Panel 3: Bloodlands

Timothy Snyder:

“Bloodlands” exists only because of the sources – because of people who died not long after saying or writing what they did. One of the striking things about this book is that we have sources like that, that we can recreate these individuals and made them into living being. This for me is purpose of memory. 14 million is a number but thanks to the existence of these sources I could try and convey that this was a crime not because of the numbers but because they concerned individual beings.

Every country has its own national conception of history, its national academy of science. There is this idea that we can understand ourselves – it is similar to the biographical fallacy: in fact you can only understand your own life through the eyes of others.  And similarly, you can’t possibly understand Slovakia, Latvia, without looking around.   It doesn’t matter what country you’re in but how you conceive of history, and if you think that history is closed you won’t like this book.

Until now the Holocaust was understood in a minimal way, as negative paradigm of modernity, yet this version is radically understated – it is based on experience from the Netherlands or Germany and it overlooks the experience of the USSR where there were many more Jews and many more killed. History has to be written very differently and it has to embrace this fact.

The idea of modernity assumes that what is happening happens within one society. But the murders happened on the margins, on the periphery, not in the centre. Not Moscow, Berlin but on their peripheries, where the two regimes meet and interact.  I disagree with the Arendt/Bauman paradigm, which steers us in the wrong direction, takes us in terms of metaphors like that of a killing factory. But essentially Holocaust involves individuals killing other individuals at close proximity, half of it by shooting. The gassing also was mostly very primitive and there was nothing modern about it. And human beings had to be very close to other human beings. The idea of modernity helps us to distance ourselves from the way it actually happened.

“The Slovak experience is not weird, it’s quite typical. What you say about each family having a Nazi and a communist, is reminiscent of the Middle Ages when each family had a priest and soldier, to be prepared for everything. If you take ideology seriously, you’ll think that all those involved in communist or Nazi parties were believers. But it turns out that, for example, the Poles who killed Jews during the war were much more likely to join the communist party after the war. Not because they were evil but because it is important to cover your tracks. As Jan Gross has said, once you collaborate with one regime, you are more likely to collaborate with next. Double collaboration was a mass phenomenon. Invaders didn’t kill all the soldiers and local administration, they just recruited those who served the previous regime.

Slovakia is not part of the Bloodlands, which I define as those places where Nazi power was actually present, so I don’t include Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, the French Vichy regime, only countries where the Nazis destroyed a regime and put up their own. However, these countries are part of a kindred phenomenon. The states that collaborated with the Nazis (Slovakia, Romania, Craotia, Hungary, France, Italy) had different faces after the war. The West European ones, France and Italy had the good luck of joining Western Europe, which meant they could forget about their past. Nowadays the debates about the French memory or the Italian and Slovak memory, are becoming very similar.

“It is easy for an American to look at a Pole and say, how could you let Holocaust happen? But in fact, there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the US as well. Our own view competes with the Russian as being the least reflective, least critical.  The Nazi propaganda claimed that this was a Jewish war and this propaganda was very  successful in UK and in the US. We have now convinced ourselves that we fought World War II to save the Jews but in fact US president had to contend with anti-Semitism and had to pretend that the war had nothing to do with the Jews.  It is a matter of recognizing what your own moral position was at the time.

A flaw of Zygmunt Bauman’s definition of the Holocaust as something that derives from modernity because of its industrial scale. But scale actually doesn’t make a difference: nobody killed a million people, the maximum that a single person killed was 1,000.  I don’t think the term industrial term reveals anything. There was nothing industrial about the Holocaust as an operation. Compared with the sophisticated level of industry in the 20th century, moving a few mill people around and killing them quite simple, much simple than high level chemistry factories or arms manufacturing. Thinking about it as a factory humanizes us and dehumanizes the perpetrators.

Martin M. Šimečka.

Foto: Peter Župník