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Breaking the Myths of World War II's Bloodlands

Take a look at a fascinating piece published in the May 27th New York Times Book Review by Adam Kirsch, a senior editor at the New Republic. Kirsch asks: “Is World War II Still ‘the Good War’?” His answer is as interesting for what it does not say as for what it does.

Over the last several years, historians, philosophers and others have begun to think about the Second World War in challenging and sometimes disturbing new ways …

… the British historian Norman Davies begins from the premise that “the war effort of the Western powers” was “something of a sideshow.” America lost 143,000 soldiers in the fight against Germany, Davies points out, while the Soviet Union lost 11 million.

And if the main show was a war between Hitler and Stalin, he wonders, wasn’t World War II a clash of nearly equivalent evils? …

Davies’s deliberately provocative book had a mixed reception, in part because of the way his account of the war in Eastern Europe seemed determined to minimize the importance of the Holocaust. No such objection can be made to Timothy Snyder’s morally scrupulous book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (2010), which also spotlights Eastern Europe—in particular the region comprising the Baltics, Ukraine, Belarus, Western Russia and Poland that Snyder calls “the bloodlands,” because they were the greatest killing field of the Second World War. This was the site of the titanic battles between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army: it was also the scene of 14 million noncombatant deaths between 1933 and 1945. This figure encompasses 10 million civilians and prisoners of war killed by the Nazis—including six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust—and four million civilians and P.O.W.’s killed by the Soviets.

By grouping German and Soviet casualties together, Snyder is making an implicit point. The Soviet Union was America’s ally, Germany our enemy; but both regimes were guilty of killing millions of people for ideological reasons. Weren’t the three million Ukrainians starved by Stalin in 1932-33 deliberate victims of state aggression and ideological terror, no less than the three million Soviet P.O.W.’s starved by Hitler in 1941-42?

Consider the moral distinction Kirsch draws between Snyder and Davies. Snyder’s book is “morally scrupulous” because, in contrast to Davies’s, it does not “minimize the importance of the Holocaust” and is thus balanced. In other words, moral scrupulousness and balance go together, just as moral unscrupulousness and imbalance go together. It follows that, since a morally scrupulous, or balanced, stance must entail recognizing both the Holocaust and the Gulag as comparable (if perhaps not quite equivalent) crimes, histories that minimize the importance of the Gulag are as morally imbalanced, and “unscrupulous,” as those that minimize the importance of the Holocaust. Davies may therefore be at fault, but so, too, is several decades’ worth of Western historiography that ignored, downplayed, rationalized, or even glorified Stalinism. Indeed, inasmuch as that historiography set the norm for Western thinking about Eastern Europe for more than half a century, its “cumulative” moral unscrupulousness is incomparably greater than that of a single scholar such as Davies.

Now, it’s not as if there was no information on the Gulag, Stalinism, and the sufferings of Stalin’s victims. Eastern European émigré communities have been writing and speaking about little else since the 1930s. But no one listened to them because they were the quintessential “Other”—“clannish” refugees who spoke bad English, had unpronounceable names, and ate unpronounceable foods, didn’t look or dress like Americans, were generally religious and anti-Communist, and could easily be dismissed as crazies, right-wingers, nationalists, fascists, anti-Semites, Cold Warriors, fanatics, and the like. And because, according to this perverse historical logic, the war in the East was a “sideshow,” Eastern Europeans obviously did nothing to fight Nazism, being at best bystanders and at worst collaborators. As bystanders, they had to be morally obtuse; as collaborators, they had to be morally repugnant. Either way, they weren’t really moral beings: which is to say they weren’t really human beings. Such a historiography may not have been dehumanizing in intent, but it was surely that in effect—and dehumanization is of course at the core of every form of racism, including anti-Semitism.

Kirsch is wrong to say that “To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that … the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin.” In reality, American GIs had little knowledge of the eastern front and saw the war through the lens of their own experiences. It didn’t help that the wartime American media lionized “Uncle Joe” and called every resident of the Soviet Union Russian. Nor did the Cold War contribute to understanding of Eastern Europe: after 1947, the wartime Soviet-American alliance became an embarrassment, Soviet pronouncements on the war were viewed with suspicion, and Americans celebrated their contribution to the liberation of Western Europe.

It was only after the collapse of the USSR, the emergence of independent Eastern European states committed to pursuing anti-Stalinist identities and anti-Soviet historical narratives, and the opening of Communist archives that Snyder’s book became possible. The irony is that its basic thesis—that Eastern Europe was victimized by both Hitler and Stalin—has been the conventional wisdom among refugees from the “bloodlands” for decades. They knew better, because they had lived through the horrors of both totalitarian empires. Westerners knew worse, but that didn’t matter, since they were the ones who wrote the English-language histories and could dismiss their Eastern European critics as anti-Communist loons.

Kirsch concludes his essay by writing: “It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth—because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a ‘good war,’ and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.” He should have added that, if it weren’t for the Eastern Europeans’ insistence on their own humanity, American views of World War II would still be myths.

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