long tail end of a wrecked and devastated life. And the attempts to go and deliver food parcels. But from all the windows the answer comes in barking voices: “Nobody here by that name!” “Never heard of him!” Yes, and in the worst days in Leningrad it took five days of standing in crowded lines just to get to that window. And it may be only after half a year or a year that the arrested person responds at all. Or else the answer is tossed out: “Deprived of the right to correspond.” And that means once and for all. “No right to correspondence”—and that almost for certain means: “Has been shot.”

And the helpless desire that it might have been possible to resist:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. (Gulag Archipelago)

Telling the truth — as Grossman and Solzhenitsyn did remarkably well throughout their careers, and Sholokhov did in a partial way — is enormously hard in a totalitarian society. When the state is willing to send its critics to deadly labor camps, or to shoot them out of hand, it is virtually impossible to imagine many writers striving to tell the truths that they know. And in any case, since the state controls the means of publication, the critical writer cannot publish his or her work in any case. During the Soviet period, many writers wrote “for the desk drawer” — manuscripts that could only be published in the distant future. And, knowing the likelihood of hidden manuscripts, the NKVD was very careful in its searches of the apartments of suspected critics and its other victims; correspondence, files, and unpublished manuscripts were routinely burned. In the somewhat less repressive period of post-Stalinist USSR there was a period of Samizdat (self-publishing) — writings that were distributed as typescripts, hand-written documents, mimeographed documents, and eventually photocopies. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published as Samizdat to a limited readership. But truthful description, diagnosis, and criticism — these forms of expression were almost entirely impossible within the Stalinist regime. And yet it is impossible for a society to repair its most dehumanizing features if it is impossible to speak openly about those crimes.

Striving for consensus in Nazi Germany?

Nathan Stoltzfus’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany has a remarkable and startling thesis: though the Nazi regime used absolutely unconstrained violence and coercion in its conquest, domination, and annihilation of its enemies (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, the USSR), its approach to ruling Germany was strikingly different. Stoltzfus maintains that Hitler and the Nazi regime sought to cultivate broad support among Germans for its war and extermination aims, while building a strong consensus around ideology and values in the German homeland.

Except for a tiny fraction of the population, consisting of Jews, political dissidents, social outsiders, and the congenitally “incurable,” National Socialism strove to bring all Germans into line with the thinking that they should be the master of others. The effort to extract the maximal effort of the people in conquering the continent and killing millions outright was conducted with concern for the “German-blooded” people. Nazi propaganda directed German women to become the mothers of the nation through appeals to love of Nazi leaders and heroes, as well as for their own children. The National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV) was an enormous agency dedicated to benefiting productive, racially valuable Germans. kl 54

In fact, Stoltzfus suggests that post-war Germany has fallen for a myth of its own wartime history: the myth of a violent, coercive dictatorship that compelled the German people to carry out his evil purposes.

The Germans have earned high praise for facing the crimes of their past, showing more reluctant countries how to do it. Still today there are signs of a retrenchment among some historians, as well as in the official commemorations in Germany, in the comforting belief that Hitler ruled his own “race” of people by intimidation and terror more than by incentives and rewards, that the Gestapo crushed all opposition, and that the dictatorship set its course according to its ideology and proceeded in a straight path toward it, steamrolling any obstacles with brute force. kl 102

But according to Stoltzfus, this is a myth. On the homefront, Stoltzfus appears to argue, Hitler was a calculating politician, aiming at creating a supportive and contented public, rather than a ranting dictator using murder, torture, and imprisonment to coerce his nation to his goals. And the German public was largely willing to support his policies.

Robert Gellately makes a similar case in Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.

Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people. The most important thing he could do to win them over was to solve the massive unemployment problem. Although it is clear that his regime beat the Great Depression faster than any of the Western democracies, it still took time.

