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The Worst of the Madness

Mike King

He also wants to show that this interaction had consequences for the inhabitants of the region. From a great distance in time and space, we in the West have the luxury of discussing the two systems in isolation, comparing and contrasting, judging and analyzing, engaging in theoretical arguments about which was worse. But people who lived under both of them, in Poland or in Ukraine, experienced them as part of a single historical moment. Snyder explains:

The Nazi and Soviet regimes were sometimes allies, as in the joint occupation of Poland [from 1939–1941]. They sometimes held compatible goals as foes: as when Stalin chose not to aid the rebels in Warsaw in 1944 [during the Warsaw uprising], thereby allowing the Germans to kill people who would later have resisted communist rule…. Often the Germans and the Soviets goaded each other into escalations that cost more lives than the policies of either state by itself would have.

In some cases, the atrocities carried out by one power eased the way for the other. When the Nazis marched into western Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in 1941, they entered a region from which the Soviet secret police had deported hundreds of thousands of people in the previous few months, and shot thousands of prisoners in the previous few days. The conquering Germans were thus welcomed by some as “liberators” who might save the population from a genuinely murderous regime. They were also able to mobilize popular anger at these recent atrocities, and in some places to direct some of that anger at local Jews who had, in the public imagination—and sometimes in reality—collaborated with the Soviet Union. It is no accident that the acceleration of the Holocaust occurred at precisely this moment.

To look at the history of mid-twentieth-century Europe in this way also has consequences for Westerners. Among other things, Snyder asks his readers to think again about the most famous films and photographs taken at Belsen and Buchenwald by the British and American soldiers who liberated those camps. These pictures, which show starving, emaciated people, walking skeletons in striped uniforms, stacks of corpses piled up like wood, have become the most enduring images of the Holocaust. Yet the people in these photographs were mostly not Jews: they were forced laborers who had been kept alive because the German war machine needed them to produce weapons and uniforms. Only when the German state began to collapse in early 1945 did they begin to starve to death in large numbers.

The vast majority of Hitler’s victims, Jewish and otherwise, never saw a concentration camp. Although about a million people died because they were sent to do forced labor in German concentration camps, some ten million died in killing fields in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia—that means they were taken to the woods, sometimes with the assistance of their neighbors, and shot—as well as in German starvation zones and German gas chambers. These gas chambers were not “camps,” Snyder argues, though they were sometimes adjacent to camps, as at Auschwitz:

Under German rule, the concentration camps and the death factories operated under different principles. A sentence to the concentration camp Belsen was one thing, a transport to the death factory Bełz·ec something else. The first meant hunger and labor, but also the likelihood of survival; the second meant immediate and certain death by asphyxiation. This, ironically, is why people remember Belsen and forget Bełz·ec.

He makes a similar point about Stalin’s victims, arguing that although a million died in the Soviet Gulag between 1933 and 1945, an additional six million died from politically induced Soviet famines and in Soviet killing fields. I happen to think Snyder’s numbers are a little low—the figure for Gulag deaths is certainly higher than a million—but the proportions are probably correct. In the period between 1930 and 1953, the number of people who died in labor camps—from hunger, overwork, and cold, while living in wooden barracks behind barbed wire—is far lower than the number who died violently from machine-gun fire combined with the number who starved to death because their village was deprived of food.

The image we have of the prisoner in wooden shoes, dragging himself to work every morning, losing his humanity day by day—the image also created in the brilliant writings of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn—is in this sense somewhat misleading. In fact, prisoners who could work had at least a chance of staying alive. Prisoners who were too weak to work, or for whom work could not be organized because of war and chaos, were far more likely to die. The 5.4 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust mostly died instantly, in gas chambers or mobile vans or in silent forests. We have no photographs of them, or of their corpses.

The chronological and geographical arguments presented in Bloodlands also complicate the debate over the proper use of the word “genocide.” As not everybody now remembers, this word (from the Greek genos, tribe, and the French -cide) was coined in 1943 by a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, Raphael Lemkin, who had long been trying to draw the attention of the international community to what he at first called “the crime of barbarity.” In 1933, inspired by news of the Armenian massacre, he had proposed that the League of Nations treat mass murder committed “out of hatred towards a racial, religious or social collectivity” as an international crime. After he fled Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940, Lemkin intensified his efforts. He persuaded the Nuremburg prosecutors to use the word “genocide” during the trials, though not in the verdict. He also got the new United Nations to draft a Convention on Genocide. Finally, after much debate, the General Assembly passed this convention in 1948.

