Archive for November 29th, 2010

Lightning strikes back: Book wars and Bloodlands

Monday, November 29th, 2010
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Is a critic ever being entirely “fair”?  Once my thoughts splash onto the printed page, I’ve agonized about whether the words that sounded so reasonable in my head would have been said to the author’s face.  On the other hand, when I’m being generous, I wonder if I’m doing the reader a disservice.  So I sat up straight when Jesse Freedman wrote over at Books Inq. last week:

“Readers of the LRB got a significant dose of honesty earlier this month when Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, offered a scathing review Timothy Snyder‘s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. …

“I have to say, I respect Evans for his review – not only because his arguments are well grounded, but because he fights the tendency among (a fair number of) reviewers to praise pretty much everything they are handed.”

Strong words indeed from Books Inq.  Bloodlands was discussed on The Book Haven a few weeks ago, along with Norman Naimark‘s Stalin’s Genocides.

In his review, “Who Remembers the Poles?” Evans begins:

‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ Adolf Hitler asked his generals in 1939, as he told them to ‘close your hearts to pity,’ ‘act brutally’ and behave ‘with the greatest harshness’ in the coming war in the East. It’s often assumed that in reminding them of the genocide of at least a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, Hitler was referring to what he intended to do to Europe’s Jews. But he was not referring to the Jews: he was referring to the Poles. ‘I have sent my Death’s Head units to the East,’ he told the generals, ‘with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the living space that we need.’”

Yet Evans castigates Snyder for failing to draw a clear enough distinction between the Holocaust and the concurrent genocides, distracting from what was unique:

“That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on. There was something peculiarly sadistic in the Nazis’ desire not just to torture, maim and kill the Jews, but also to humiliate them. SS men and not infrequently ordinary soldiers as well set light to the beards of Orthodox Jews in Poland and forced them to perform gymnastic exercises in public until they dropped; they made Jewish girls clean public latrines with their blouses; they performed many other acts of ritual humiliation that they did not force on their Slav prisoners, however badly they treated them in other ways. The Slavs, in the end, were for the Nazis a regional obstacle to be removed; the Jews were a ‘world enemy’ to be ground into the dust.”

Snyder, he said, also fails to consider Hitler’s other victims sufficiently:

“Thus the eight million foreigners working in the Reich in the latter stages of the war were not all ‘from the East’ as Snyder claims – one and a quarter million of them were French, more than half a million were Italian, and nearly half a million were Belgian or Dutch. The killing of up to 200,000 mentally handicapped and sick Germans by Nazi doctors gets a brief paragraph; the hundreds of thousands of German and Western European Jews who were murdered are dismissed in a little more than a page; sites of mass murder that lie outside Snyder’s ‘bloodlands’ and where the killings were not perpetrated by the Nazis or the Soviets are dealt with in equally perfunctory fashion. The 300,000 Serbs slaughtered by the fascist regime in Croatia, the 380,000 Jews killed on the orders of the Romanian government, and further afield still, the tens of thousands of Spanish Republican prisoners executed by the Francoists and the hundreds of thousands more confined in brutal labour camps after the end of the Civil War, or the Gypsies killed in large numbers not just by the Germans but also by the Croatians and Romanians – all of these get barely a mention or no mention at all.”

Evans concludes:

“The fundamental reason for these omissions, and for the book’s failure to give an adequate account of the genesis of the Final Solution, is that Snyder isn’t seriously interested in explaining anything. What he really wants to do is to tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about. Assuming we know nothing about any of this, he bludgeons us with facts and figures about atrocities and mass murders until we’re reeling from it all.”

Reaction was swift and terrible in the Dec. 2 LRB.  Oxford’s Norman Davies makes the striking point that we are “emotionally conditioned” to observe the suffering of Hitler’s victims, not so quick when it comes to recognizing the victim’s of our ally, Jozef Stalin. Moreover, by emphasizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust, we fail to notice larger patterns in the concurrent genocides — a point akin to Naimark‘s contention in Stalin’s Genocides.  It is a point, Davies said, Snyder is better equipped than most historians to make.

But a reader in New York, Charles Coutinho, delivers the coup de grace:  “Richard Evans’s less than entirely positive review of Timothy Snyder’s book may or may not have been influenced by Snyder’s own less than positive review of Evans’s latest book in the New York Review of Books.”

Evans admits that Coutinho “does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder’s book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted almost all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and East European history.”

Return to the first sentence of this post. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Correction:  Thanks, Dave Lull, for pointing out that it was Jesse Freedman, and not Frank Wilson, who had made the original post at Books Inq. that brought the Evans article to my attention.  For the record, I certainly did not mean to fault Jesse F.  — it was the job of the LRB editor to make sure the reviewer doesn’t have an axe to grind or a fanny to kiss when writing a review.