Thursday, 24 March 2011


This is not so much a review as a demolition.  We watch as Richard J. Evans wields the wrecking ball time and time again.  When he has finished Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is left as a pile of bricks and dust. 

There is an overemphasis on the Soviet Union’s subject peoples, and Eastern Europeans.  The book downplays, and sometime ignores, the persecution of Russians under Stalin.

The author is weak on the German literature about the Nazis; and makes many mistakes; a number are quoted
The Final Solution was not a result of Hitler’s frustrations with the war against the Soviet Union.  When the war turned against the Nazis it was the generals who were made the scapegoats, not the Jews.

The consensus on the decision making behind the Final Solution has changed.  It is now believed that Hitler and his cohorts provided the ideology, and a broad strategy, which the senior and middle ranking officers implemented in “a relatively haphazard manner, though one that was always aimed at the goal of total annihilation.” 

Impetus was given to the Final Solution by the entry of America into the war.  The situation in Eastern Europe cannot explain all aspects of the conflict.

The treatment of Jews was different in kind to the other Nazi victims:  they just weren’t killed, but humiliated and dehumanized.

Other Europeans victims of the Nazis are ignored.

Nearly all of these failures result from a central weakness in the book: it doesn’t want to explain, only describe “the sufferings of the people who lived the area he knows most about.” 

The use of “abstract rhetorical parallels” obscures understanding.

An overuse of statistics, while the precision claimed for them is questionable.

The prose style is poor.  It is very repetitious, and whose aim is to elicit pain rather than understanding.  However, the vast accumulation of facts and statistics tends to blunt empathy rather than evoke it.

The author fails in his main objective: to gain our sympathy for the victims.   Too many facts and statistics prevent detailed investigation into individual lives; who instead of being brought to life are reduced to a pile of numbers. 

There is no sense of the political, social and cultural context of the perpetrators of these massacres.  This doesn’t help us to understand them and their motivations.

We don’t need to be told again about the facts of these murders.  This information is already available.  Instead, “we need to understand why it took place…” In this task of understanding, he concludes, “Snyder’s book is of no use.”

I do not know if these views are correct; though I suspect in large part they are.  Rather I want to look at the letters that were sent to the LRB in response to this review.

Norman Davies provides no detailed arguments against any of the points listed above.  He merely expresses a number of opinions.

His first one is that the victims of the Soviet Union are treated less seriously than those of Nazi Germany, because it was our ally in the war.  This seems an odd argument, and misses a sizeable interregnum between our friend Uncle Joe in 1945 and the great Western hope of the 1990s; Boris Yeltsin.  Here was nearly fifty years when the USSR was the enemy; and our old opponents, the Nazi and Japanese imperial bureaucrats, became our friends again – they were put back in power to run the economy and prevent the threat of Communism and independent nationalism.  This was reflected in the history departments of our major universities.  Thus the Holocaust tended to be ignored until the 1960s.  For example, when Raul Hilberg, who became the major authority on this subject, suggested it as area of study in the 1950s his supervisor Franz Neumann warned him against it for this reason – it was taboo.  America also tended to play down Japan’s previous atrocities for the same reasons; and particularly after its “reverse course”, when the occupation began to put the old leaders back in charge.[i] 

His second opinion is a simple error of reasoning: because Snyder is criticised for concentrating on the Eastern Europeans, and downplaying the other victims of both Stalin and Hitler, it doesn’t follow that Evans is privileging the Holocaust.  Davies may disagree with Evans on all these points, but he has to argue them.  He also misses what the review seems to imply: a bias in Snyder’s scholarship, and with a suggestion of some anti-Russian prejudice.

The last assertion supports rather than contradicts the review.  Evans has shown Snyder’s weaknesses; and gives examples of some of his errors, both of fact and interpretation; most of which are outside his area of expertise.  It follows, therefore, that if this review is correct Snyder is a typical example of a “modern historian”, and is not one of those “precious few” who can analyse the whole with “equal expertise and empathy.”  Davies seems not to have noticed this!  Indeed, the letter, taken as a whole, strengthens the original review, for Evans has demonstrated his case, while Davies merely presents an opinion.  He has been unable to undermine any of Evans’ arguments, and we must therefore assume he cannot do so.  Flailing around he lashes out with a generalisation; but in the heat of his despair doesn’t realise it gives even more weight to Evans’ case.  Now we understand why Snyder’s book is so bad.