As the Stanford historian Norman Naimark explains in Stalin’s Genocides, the UN’s definition of genocide was deliberately narrow: “Acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This was because Soviet diplomats had demanded the exclusion of any reference to social, economic, and political groups. Had they left these categories in, prosecution of the USSR for the murder of aristocrats (a social group), kulaks (an economic group), or Trotskyites (a political group) would have been possible.

Although Lemkin himself continued to advocate a broader definition of the term, the idea that the word “genocide” can refer only to the mass murder of an ethnic group has stuck. In fact, until recently the term was used almost exclusively to refer to the Holocaust, the one “genocide” that is recognized as such by almost everybody: the international community, the former Allies, even the former perpetrators.

Perhaps because of that unusually universal recognition, the word has more recently acquired almost magical qualities. Nations nowadays campaign for their historical tragedies to be recognized as “genocide,” and the term has become a political weapon both between and within countries. The disagreement between Armenians and Turks over whether the massacre of Armenians after World War I was “genocide” has been the subject of a resolution introduced in the US Congress. The leaders of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine campaigned to have the Ukrainian famine recognized as “genocide” in international courts (and in January 2010, a court in Kiev did convict Stalin and other high officials of “genocide” against the Ukrainian nation). But the campaign was deliberately dropped when their more pro-Russian (or post-Soviet) opponents came to power. They have since deleted a link to the genocide campaign from the presidential website.

As the story of Lemkin’s genocide campaign well illustrates, this discussion of the proper use of the word has also been dogged by politics from the beginning. The reluctance of intellectuals on the left to condemn communism; the fact that Stalin was allied with Roosevelt and Churchill; the existence of German historians who tried to downplay the significance of the Holocaust by comparing it to Soviet crimes; all of that meant that, until recently, it was politically incorrect in the West to admit that we defeated one genocidal dictator with the help of another. Only now, with the publication of so much material from Soviet and Central European archives, has the extent of the Soviet Union’s mass murders become better known in the West. In recent years, some in the former Soviet sphere of influence—most notably in the Baltic states and Ukraine—have begun to use the word “genocide” in legal documents to describe the Soviet Union’s mass killings too.

Naimark’s short book is a polemical contribution to this debate. Though he acknowledges the dubious political history of the UN convention, he goes on to argue that even under the current definition, Stalin’s attack on the kulaks and on the Ukrainian peasants should count as genocide. So should Stalin’s targeted campaigns against particular ethnic groups. At different times the Soviet secret police hunted down, arrested, and murdered ethnic Poles, Germans, and Koreans who happened to be living in the USSR, and of course they murdered 20,000 Polish officers within a few weeks. A number of small nations, notably the Chechens, were also arrested and deported en masse during the war: men, women, children, and grandparents were put on trains, and sent to live in Central Asia, where they were meant to die and eventually disappear as a nation. A similar fate met the Crimean Tatars.

Like Snyder’s, Naimark’s work has also ranged widely, from his groundbreaking book on the Soviet occupation of East Germany to studies of ethnic cleansing. As a result his argument is authoritative, clear, and hard to dispute. Yet if we take the perspective offered in Bloodlands seriously, we also have to ask whether the whole genocide debate itself—and in particular the long-standing argument over whether Stalin’s murders “qualify”—is not a red herring. If Stalin’s and Hitler’s mass murders were different but not separate, and if neither would have happened in quite the same way without the other, then how can we talk about whether one is genocide and the other is not?

To the people who actually experienced both tyrannies, such definitions hardly mattered. Did the Polish merchant care whether he died because he was a Jew or because he was a capitalist? Did the starving Ukrainian child care whether she had been deprived of food in order to create a Communist paradise or in order to provide calories for the soldiers of the German Reich? Perhaps we need a new word, one that is broader than the current definition of genocide and means, simply, “mass murder carried out for political reasons.” Or perhaps we should simply agree that the word “genocide” includes within its definition the notions of deliberate starvation as well as gas chambers and concentration camps, that it includes the mass murder of social groups as well as ethnic groups and be done with it.

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