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The Worst of the Madness

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Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Refugees at a transit camp, Dessau, Germany, April 1945

Finally, the arguments of Bloodlands also complicate the modern notion of memory—memory, that is, as opposed to history. It is true, for example, that the modern German state “remembers” the Holocaust—in official documents, in public debates, in monuments, in school textbooks—and is often rightly lauded for doing so. But how comprehensive is this memory? How many Germans “remember” the deaths of three million Soviet POWs? How many know or care that the secret treaty signed between Hitler and Stalin not only condemned the inhabitants of western Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in slave labor camps, but also condemned the inhabitants of eastern Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in Soviet exile? The Katyn massacre really is, in this sense, partially Germany’s responsibility: without Germany’s collusion with the Soviet Union, it would not have happened. Yet modern Germany’s very real sense of guilt about the Holocaust does not often extend to Soviet soldiers or even to Poles.

If we remember the twentieth century for what it actually was, and not for what we imagine it to have been, the misuse of history for national political purposes also becomes more difficult. The modern Russian state often talks about the “twenty million Soviet dead” during World War II as a way of emphasizing its victimhood and martyrdom. But even if we accept that suspiciously large round number, it is still important to acknowledge that the majority of those were not Russians, did not live in modern Russia, and did not necessarily die because of German aggression. It is also important to acknowledge that Soviet citizens were just as likely to die during the war years because of decisions made by Stalin, or because of the interaction between Stalin and Hitler, as they were from the commands of Hitler alone.

For different reasons, the American popular memory of World War II is also due for some revision. In the past, we have sometimes described this as the “good war,” at least when contrasted to the morally ambiguous wars that followed. At some level this is understandable: we did fight for human rights in Germany and Japan, we did leave democratic German and Japanese regimes in our wake, and we should be proud of having done so. But it is also true that while we were fighting for democracy and human rights in the lands of Western Europe, we ignored and then forgot what happened further east.

As a result, we liberated one half of Europe at the cost of enslaving the other half for fifty years. We really did win the war against one genocidal dictator with the help of another. There was a happy end for us, but not for everybody. This does not make us bad—there were limitations, reasons, legitimate explanations for what happened. But it does make us less exceptional. And it does make World War II less exceptional, more morally ambiguous, and thus more similar to the wars that followed.

If nothing else, a reassessment of what we know about Europe in the years between 1933 and 1953 could finally cure us of that “lack of imagination” that so appalled Czesław Miłosz almost sixty years ago. When considered in isolation, Auschwitz can be easily compartmentalized, characterized as belonging to a specific place and time, or explained away as the result of Germany’s unique history or particular culture. But if Auschwitz was not the only mass atrocity, if mass murder was simultaneously taking place across a multinational landscape and with the support of many different kinds of people, then it is not so easy to compartmentalize or explain away. The more we learn about the twentieth century, the harder it will be to draw easy lessons or make simple judgments about the people who lived through it—and the easier it will be to empathize with and understand them.

Letters

The Worst of the Madness’ December 23, 2010

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