The new regime made no bones about using coercion in many forms against its declared enemies, but it also sought the consent and support of the people at every turn. As I try to show in the book, consent and coercion were inextricably entwined throughout the history of the Third Reich, partly because most of the coercion and terror was used against specific individuals, minorities, and social groups for whom the people had little sympathy. (kl 195)

Thus, the Nazis did not act out of delusional or blind fanaticism in the beginning, but with their eyes wide open to the social and political realities around them. They developed their racist and repressive campaigns, by looking at German society, history, and traditions. The identification and treatment of political opponents and the persecution of social and racial outsiders illustrated the kind of populist dictatorship that developed under Hitler. (kl 264)

And Gellately argues that the German public was aware of many of the details of the violence of the secret police and the use of concentration camps and rejects the view that these facts were withheld from the German public:

This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. kl 299

The most compelling evidence of this interpretation of Hitler’s populist dictatorship, for Stoltzfus, is the fact that there were occasional signs of public disapproval of Nazi actions, including resistance by Germany’s churches to euthanasia, protests against imprisonment of Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives, and public protests over other issues; and the Nazi regime sought to change its behavior to conform better to the expectations of the public. These are the compromises in the title of Stoltzfus’s book.

During 1943 as well, Hitler preferred to appease rather than repress two spectacular street protests by women, even as the People’s Court increased sentences for treason. By mid-1943, complaints and jokes about the regime leaders were so prevalent that prosecutors thought that singling one person out for punishment on such an offense was untenable, and the SD was concerned about an inner collapse on the home front. kl 512

Taken separately, each instance of regime compromise might be explained as an exception that it made for specific sectors of Germans: workers, the churches, women. Taken together, the various cases of the dictatorship’s willingness to compromise in ruling the people illuminate a pattern of response to social dissent, regardless of which group was dissenting. The regime’s willingness to make concessions to the working class in order to assuage its dissatisfactions is well documented.51 But it also preempted or ameliorated signs of sustained opposition in public by other social groups as well, an approach that is hardly surprising considering its earnest manipulation of demonstrations and rallies in an effort to influence opinion and “nationalize the people.” kl 566

In this respect, if Stoltzfus and Gellately are correct, the domestic dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin were radically different. Stalin treated the population of his nation as the enemies of socialism and of the regime, and his tools of control were entirely drawn from the war chest of arrest, terror, imprisonment, and murder. Soviet citizens were terrified into submission — with the partial exception of support for the “Great Patriotic War” and Comrade Stalin’s brilliant generalship. If there is such a thing as a “scale” of totalitarianism, this suggests that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a vastly more fully totalitarian state than the domestic Nazi state in Germany.

The reason this argument by Stoltzfus is especially important today is that it is not just about history — about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather, it seems to suggest a playbook for contemporary “wannabe” autocrats and dictators, including a recent president of the United States. The strategy that Hitler pursued, according to Stoltzfus, was to put forward a compelling nationalist ideology affirming the German nation, a powerful and vitriolic racism against Jews and Slavs, and an assurance that “the leader” can achieve the national interest by leading the nation and waging merciless war against its racial enemies. This is the stuff of radical right-wing populism today. Stoltzfus appears to recognize this continuity:

While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed the relationship with the Germans of the Reich in ways that place him among those whom scholars now identify as “soft” dictators, who prefer the tactics of persuasion, enticement, cooptation, and compromise to work their will. These scholars associate “soft” tactics with dictatorships of the twenty-first century by contrasting them in one fell swoop with caricatures so gross they characterize both Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. kl 204

Had he not been aiming to reshape the Germans into a Nazi national community, with a new Nazi superego, Hitler could have relied more fully on terror. But he was convinced that the existing German mythos could only be replaced by edging it out with another ideology the people found acceptable. In Nazi practice, as Hitler foresaw it, force could be deployed to secure the people’s worldview once a majority was behind it, as he continued toward winning all but the fringe. kl 230

“Soft dictatorship” at home, with a willingness to compromise when public opinion appears to demand it, along with consistent planning and action in support of the underlying racist ideology — that is a very different understanding from the traditional view of Nazi dictatorship. And yet it is a worrisome illustration of the power that charismatic, malevolent leaders can exercise over a mass society.

