• Email
  • Print

Nazis, Soviets, Poles, Jews’: An Exchange

In response to:

Nazis, Soviets, Poles, Jews from the December 3, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

Timothy Snyder’s review of my book The Third Reich at War [NYR, December 3, 2009] contains serious misrepresentations, which I write to correct.

Snyder alleges that I wrote that Poland had “no educated classes” because these “were eliminated by the Germans.” I make it clear on page 35 that Polish intellectuals managed to carry on educational and cultural activities in Poland in secret, despite the Germans’ attempts to suppress Polish culture.

Snyder objects to my description of the Home Army as “nationalist.” I call the Home Army and similar resistance movements elsewhere “nationalist” because their first priority was the reestablishment of a sovereign nation-state, in contrast to the rather different aims of rival Communist and Jewish resistance groups; the distinction is clearly explained on pages 398–399.

I do not, as Snyder claims, ignore the Poles who fought with Allied forces in the West. On page 7, I state clearly that “150,000 Polish troops and airmen escaped abroad, especially to Britain, where many of them joined the armed forces.”

Snyder’s statement that my book “claims that the Polish government in exile never ‘took a clear stance’ against the murder of Polish Jews” is false. I did not use the word “never”; rather, the statement quoted by Snyder, from page 64 of the book, refers clearly to the period up to the middle of 1941.

Similarly, my statement that the Polish government in exile did not take any concrete action against the murder of the Jews refers to September 1942, not to later on, as is clear from the context. Snyder complains that I do not mention the fact that thousands of Jews survived in Poland thanks to the help proffered by non-Jewish Poles. I describe such help, with examples, on pages 64, 311, and 691, and provide figures of the numbers of Jews who survived concealed by Poles.

Snyder criticizes me for saying that the Polish nationalist resistance refused calls for help from the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. In fact, I recount how the Home Army offered to smuggle the fighters out of Warsaw. Saying that it provided “a few guns” does not alter the fact that it did not mount the major military effort to support the uprising that the fighters requested.

Snyder claims that my book “blames the Home Army for the destruction of the Polish capital” after the Germans crushed the 1944 uprising. But I make it clear that the uprising failed because of Stalin, whose call to rise up against the Germans the Home Army followed in the expectation that the Red Army would quickly move in, and who then deliberately held back his troops until the uprising was put down and the politically inconvenient Home Army units in the city had been wiped out.

After the Warsaw Uprising was defeated, Snyder says my book “fails to mention Himmler’s orders to raze the city and kill every man, woman, and child within it.” On page 622 I clearly state: “Himmler had ordered the whole city and its population to be destroyed.”

Snyder criticizes me for calling the Soviet Union “Russia” and its citizens “Russians,” and neglecting to mention that the war in the Soviet Union was mostly fought in Belarus and Ukraine. This conflation, he says, absurdly, distorts the history of the Holocaust and contributes to the mystification of the war currently peddled by the Putin/Medvedev regime in Moscow.

In my narrative of the war, I make it absolutely clear at every stage when it was fought in Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, or another part of Eastern Europe. I do not refer to these countries as “Russia” or their inhabitants as “Russians.”

However, during the war, and long before, the Soviet Union was universally referred to in Central and Western Europe as “Russia.” For German troops at every level, the Red Army and its troops were der Russe, “the Russian.” Almost all the contemporary sources I quote or summarize, from Hitler downward, use “Russian” for “Soviet.” When it is not quoting or summarizing such sources, the book consistently uses the terms “Soviets,” “Soviet Union,” and “Red Army,” all of which are fully indexed, and not “Russia,” which is not.

Snyder criticizes me for mentioning only briefly the deliberate starvation of three million Soviet prisoners of war. In fact I describe this in detail and at length on pages 182–186.

Contrary to Snyder’s claim, my book does attempt (e.g., page 223) to explain the origins of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, while making it clear (e.g., pages 218–219) that the German SS complained that it was almost impossible to whip up anti-Semitism in the populations of the region, from Latvia to the Ukraine, to the point where it spilled over into murder. To claim that I simply stigmatize all Eastern Europeans as virulently anti-Semitic is a travesty.

Snyder criticizes me for saying that Jews were the largest single national group in the Soviet secret police whereas it was in fact Russians. In fact, the one statistical investigation available to me showed that there were more Jews by nationality than Russians in the leading cadres of the NKVD, though the crucial point, as I note in the book, is that in joining the Soviet secret police and the Bolshevik Party they had self-consciously abandoned any Jewish identity they might once have had.

I am surprised that The New York Review should carry a review such as this without checking its facts first.

