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Nazis, Soviets, Poles, Jews

The Home Army had already supplied arms to the Jewish Military Union, which was right-wing Zionist in political orientation and founded by Polish army veterans. The Warsaw district of the Home Army also gave a few guns to the Jewish Combat Organization. Following a prearranged plan, some Home Army soldiers tried to breach the walls of the ghetto during the uprising. According to German reports, Poles fought inside the ghetto alongside the Jews. The head of the Polish government in exile called upon Poles “to give help and shelter to those who are being murdered, and at the same time, before humanity, which has for too long been silent, I condemn these crimes.”4 Though Evans believes that the Home Army paid “little attention” to the courageous Jewish resistance, its press releases provided a chronicle of what it called the “Jewish-German war.”5

A little more than a year after the Germans defeated the Jewish fighters, the Home Army tried to liberate Warsaw. Evans blames the Home Army for the destruction of the Polish capital that resulted. Whatever a historian’s personal judgment about the wisdom of such a decision, his job is to clarify the perspective of the people who had to make it. For Evans, the Home Army was “a nationalist organization opposed to the communists.” It was hardly as simple as that. Warsaw for almost five years had been under murderous German occupation, whose pressures were unimaginable in London or Paris. In 1944, the Germans were taking suspect Poles by the thousands, shooting them on the site of the former ghetto, and burning their bodies on pyres. People fled underground, and wanted to act. Meanwhile, the Red Army was coming from the east. Poland had been invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, and now both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were on Polish territory again.

In late July 1944, Home Army commanders took a horrible risk. They would try to liberate their capital in the interval between the German retreat and the arrival of the Soviets. In fact, the German lines held, and the Soviets did not advance. The Home Army was then defeated in two months of bitter fighting, during which the Poles observed the laws of war, the Germans did not, and Stalin prevented the Allies from helping the Poles. During the battle, the Home Army liberated Konzentrationslager Warschau, a camp for foreign Jews. Polish “nationalists” volunteered for this mission.6

Heinrich Himmler had long dreamed of removing Warsaw from the face of the earth, and the uprising gave him the occasion. Evans fails to mention Himmler’s orders to raze the city and kill every man, woman, and child within it. The order to kill, carried out by the Dirlewanger Brigade and other German SS and police units, caused many of the civilian casualties: some 40,000 civilians were shot in two days in the Wola neighborhood. Evans claims that the German commander in Warsaw, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, was responsible for the killing there. Bach was one of the worst German war criminals and, as commander, bears responsibility for the atrocities. Nevertheless, his role in Warsaw in August 1944 was different from what Evans suggests. Bach personally countermanded Himmler’s killing order. Evans writes that Wilm Hosenfeld, one of his good Germans, tried nobly but in vain to grant the defeated Home Army soldiers enemy combatant status. But the captured Poles were in fact treated as prisoners of war by Bach. After the uprising was suppressed, the Germans burned down Warsaw, building by building. They torched one last library the day before the Soviets finally arrived.

Or, as Evans would have it, “the Russians.” Evans insists on calling the Soviet Union “Russia” and its citizens “Russians.” Stalin, the Georgian leader of the Soviet Union, becomes a “Russian dictator,” and all Soviet institutions are “Russian.” The Soviet Union was not a nation-state, and certainly not one comprised of the Russian people. Russians were slightly more than half of the Soviet population. The institutions that held power were multinational, as was the Red Army. (The only expressly “Russian” military units were fighting on the German side. The Russian National Liberation Army, for example, raped and murdered thousands of Poles during the Warsaw Uprising.) With important exceptions such as Stalingrad and Leningrad, the war in the Soviet Union was fought not in its Russian republic but in Soviet Belarus and Ukraine. On the one matter about which Evans ought to have written about Russians, he does not. He claims that the Jews were “the largest single national group” in the Soviet secret police. In the period Evans discusses, Russians fit this description, not Jews.

The conflation of Russia with the Soviet Union distorts the history of the Holocaust. As Yitzhak Arad shows, nearly half of the 5.7 million murdered Jews died in the occupied Soviet Union, but only one percent of that total perished in its Russian republic. Nevertheless, as Arad writes, postwar Soviet propaganda submerged the question of Jewish suffering within a narrative of Soviet losses, and put emphasis on the Russians as the Soviet people who bore the brunt. In early 1953, the Soviet leadership was circulating a petition among prominent Soviet Jews, who were to apologize to Russians for claiming that Jews had suffered, and thank Russians for saving them.7

In fact, the USSR had no policy to save Jews, and Jewish soldiers were more likely than Russians to have been decorated for valor. The Stalinist version of Russian nationalism has lived a long life; a kindred ideology animates Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s historical commission to prevent “falsifications of Russian history.” By presenting the eastern front as a confrontation between Germany and “Russia,” Evans contributes to a mystification.

Yitzhak Arad’s account begins with the violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the German invasion of the Soviet Union of June 1941, and the murder of Jews by special task forces known as Einsatzgruppen. It was in the Soviet Union that summer that Himmler urged his SS and police subordinates to murder women and children and then to exterminate entire Jewish communities. Arad is precise about the German institutions responsible: the Einsatzgruppen, the Security Police, the Order Police, and the Wehrmacht, with increasing assistance from subordinate local police forces—Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, ethnic Germans, Belarusians, Russians, Crimean Tatars, and others.