Vasily Grossman on Treblinka

Vasily Grossman was an important Soviet writer and journalist from the 1930s through his death in 1964. He was a Ukrainian Jew born in 1905, and his mother died in a mass execution of Jews in Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1941. He was a man of the “bloodlands”, in Tim Snyder’s term. During World War II he became one of the best-respected war correspondents in the Soviet Union, and he accompanied the Red Army through many of the bloodiest battles of the war against Hitler, including the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. He was also present with the Red Army at Babi Yar in Kiev in 1943. His writings under a totalitarian state and throughout the Holocaust present an unusual example of courage and independence in a time in which the forces of dictatorship and repression were supremely powerful across both Nazi and Soviet spheres. His greatest work was Life and Fate, a thousand-page novel aimed at expressing the human and political realities of the battle of Stalingrad. The novel was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988 and 1989 because of its supposed anti-Soviet tendencies, long after Grossman’s death.

After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad Grossman accompanied the Soviet 62nd Army into Poland, and was the first journalist to visit the site of the the recently-destroyed extermination camp of Treblinka in September 1944. Treblinka was a place specifically designed for mass murder, only sixty kilometers from Warsaw in Poland. Grossman’s 1944 documentary essay on Treblinka, “The Treblinka Hell” (link), is detailed, grim, and unblinking; it should be an essential element of our efforts to understand the realities of the Holocaust. Grossman’s article is one of the first extensive reports on the details of Nazi extermination of the Jews. It is brutally honest and explicit, and — unlike the preferred Soviet narrative — it is explicit in recognizing that this was an extermination camp for Jews, along with a small number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs. The article is a remarkable piece of documentary journalism and historical reportage. Further, as Zsuzsa Hetenyi notes in “Facts and Fiction in Vasily Grossman’s Prose” (link), the piece also has much of the narrative evocativeness and empathy that Grossman displays in his fiction writing. It is a powerful piece of contemporary witness reportage of the realities of the Shoah.

When capture by the Red Army appeared imminent, the Germans at Treblinka made every effort to destroy all the evidence of what had taken place there:

Early in the morning of July 23, the guards and SS men took a stiff drink and set to work to wipe out all trace of the camp. By nightfall all the inmates had been killed and buried. Only one man survived — Max Levit, a Warsaw carpenter, who was only wounded and lay beneath the bodies of his comrades until nightfall, when he crawled off into the forest. He told us how as he lay there at the bottom of the pit he heard a group of some thirty young lads singing a popular Soviet song, “Vast is my Native Land,” before being shot down; heard one of the boys cry out: “Stalin will avenge us!”; heard the boys’ leader, young Leib, who had been everyone’s favourite in the camp, scream after the first volley: “Panie Watchman, you didn’t kill me! Shoot again, please! Shoot again!” 373

Grossman and other Red Army investigators learned a great deal about the workings of the camp, including the names of the commander and many guards. Prisoners in Camp 1, the labor camp, received a food ration of 170-200 grams of bread — less than 530 calories, a starvation diet. Random murders by the guards were frequent, including murders of children. Conditions in Camp 1 were hellish. And yet Camp 2 was much, much worse. Camp 2 of Treblinka was a death camp. “Everything in this camp was adapted for death.” Train after train arrived in the camp every day, and no one departed. “For thirteen months or 396 days, the trains returned empty or loaded with sand; not a single one of those who were brought to Camp No. 2 ever returned.” And who were these people? “Who were the people brought here by the trainload? Mainly Jews, and to a lesser extent Poles and Gypsies” (377).