Richard J. Evans
Faculty of History
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England

Timothy Snyder replies:

Richard Evans’s impressive trilogy on Hitler’s Germany includes ill-informed discussions of non-German peoples. This becomes a major problem only in this final volume, when most of the Europeans under Nazi domination were not Germans. Disconcertingly, Professor Evans reserves his categorical judgments for complex and painful matters that are beyond his areas of expertise. I identified four areas of concern: the reduction of Polish resistance to nationalism, the denial of Polish assistance to Jews, the conflation of Russia with the Soviet Union, and the overstatement of Jewish participation in the Soviet state police, the NKVD.

First, an apology: I indeed overlooked the reference to Himmler’s order to kill the civilian population during the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. Yet when Evans writes that the Polish fighters “paid little attention” to the ghetto uprising of the previous year and “learned nothing from its fate,” I infer that he places responsibility for the city’s destruction upon Poles. Second, a matter of judgment: Evans believes that four pages are adequate to deal with the German killing of three million Soviet prisoners of war; I found that “brief.”

Elsewhere, Evans muddies the waters by responding to charges I did not make, and by presenting instances in which he agrees with me as correcting my alleged errors. On the main issues, as Evans’s letter tends to confirm, the evidence of his book tells against his arguments. Where Evans does respond to my criticisms, he does so by altering those arguments.

In his book, Evans writes: “Neither the Polish nationalist underground ‘Home Army’ nor the Polish government in exile in London nor, finally, the Polish Catholic Church took a clear stance against the Germans’ murderous policies towards Polish Jews; if anything, the opposite was the case….” Though one might wish that Polish institutions had done more, this claim is false. Evans backpedals, stating that he meant the period up to mid-1941. Evans could not have meant this, since the German mass murder of Jews in occupied Poland began in December 1941.

Evans writes: “On 17 September 1942 the Polish government in exile approved a public protest against the crimes that the Germans were committing against the Jews, but it undertook no concrete action….” Evans again backpedals, now claiming to have meant only the month of September 1942. This is a strange reading, which, even if it were possible, is erroneous. Then and earlier the Polish government was publicizing the mass murder of Jews and urging its allies to take retributive action. Evans ignores entirely the department of the Polish government charged with rescuing Jews.

Regarding the Jewish Combat Organization in Warsaw, Evans writes that “the Polish nationalist resistance rejected their call for help and offered instead to smuggle the Jewish fighters out to safety.” The second part of the statement is true; the first is false. Soon after the Jewish Combat Organization was established, the Home Army supplied it with pistols. These were used in January 1943 by Jews resisting a German deportation. Then the Home Army supplied the Jews with a substantial proportion of its own modest arms cache. These guns, ammunition, and explosives were used by the Jews during the ghetto uprising of that April and May.

Both Jews and Poles understood that the Home Army could not have mounted a “major military effort” in spring 1943. When Poles died trying to breach the ghetto walls, that was only the second open armed operation overall that the Home Army had undertaken in Warsaw. The point is not that the Home Army was always heroic and fair in its treatment of Jews. It most certainly was not. The point is that it is important to give an accurate account.

Terms matter. Nothing on pages 398–399 justifies the designation of the Home Army as “nationalist,” which is misleading for the reasons I gave. Evans’s reductive distinction between “nationalist” and “Communist” resistance to Nazi rule is unconvincing and selectively employed.

Evans’s justification of his use of “Russian” to mean “Soviet” is interesting. Hitler indeed defined the military enemy as “the Russian,” as did others. Yet the reader has no reason to suppose that Evans is citing Hitler (or anyone else) when he refers to Stalin as a “Russian dictator,” the Soviet Union as “Russia,” or the Red Army as “the Russians.” In such passages, Evans is writing in his own voice. Evans’s letter leaves us with two alternatives: either he has seamlessly integrated wartime usages into his own prose, or he is claiming to have done so in order to score a point. Neither alternative is laudable. More important, though, than the apologetics are the consequences. When historians conflate Russia and the Soviet Union, they distort the Communist system, blur the geography of German atrocities, and leave readers vulnerable to memory politics.

Evans stands by his assertion that the Jews were the largest national group among the leading cadres of the Soviet NKVD during World War II. He is confusing an earlier period with a later one. Soviet Jews (whose self-understanding, by the way, cannot be reduced to politically correct pieties) played a prominent role in the NKVD until the Great Terror of 1937–1938, when many were purged from its ranks. In 1939, when Evans’s account begins, Russians were 67 percent of the ranking officers, Ukrainians 12 percent, and Jews 4 percent. Because Hitler defined the political enemy as “the Jew,” the issue is sensitive.

I would urge that Professor Evans revisit these questions in the German and Russian translations of his powerful book.

  • Email
  • Print