Davies’ analytical skills are poor; but he is good at abuse: Evans wants to keep out “interlopers” from his specialist area.  He might be right, though I have my doubts.  However, let us assume he is.  It still doesn’t affect any of the original arguments – they still all stand.  It reminds me of the old days when a Communist or Freudian would discount criticism as bourgeois or signs of a repressed mentality.  In both cases the attack may be correct, but irrelevant to the charges at hand.

Antony Polonsky is more particular in his criticisms:

Snyder agrees that the Final Solution was instigated in a moment of euphoria; although he thinks that Hitler only became obsessed with a Jewish conspiracy when the invasion of the Soviet Union stalled.  He accepts this latter argument is weak, and goes against the evidence of Hitler’s long standing anti-Semitism.  However, this mistake, Polonsky writes, “in no way undermines the general value of the book.”

Snyder shows how the Nazi and Soviet mass murders influenced one another.

Snyder does not over emphasize the suffering of the Poles; in fact he revises downwards many of the standard estimates.

This is a more cogent response, and appears to do some damage to the review.  Although again there are weaknesses in the argument: there seems to be a contradiction between finding the Holocaust’s origins in both the euphoria of victory and the pessimism of defeat, on the eastern front.  Also, why raise an additional criticism?  If the letter is to rebut the review why bring up another attack, only to then dismiss it as not relevant to the book’s value?  It only strengthens the charge that Snyder’s grasp of the German history is poor.  In response Evans says that Polonsky has misinterpreted the work, and cites the chapter where we can find the argument.  We will have to read it, to know for sure.

The possible inter-relationship between the two murderous regimes is a historical interpretation; on which I am not competent to adjudicate.  In his response Evans’ argues that this is a particular view of Ernst Nolte, which has since been discredited.  Donald Rayfield, to which Evans refers, and whose is much more appreciative of the book, also rejects this interpretation.  He also agrees with Evans regarding Snyder’s view that conditions were less harsh outside Eastern Europe. 

Rayfield, a Russian specialist, does disagree with Evans on Germany, where he writes that Snyder’s touch is “assured”.   However, here I have my doubts: for Rayfield refers to the work of Daniel Johan Goldhagen; a writer who seems more of a popular historian than a serious scholar.  Raul Hilberg famously said that his views were 30 years out of date.  In an afterword to his Ordinary Men  Christopher Browning offers a systematic critique of Goldhagen’s main thesis: anti-Semitism was central to the German culture before the Nazi regime.[ii]  On reading the preface of Bloodlands I begin to wonder if this book may not be another overly simplistic account of a complex phenomena, targeted at the general reader. 

The German and Soviet concentration camps surround the bloodlands, from both east and west, disguising the pure black with their shades of grey.  At the end of the Second World War, American and British forces liberated German concentration camps such as Belsen and Dachau, but the western allies liberated none of the death facilities.  The Germans carried out all of their major killing policies on lands subsequently occupied by the Soviets.  The Red Army liberated Auschwitz, and it liberated the sites of Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec, Chelmno and Majdanek as well. American and British forces reached none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites.  It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed, leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the cold war and the opening of the archives.  It is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler's crimes has taken just as long.  The photographs and films of German concentration camps were the closest that most westerners ever came to perceiving the mass killing.  Horrible though these images were, they were only hints are the history of the bloodlands.  They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction.

This is comic book stuff.  Because the British and American forces didn’t see the death camps we did not know of their awful extent; and thus being unable to see these places we have not been able to understand Hitler’s actions… until now, of course, with this book.  As a blurb it can just about pass, but as a preface?  This reminds of de Arrizabalaga y Prado, discussed in a previous post – only what we can see and touch is real.  This simply cannot be serious, and discounts nearly 50 years of intensive study.  It also seems to be based on a misunderstanding.  If we assume Snyder’s account is original it doesn’t follow that it is definitive, or that it supersedes earlier histories of Hitler’s regime.  We have to remember that understanding develops and changes; in the case of the Final Solution the earlier idea of a well ordered bureaucratic machine seems to have been replaced by a less centrally organised affair, with more ad hoc arrangements, and variations between different countries.  It is likely that these interpretations too will change over the coming decades, and thus in 2035 Snyder today will be in the same position as older historians, working before 1989.  However, because the earlier interpretations may be not be correct it doesn’t follow that the meaning of what they described was not grasped – we don’t need all the facts to understand an event, its importance and its impact. This, I think, is the central confusion in the passage quoted: we can only truly understand an event when we know all the facts, it seems to suggest.  This is a bit like saying we can only explain the railways by listing all its trains.