By the spring of 1942 almost the entire Jewish population of Poland, Germany and the western districts of Byelorussia had been rounded up in ghettos. Millions of Jewish workers, artisans, doctors, architects, engineers, teachers, art workers, and other professionals together with their wives and children, mothers and fathers lived in the ghettos of Warsaw, Radom, Czestochowa, Lublin, Bialystok, Grodno, and dozens of other smaller towns. In the Warsaw ghetto alone there were about 500,000 Jews. Confinement to the ghetto was evidently the first, preparatory stage of the Hitler plan for the extermination of the Jews. (377)

The trains that came to Treblinka from the West-European countries — France, Bulgaria, Austria and others — were another matter entirely. These people had not heard of Treblinka and up to the last minute they believed they were being sent to work. The Germans painted alluring pictures of the pleasures and conveniences of the new life awaiting the settlers. Some trains brought people who thought they were being taken to some neutral country. Victims of a gruesome hoax, they had paid the German authorities large sums of money for passports and foreign visas. (377)

Some of Grossman’s prose is haunting and poetic, and contributes to a more human understanding of the evil and grief of the Shoah —

Anything up to 20,000 people passed through Treblinka every day. Days when only six or seven thousand came out of the station building were considered wasted. The square was filled with people four and five times a day. And all of these thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people with the frightened, questioning eyes, all these young and old faces, these pretty dark-haired and fair-haired girls, the stooped and baldheaded old men, the timid youngsters — all of them merged into a single flood that swept away reason, human knowledge, maidenly love, childish wonder, the coughing of old men and the throbbing hearts of living human beings. (380)

Grossman goes through every step of the journey from disembarkment from the train to killing in the gas chamber, and the indignities and brutality — and murder — that occurred in between. The gas chambers at Treblinka made use of carbon monoxide generated by large engines to asphyxiate the victims, or pumps that evacuated the oxygen from the chamber, leading once again to asphyxiation.

Grossman reflects as a human being on this sequence of monstrous inhumanity:

Great is the power of humanity; humanity does not die until man dies. And when there comes a brief but terrifying period in history, a period in which the beast triumphs over man, to his last breath the man slain by the beast retains his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and warmth of feeling. And the beast who slays the man remains a beast. In this immortal spiritual strength of human beings is a solemn martyrdom, the triumph of the dying man over the living beast. Therein, during the darkest days of 1942, lay the dawn of reason’s victory over bestial madness, of good over evil, light over darkness, of the power of progress over the power of reaction; an awesome dawn breaking over a field of blood and tears, an ocean of suffering, a dawn breaking amid the screams and cries of perishing mothers and infants, amid the death rattle of the aged. The beasts and the philosophy of the beasts foreshadowed the end of Europe, the end of the world; but people remained people. They did not accept the morals and laws of fascism, fighting with all the means at their disposal against them, fighting with their death as human beings. (389-390)

And how many were there of these innocent victims? Grossman tries to estimate the dead in different ways, based on the frequency of train arrivals and the capacity of the ten gas chambers. He estimates that three million men, women, and children were murdered at Treblinka in the 13 months of its operations. This is probably an over-estimate; the camp was not as efficient in killing as Grossman believed. The article on Treblinka published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives an estimate of 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs (link). But whether three million victims or one million, Treblinka was a place of unspeakable evil.

And what about the guards and executioners? What was their psychology? Grossman has a view on this question as well, and it stands in counterpoint to Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil.

It must be noted here that these creatures were by no means robots who mechanically carried out the wishes of others. All witnesses speak of a trait common to all of them, namely, a fondness for theoretical argument, a predilection for philosophizing. All of them had a weakness for delivering speeches to the doomed people, for boasting in front of their victims and explaining the “lofty” meaning and “importance” for the future of what was being done in Treblinka. They were profoundly and sincerely convinced that they were doing the correct and necessary thing. They explained in detail the superiority of their race over all other races. (400)

