Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Light posting here at the moment as I am doing some other work, apologies. However, this piece from Eurozine by Timothy Snyder caught my eye. His argument is that by concentrating on those symbolic centres of mass murder, Auschwitz and the Gulag, we distort our historical understanding of the central horrors of the Twentieth Century.
The emphasis on Auschwitz and the Gulag understates the numbers of Europeans killed, and shifts the geographical focus of the killing to the German Reich and the Russian East. Like Auschwitz, which draws our attention to the western European victims of the Nazi empire, the Gulag, with its notorious Siberian camps, also distracts us from the geographical centre of Soviet killing policies. If we concentrate on Auschwitz and the Gulag, we fail to notice that over a period of twelve years, between 1933 and 1944, some 12 million victims of Nazi and Soviet mass killing policies perished in a particular region of Europe, one defined more or less by today's Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia ...

The geographic, moral, and political centre of the Europe of mass killing is the Europe of the East, above all Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, lands that were subject to sustained policies of atrocity by both regimes. The peoples of Ukraine and Belarus, Jews above all but not only, suffered the most, since these lands were both part of the Soviet Union during the terrible 1930s and subject to the worst of the German repressions in the 1940s.
Given the politicisation of history, this matters (see also this earlier post of mine). Snyder comments:
Exaggerated Russian claims about numbers of deaths treat Belarus and Ukraine as Russia, and Jews, Belarusians and Ukrainians as Russians: this amounts to an imperialism of martyrdom, implicitly claiming territory by explicitly claiming victims.
But what strikes me most of all is the numbers, the sheer scale of the savagery. "Some 1.5 million Jews were killed at (Treblinka, Bełzec, and Sobibor), about 780,863 at Treblinka alone". "In the guise of anti-partisan actions, the Germans killed perhaps three quarters of a million people, about 350,000 in Belarus alone". "It is established beyond reasonable doubt that Stalin intentionally starved to death Soviet Ukrainians in the winter of 1932-1933 ... By the end, more than three million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine had died". "In an operation aimed at ethnic Poles who were Soviet citizens, for example, 111,091 people were shot. Of the 681,692 executions carried out for alleged political crimes in 1937 and 1938, the kulak operation and the national operations accounted for 633,955."

And this is as nothing compared to the intentions,
Had things gone the way that Hitler, Himmler, and Göring expected, German forces would have implemented a Hunger Plan in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1941-1942. As Ukrainian and south Russian agricultural products were diverted to Germany, some 30 million people in Belarus, northern Russia, and Soviet cities were to be starved to death. The Hunger Plan was only a prelude to Generalplan Ost, the colonization plan for the western Soviet Union, which foresaw the elimination of some 50 million people.
These figures are seemingly incredible, beyond comprehension, yet Snyder also argues that there was a twisted rationality behind all these deaths, a perceived and sufficiently plausible economic motive for mass murder to enable such plans to be carried out. And so the article is also a warning:
If there is a general political lesson of the history of mass killing, it is the need to be wary of what might be called privileged development: attempts by states to realize a form of economic expansion that designates victims, that motivates prosperity by mortality. The possibility cannot be excluded that the murder of one group can benefit another, or at least can be seen to do so. That is a version of politics that Europe has in fact witnessed and may witness again. The only sufficient answer is an ethical commitment to the individual, such that the individual counts in life rather than in death, and schemes of this sort become unthinkable.
An ethical commitment. It seems almost an impossibility against this backdrop. Yet even in the bleakest times, people cling to hope and resist in whatever way they can. The efforts of ordinary people to work, both together and as individuals, to preserve such an ethic in the face of organised mass murder and violent suppression is the other side of the historical coin. So this example - Unsung Heroes - from Afghanistan (via Terry Glavin) made especially heartening reading, a clear example of the type of independent, popular action celebrated by the late Colin Ward, without which we could never even dream of saying, 'never again'.

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