By choosing to begin his account in 1941, Arad exemplifies a shift in emphasis among historians of the Holocaust: from the year 1933, when Hitler came to power, to the year 1941, when Hitler conveyed his decision to exterminate the Jews. The annexation of Austria in 1938 had brought pogroms, and the invasion of Poland in 1939 had brought ghettos; but only Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union meant mass murder of Jews. The killings in the Soviet Union showed what could be done. The use of gas chambers in 1942 allowed the Germans to kill the Jews of Poland with less personal contact. But the first million Jews died in 1941, in the occupied Soviet Union, by gunfire, over ditches. Another million and a half would be shot in 1942 and 1943.8

Though Arad’s book concerns the Soviet Union, most of the people he discusses were not really Soviet Jews. About 1.6 million of the 2.6 million Jews murdered there did not live in the Soviet Union when the war began. These were Jews who had found themselves under Soviet rule quite recently, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. When the Germans arrived in June 1941, Polish Jews had been under Soviet rule for only twenty-one months, Lithuanian and Romanian Jews for scarcely twelve. These people, overrun by the Germans in ten days, died in horribly high proportions. Ironically, the largest group of survivors were Jewish refugees from western Poland who had been deported by the Soviets to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1940 for refusing to exchange Polish for Soviet passports. Though perhaps a third of these 70,000 or so people died on the wretched Kazakh steppe, their chances for survival were far better there than under German occupation.

Bringing together German and Soviet archival sources with Jewish testimonies, Arad provides the full scholarly contours of what we are learning to call “the Holocaust by bullets.” The author of a pioneering study of Operation Reinhard, the gassing of the Jews of Poland, Arad has now chronicled the two major parts of the Holocaust.9 His work discredits two familiar postwar accounts: the Stalinist idea of the war as a Russian triumph and the Western image of the war as epitomized by Auschwitz. These powerful stories, each with its important kernel of truth, tend to obscure the mass killings of Jews in Poland, Soviet Ukraine, and Soviet Belarus. Rather awkwardly, however, Arad imposes another traditional perspective, the Zionist view. He tells the reader, incorrectly, that the “majority of the region’s Jews supported the Zionist movement” before the war. There was no Zionist movement in the Soviet Union. In pre-war Poland, the parties with the most Jewish support presumed that the proper site for Jewish society and politics was “here” ( doikayt in Yiddish), rather than “there” in Palestine.

Zionist interpretations of the Holocaust tend to understate the involvement of Jews in the German occupation apparatus and celebrate Jewish resistance. Arad is too sober a historian to romanticize the episodes of rebellion that he discusses, but he does take a rather surprising view of the Jewish police. In the occupied Soviet Union, as in occupied Poland, the Germans established Jewish councils and Jewish police forces. Arad first mentions the Jewish police in Minsk, where they aided rebellion. Only at the end of the book is the reader told that the Jewish police had been taking part in the roundups of fellow Jews all along.

What would have happened if Poland, rather than the Soviet Union, had accepted Joachim von Ribbentrop’s proposals in 1939? Would the Soviet Union have withstood an invasion of Germany allied with Poland and, perhaps, Romania and Hungary as well? That Germany and Poland did not make an alliance, and that Germany and the Soviet Union did, is perhaps the single crucial fact about the war. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact determined not only the course of the war, but the history of a considerable part of Europe. It defined a band of territory, running north to south from the Baltic to the Black Sea, that was invaded three times: first by the Soviets, then by the Germans, then again by the Soviets.

It was here, in Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe, that the Soviets concentrated the coercive might of the NKVD during that first occupation, deporting hundreds of thousands of people and shooting tens of thousands more. It was here, as Arad shows, that more than a quarter of the Holocaust killings took place. Ukrainian partisans, trained to kill Jews by the Germans, ethnically cleansed Poles from precisely these lands. It was also here that the Soviets, after later driving out the Germans, responded to armed resistance with ethnic cleansings of their own. It was here that the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe began, as Stalin claimed from the Allies at the end of the war the lands he had been granted by Hitler at its beginning.10

When Hitler reneged on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in June 1941, the Germans entered this part of Europe on the way to a planned colonization of the Soviet Union, which would have entailed the killing of a large portion of the Soviet population. As this goal receded from view, Nazis gave priority to the elimination of the Jews. These two Nazi goals, victory over the Soviets and the destruction of the Jews, have guided our attempts to understand what happened between the Baltic and the Black seas during World War II. They supply the setting within which we discuss the Holocaust: as a moral collapse within a German national society at war, and as the shocking destruction of a Jewish national society under occupation.

Neither of these two books has much of interest to say about most of the population between the Baltic and the Black seas. Other atrocities committed in the region, such as the Germans’ deliberate starvation of three million Soviet prisoners of war, merit only brief mention. The anti-Semitism of Eastern European populations is presented by both authors without adequate historical explanation. For Arad it was “inherent”; for Evans it was “virulent.” The further study of the war and its victims will require a firmer grasp of the history of the peoples who lived alongside the Jews. In this important respect, the history of the Holocaust has yet to be written.


Nazis, Soviets, Poles, Jews’: An Exchange February 11, 2010

  1. 4

    Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (Yale University Press, 2009) p. 795.

  2. 5

    Wojna zydowsko-niemiecka, edited by Paweł Szapiro (London: Aneks, 1992).

  3. 6

    Bogusław Kopka, Konzentrationslager Warschau (Warsaw: IPN, 2007).

  4. 7

    G.V. Kostyrchenko, Gosudarstvennyi antisemitizm v SSSR ot nachala do kul’minatsii 1938–1953 (Moscow: Materyk, 2005), pp. 470–478.

  5. 8

    For a treatment of Ukraine with greater depth, see The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, edited by Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Indiana University Press, 2008).

  6. 9

    Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987).

  7. 10

    These territories are the subject of Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, 1569–1999 (Yale University Press, 2003). See also Omer Bartov, “Eastern Europe as the Site of Genocide,” Journal of Modern History, Vol. 80, No. 3 (September 2008), pp. 557–593.

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