Grossman describes the uprising at Treblinka, which, according to Grossman’s account, was surprisingly successful. Prisoners succeeded in burning much of the camp and killing some of the guards and executioners, and about 300 prisoners escaped. Most were subsequently tracked and killed, but about a third survived to tell their story. The mutiny and the German defeat at Stalingrad appear to have led to the Germans’ efforts at erasing Treblinka completely in 1943. Grossman reflects on the Nazi efforts at erasing Treblinka:

What was the object of all this destruction? Was it to hide the traces of the murder of millions of people in the hell of Treblinka? But how did they expect to do this? Did they really think it possible to force the thousands who had witnessed the death trains moving from all corners of Europe to the death conveyor to keep silent? Did they believe they could hide that deadly flame and the smoke which hung for eight months in the sky, visible by day and by night to the inhabitants of dozens of villages and small towns? Did they think they could make the peasants of the Wulka village forget the fearful shrieks of the women and children which lasted for thirteen long months and which seem to ring in their ears to this very day? (405)

The essay has moments of poetic transcendence. Here are Grossman’s words describing his own entrance into Treblinka as part of the Stalingrad Red Army:

We enter the camp. We are treading the soil of Treblinka. The lupine pods burst open at the slightest touch, burst open by themselves with a faint popping sound; millions of tiny peas roll on the ground… The earth ejects crushed bones, teeth, bits of paper and clothing; it refuses to keep its awful secret. These things emerge from the unhealed wounds in the earth. (406)

And here are the closing words of the article, Grossman’s own assessment of this great evil:

Every man and woman today is in duty bound to his conscience, to his son and his mother, to his country and to mankind to examine his heart and conscience and reply to the question: what is it that gave rise to racism, what can be done in order that Nazism, Hitlerism may never rise again, either on this or the other side of the ocean, never unto eternity.

The imperialist idea of national, race, or any other execeptionalism led the Hitlerites logically to Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Oswiecim and Treblinka.

We must remember that racism, fascism will emerge from this war not only with bitter recollections of defeat but also with sweet memories of the ease with which it is possible to slaughter millions of defenseless people.

This must be solemnly borne in mind by all who value honour, liberty and the life of all nations, of all mankind. (408)

There is a strong moral voice in Grossman’s writings. Here Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide. He believes profoundly that the Holocaust, mass extermination, and totalitarianism must be confronted honestly and without fear.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

Grossman is one of the most important and passionate contemporaneous observers of the Shoah (and the crimes of Stalinism as well), and his texts and novels demand our attention. In collaboration with Ilya Ehrenberg, Grossman compiled a massive set of documents offering witness to the crimes committed against the Jews, by the Nazis and by the Stalinists, in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. The manuscript was complete by 1944, but characteristically, Soviet censors never permitted publication of the massive compilation. A Russian edition was published in Kiev in 1991.

Snyder’s big idea about genocide: state smashing

Tim Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning is an exceptional and innovative history of the Holocaust, and of the mass killings that occurred during the Second World War in the territories he refers to as the Bloodlands.

There are tormenting questions raised by the facts of the Holocaust and the deliberate killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children. Some of these questions are obvious, but Snyder argues that we haven’t asked the most important questions yet. We have not yet understood the Holocaust in the ways we need to if we are to honor the victims and prepare humanity for a future in which genocide does not recur.

The most difficult question is that of historical causation: what factors caused the massive genocide that occurred in 1941 and following years? The conventional answers to this question revolve around familiar factors: the aftermath of the First World War, the extensive realities of anti-Semitism, Hitler’s single-minded ideology, and the successful efforts by Germany to build a military and police apparatus that was very efficient in waging war and massacring vast civilian populations. But Snyder doesn’t believe that these conventional ideas are correct. They are all relevant factors in the rise and power of the Nazi regime, but they do not by themselves suffice to explain the ability of the regime to kill millions of innocent people in a matter of months.

