Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Killing Ground

Perhaps the most interesting, if grimmest, historical essay I've read online this year is Timothy Snyder's "Holocaust: The Ignored Reality," which appeared in the July 16 issue of the New York Review of Books. Snyder reminds his readers of an often-overlooked aspect of the Holocaust: its victims were primarily Eastern European. About 70 percent of the Jews killed by the Nazis came from Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states; most of the rest came from Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. As Hannah Arendt once noted, national identity was supremely important for European Jews in the Nazi empire; if one was German or Polish one's chances of survival were close to zero, while French and Danish Jews had survival rates in the 75-100% range.

The Holocaust, Snyder argues, wasn't just an ethnic and religious genocide: it was also a regional crime, conducted in the chaotic and disgoverned eastern European borderland between two of the twentieth century's greatest tyrannies, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Moreover, it was only the largest and most efficient of the mass-murder operations that these two totalitarian states conducted in the region. "When one considers the total number of European civilians killed by totalitarian powers in the middle of the twentieth century," he writes "one should have in mind three groups of roughly equal* size: Jews killed by Germans, non-Jews killed by Germans, and Soviet citizens killed by the Soviet state." Referring to the second group as "civilian" is a stretch: most of its constituents were captured Red Army soldiers whom the Nazis deliberately starved to death in POW camps. The rest were Soviet civilians who died in the siege of Leningrad, or guerrillas and innocent bystanders killed in anti-partisan actions in Belarus and Yugoslavia. It's clear, though, that the Nazis fully intended to kill the Soviet citizens whom they starved to death, and that they planned to murder far more in this fashion - about 50 million Slavs, actually - as part of their Generalplan Ost for the colonization of the conquered Soviet Union.

Hunger wasn't merely used as a weapon by the Nazis; Stalinist Russia used planned famines to kill three million Ukrainians in the early 1930s, and may have deliberately starved another one million Kazakhs. In addition, the Soviet security police (NKVD) executed another 700,000 Soviet citizens during the purges of 1937-38, most of them well-to-do peasants (kulaks) or members of suspect national minorities. Most of these killings shared a feature in common with the Nazis' mass murders: the Soviet government undertook them in pursuit of economic goals, in their case the collectivization of agriculture (whereas the Nazis' economic goal was the creation of an agrarian colony in eastern Europe). "Both regimes were aiming for economic autarky in a large empire, in which both sought to control Eastern Europe...What is crucial is that the ideology that legitimated mass death was also a vision of economic development. In a world of scarcity, particularly of food supplies, both regimes integrated mass murder with economic planning." Such schemes of development through mass killing, Snyder concludes, are inevitable whenever human beings are treated as means to an end, rather than individual ends in themselves.

One needs to add a strong caveat here, which is that the Nazis' mass murder of the Jews proceeded without such an obvious economic motive. While many non-Jewish Germans benefited from the Third Reich's confiscation and redistribution of murdered Jews' property (see Goertz Aly's Hitler's Beneficiaries for details), this was an afterthought; the fundamental purpose of the Holocaust was to destroy an entire people, without regard for economic consequences. One of my professors in college characterized the Holocaust as sui generis, noting that efforts to compare it to other genocides only underscored its unique qualities. I'm not entirely convinced that's true, but it's clear to me that despite the intellectual attractions of Snyder's linkage of political economy with mass murder, his thesis is one of many that can't adequately explain the Nazis' war on European Jews.

* Very roughly. The Nazis killed six million Jews and five million non-Jewish civilians; the Soviet government killed (excluding, as Snyder does, prisoners who died in the gulags) four million Europeans and one million Kazakhs.

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