Is it really true that the western public has never perceived the mass killings?  And it needs this book, in order for them to do so?  This contradicts my own memories to such an extent that I find the assertion almost fantastic.  Has the writer forgotten Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the longest account of the Holocaust to reach a Western audience, but not the only one?  This film was released in 1985, and was based on work that was at least 20 years older.  The crimes of Stalin were not documented until after the Cold War?  True, the archives have given us much more data; and we have a clearer picture than we did.  But I’ve known for as long as I can remember of the awful repressions and mass murder of Stalin’s time.  In France the nouveaux philosophes came to prominence in the 1970s when they claimed to have at last discovered the atrocities of the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao...  While in the US and Britain there was nearly 50 years of propaganda about the Soviet menace, which included copious reference to past crimes.  What is going on?

The reference to the concentration and death camps may give the game away – serious scholarship doesn’t have to told this, only the uninformed amongst the general public.  It has a feel of something…  the overbearing confidence of the specialist, who unearthing new facts thinks he has discovered a new universe.  Strangely, given his letter of support, it reminds me of Norman Davies, and his book Europe, with its claims for originality by concentrating on the little known history of the continent’s eastern regions.  After this self-regard the rest of the book is a terrible disappointment.

Polonsky’s third criticism is another example of faulty reasoning.  We have to separate the historical context in which the facts appear from the facts themselves.  Thus Snyder may well have reduced the number of Polish casualties, but this bears no relationship to how he treats these reduced figures in relation to other victims.  Evans makes just this point in his reply.

Roman Szporluk makes the strongest criticism, and which causes us to change our assessment of one part of the review: the Kulaks were deported before the forced collectivisation; and the famine devastated the peasants who were left.  Evans agrees with this criticism, but reiterates what he believes is the main point – the downplaying of other ethnic groups.

Charles Coutinho suggests revenge: Evans is getting his own back for a previous negative review by Snyder.  This may be true, but it affects none of the points raised in the original piece.  Interestingly, in his reply Evans rebuts this assertion by suggesting it is Snyder who doesn’t want “interlopers” in his Eastern Europe.  This may also be true; and if his review contains as many errors as Evans claims of Bloodlands, the charge will have much more force.

The last letter, from Guido Franzinetti, is the most curious of all.  He argues that the dispute is caused by a generational gap, which “explains much of the animosity of the discussion.”  This is highly irrational, and reflects the extreme relativism I have criticised elsewhere ; for it ignores the arguments completely, and is not concerned at all with their truth or falsehood.  It rejects, by implication, the position that people can disagree about the facts and arguments; and that we can come to a reasoned position when we consider them.  In my view we should first look at the content of the discussion, and see if the disagreements can be explained internally to it.  Only after that is a cultural explanation in order; either to offer a wider perspective, or to explain why a participant holds a clearly false or absurd position.  To only offer the cultural interpretation is to explain Bobby Fischer’s victory over Boris Spassky by reference to their personal or national differences; but not to consider a single game of their championship match. 

Franzinetti’s position is, however, only an extreme variant of the other two: of Coutinho’s, who suggests the dispute is personal, and of Davies’, who believes it is academic (a “turf war”).  These three letters share a common trait, which reflects wider trends – intellectuals are often more interested in their opponent’s motives, however described, whether it be personal or cultural, than the actual content of what they think.  They are more concerned with the belief systems that are held than in the particular reasoning of their opponents.  This seems a highly irrational approach, but which may partly account for the conformity of so much of the intellectual class: by not engaging with the arguments, and dismissing them as culturally determined, one’s own ideas are never challenged.  It might also be the outcome of a certain laziness, which may be our natural state: it is so tiring to go through someone else’s arguments!

[i] See John Dower’s Embracing Defeat .  This is clearly shown in the American’s attitude to the Tokyo War Crimes tribunal, which grew markedly cooler as the years went by.
[ii] “Anti-Semitism ‘more or less governed the ideational life of civil society’ in pre-Nazi Germany.”  (Christopher Browning)

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