The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens. This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it. The enormous majority of the victims of the Holocaust were not German citizens; Jews who were German citizens were much more likely to survive than Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed. 337

Rather, Snyder argues that the most fundamental factor that facilitated the Holocaust was the “state smashing” that occurred through Nazi military aggression and Soviet occupation of many of the countries of Central Europe. Snyder refers to the “double occupation” that was part of the period of the 1930s and 1940s: occupation by the Soviet Union of the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, half of Poland, and much of the remainder of central Europe; and then the conquest of these same territories by German military and police forces, beginning in 1939 in the rapid conquest of Poland and in 1941 in the rapid military conquest of much of the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, extending to the outskirts of Moscow.

Snyder puts forward a powerful thesis: the Holocaust and the annihilation of six million Jews resulted most importantly from the destruction of state institutions in the countries that were occupied by USSR and Nazi Germany. It was the destruction of state institutions, systems of law, and rules of citizenship that led to the mortal peril of Jews in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of the Soviet Union itself. Hitler’s war on the Jews was the ideological driver of his policies. But his ability to carry out his plans of mass murder depended on the smashing of the states of the countries it attacked, defeated, and occupied. And in this destruction the Soviet Union and the NKVD had played a crucial role during the 1930s.

Why were state institutions so important? Not because they consistently came to the support of persecuted minorities. They were important rather because states establish systems of law, rights, and citizenship. And states establish institutions, bureaucracies, and judicial systems that preserve those rights of citizenship. States provided a basis for oppressed groups to defend themselves within the institutions and bureaucracies of the state. The experience of the attempt in Germany in the 1930s to remove citizenship rights from its own small Jewish population — less than 1% of the population — was illustrative: it took years to succeed. Statelessness was a crucial feature of the deadly vulnerability of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

The state stood at the middle of the story of those who wished to kill Jews, and of those who wished to save them. Its mutation within Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and then its destruction in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in 1938 and 1939 transformed Jews from citizens into objects of exploitation. The double assault upon state institutions in the Baltic states and eastern Poland, at first by the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941, created the special field of experimentation where ideas of a Final Solution became the practice of mass murder. 320

Why did both Germany and the USSR undertake such deliberate efforts to destroy the states of the territories they occupied, and the political elites who had played roles in those states? Both Nazi and Soviet states sought to create absolute political dominion in the territories they controlled. This meant killing the “political elites” in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, … This motivation explains the Soviet atrocity of the massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish military officers at Katyn Forest in 1940; they sought to decapitate any possible Polish political alternative to Soviet rule in the portion of Poland they had occupied (Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth). And it meant destroying the civic and political institutions of these states. Both Nazi and Soviet murder machines were entirely ruthless in killing potential sources of political opposition. Mass killings of civil servants, mayors, governors, judges, and politically engaged citizens occurred, first by the Soviets and the NKVD and then by the Nazi occupiers.

Snyder offers the case of Denmark as support for this position. Denmark too was occupied by Nazi forces, and the Nazi regime was interested in destroying Danish Jews. However, he argues that the survival of its political institutions made extermination of Denmark’s Jews impossible. Snyder discusses the efforts of Rudolf Mildner, Gestapo chief in Denmark, in attempting to carry out genocide against Denmark’s Jews. “He was confronted in Copenhagen with institutions that had been abolished further east: a sovereign state, political parties with convictions and support, local civil society in various forms, a police force that could not be expected to cooperate” (216). And when that citizenship protection failed, Jews in Denmark were killed. “The Jews who were denied state protection in Denmark shared the fate of Jews who lacked state protection in Estonia or, for that matter, everywhere else: death” (217).

Snyder argues that the bureaucracies of a modern state work to protect the individuals and groups who fall within their scope. “Citizenship in modern states means access to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has the reputation of killing Jews; it would be closer to the truth to say that it was the removal of bureaucracy that killed Jews. So long as state sovereignty persisted, so did the limits and possibilities afforded by bureaucracy” (221).

This point is highly consequential for our reading of the nature of totalitarian murder. And in fact, Snyder believes that the centrality of “state smashing” in the Holocaust is the clue to preventing genocide in the future. We need to build and defend the institutions of law, judiciary, and citizenship; these institutions are the bulwark against horrifying atrocities in the future.

If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in this broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and opened the way to an unprecedented crime. 320

Mass killings generally take place during civil wars or regime changes. It was the deliberate policy of Nazi Germany to artificially create conditions of state destruction and then steer the consequences towards Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions produces more conventional disasters. 336

This concern by Snyder for the persistence of resilient institutions of state also helps explain the passion and seriousness he brings to his concerns about the degradation of the institutions of democracy that has occurred in the United States and Europe in the past decade (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century). It is not merely that we care about democracy; it is that the institutions of state are themselves the most important bulwark against atrocities directed against individuals and groups by the powerful. When Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, or Donald Trump work deliberately to undermine the judiciary, the institutions of voting, the citizenship rights of minority groups in Brazil, Hungary, or the US, these actions are not just undesirable in a generic sense. They are highly dangerous for the future. They leave the citizens of their states with diminishing protections against arbitrary power, violence, vilification, and sometimes murder.

Here are the closing lines of Black Earth:

Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity. That is not enough for its victims. No accumulation of good, no matter how vast, undoes an evil; no rescue of the future, no matter how successful, undoes a murder in the past. Perhaps it is true that to save one life is to save the world. But the converse is not true: saving the world does not restore a single lost life. The family tree of that boy in Vienna, like that of all of the Jewish children born and unborn, has been sheared at the roots: “I the root was once the flower / under these dim tons my bower / comes the shearing of the thread / death saw wailing overhead.” The evil that was done to the Jews—to each Jewish child, woman, and man—cannot be undone. Yet it can be recorded, and it can be understood. Indeed, it must be understood so that its like can be prevented in the future. That must be enough for us and for those who, let us hope, shall follow. 343

Snyder has made a very important contribution to how we understand the genocide of the Holocaust, and how we can best strive to prevent such moments in the future.

(Here is a powerful piece of memory in music and video, for the tragedy of Babi Yar; link.)

Probing atrocity in Miropol

photo: execution site at Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine, September 1941

It is challenging to form a mental picture of the significance and reality of the events and enormity of the Holocaust. Many of the summary facts that we “know” about the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jewish people are both inadequate to capture the human meaning of this period, and misleading or inaccurate, as Tim Snyder argues (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning). How can we gain a better and more personal understanding of these horrible events from the 1940s?

First-person accounts and oral histories represent one form of access to the realities of the mass killings that occurred across Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe. But an especially powerful recent book takes a somewhat different approach. This is Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a book that proceeds from a single photograph of a single instant of brutality and murder, and helps the reader develop an extensive understanding of the human realities that led to this moment. The photograph is taken in the midst of a mass killing outside the town of Miropol in the Ukraine in October, 1941. The Jews of Miropol were forced to walk into the forest, were gathered at a previously prepared shooting pit, and were murdered by rifle fire. The photograph is unusual in that it is at close range and captures identifiable faces of both the murderers (two German soldiers and two Ukrainian militiamen) and the victim, a mother holding a child by the hand as she is shot. Lower wants to understand the photograph in detail, and to learn the identities of the individuals involved.

Lower combines the skills of an experienced historian, a resourceful crime investigator, and a compassionate observer of family tragedy in a time of mass killing. Her goal is ambitious: she would like to uncover the identity of the victims in the photograph, the killers, the photographer, and the possibility of holding the responsible persons to account in the present. And she accomplishes much of this set of goals. She gains a great deal of detailed knowledge about the Ukrainian and German personnel who were present. She forms an educated guess about the family identity of the victims in the photograph. And she learns a great deal about the photographer. Along the way she provides enough detail about the context of German military and Final Solution activity in 1941 to give the reader a fairly good idea about how this event relates to the larger orchestrated Aktions against the Jews of Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1944 — the bulk of the killing during the Holocaust.

Miropol was a small town in occupied Ukraine in the fall of 1941. It is some 220 kilometers west of Kiev, the site of the massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941. In Miropol in October several hundred Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated by gunfire. This is the Aktion recorded in the photograph at the center of The Ravine. In Kiev only a few weeks earlier, the largest massacre of Jews in the Holocaust in the occupied Ukraine and Soviet territories occurred, involving the murder over a few days of over 34,000 human beings. In 1943 the Nazis made an effort to conceal the evidence of the massacre, and the Soviets concealed the fact that the victims were Jewish, preferring instead to refer to “Soviet civilians”. No memorial was created for the Jewish dead at Babi Yar until 1991, fifty years after the massacre. There appears to be no memorial for the Jewish dead at Miropol; the handful of photographs by Škrovina alone serve as memorial. But The Ravine represents a different kind of memorial. The reader comes away with a sober and human recognition of these many hundreds of innocent victims of murder, and the lives that were stolen from them.

Lower begins with this particular photograph — a photograph of several German soldiers and Ukrainian militia men in the act of shooting a Jewish mother holding a child at the edge of a burial pit. It is a haunting photograph. But Lower goes much beyond this particular photo, including archival evidence, more photographs, interviews with witnesses and participants, and records from both Nazi and Soviet sources. She is a resourceful, talented, and determined researcher, and her ability to unearth many of the details of this atrocity is continually surprising. She brings the skills and concentration of a forensic investigator to her work.

Especially interesting is Lower’s treatment of the role of photographs in this kind of investigation. She is very clear that photography is purposive and intentional. It is not generally a “flat representation of what occurred”; instead, the photographer has a story he or she in interested in discovering and telling. So photography is creative and “subjective”. And this proves to be true of the photographer of this particular image, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina, who had a narrative he was recording through a series of exposures. But at the same time, photographs prove to be a source of remarkable insight into the human realities of the moment captured in the negative — details that were invisible to the photographer. And Škrovina himself turns out to be different from how he first appears. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement, and was interested in recording the atrocities he witnesses under German occupation for the outside world. Lower writes of Škrovina as a moral human being and his subsequent actions during and after the war:

But being there certainly shaped his subsequent choices and the risks he undertook, which affected him and his family. He refused to stay on the front, feigned illness, spent months in a nerve clinic, then resumed contact with Jews in his town, including sheltering some in the attic of his family home. He helped Dr. Gotthilf secure a place in the forest with his comrades in the Slovak National Resistance, although Škrovina ultimately could not save him or his wife and child. Škrovina was antifascist and anti-Soviet. He had felt no pride wearing any government-issued uniform. He hated the war. (91)

Several specific and important insights emerge from Lower’s narrative. First is the importance of doing what we can to recognize and remember the individuals and families who were extinguished there. Lower’s point about the killing of families is especially poignant: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, and daughters, all destroyed. Second is the important reminder that Nazi violence was carried out by its allies in occupied countries — Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine — and that these armed groups and police units were merciless and remorseless towards their Jewish neighbors. What Lower uncovers at Miropol is a microcosm of Babi Yar.

Theodor Adorno once said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But here is a good reason not to agree with Adorno. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko helps us to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wendy Lower’s book is not poetry, but it is just as eloquent in its evocation of the human realities of this tragic moment in Miropol, and in the great expanse of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.


Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
        Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
                a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
The Philistine
                    is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
                    Beset on every side.
            spat on,

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
                        a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
                            ‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
                        I know
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
                                        without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
                    Anne Frank
                   as a branch in April.
And I love.
                  And have no need of phrases.
My need
                  is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
                               or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
                               we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
                                Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
                                spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
                                Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
                                No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
                        like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
                            and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
                            turning grey.
And I myself
                    am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
                each old man
                        here shot dead.
I am
                every child
                    here shot dead.
Nothing in me
                    shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
                        I am a true Russian!

%d bloggers like this: