A letter from Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands: Two genocidaires, taking turns in Poland

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The Germans investigated in 1943 (Photo: Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation records, Hoover Institution Archives)

One of the pleasures of blogging is receiving cyberletters from those I mention in the Book Haven. So I was pleased when my inbox showed the name of Timothy Snyder of Yale, who had read my recent blog posts about the current Katyń exhibit at Hoover Institution and also my discussion of his new book, Bloodlands. (I also challenged the London Review of Books for allowing a hostile critic, Richard J. Evans, review the book.)

In his letter, Snyder added a few more reasons why the Katyń atrocity plays such an important part in Polish memory: about two-thirds of the Polish officers killed at Katyń and the four other massacre sites were reserve officers.  University graduates served as these reserve officers.  The move was part of “a general Soviet policy of decapitating the nation.”

“Thus the blow struck chiefly the educated elite — people who, in Polish national myth and also in reality, were crucial to the survival of the nation,” he writes.  It also struck their families:  “Just as the men were being shot, their wives, children, and parents were being deported to Soviet Kazakhstan (about 60,000 people).”

For those who have seen Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń, this won’t come as a surprise – the movie portrays precisely one such episode.

After my recent conversation with Hoover archivist Nick Siekierski, he wrote,  “I may have mentioned earlier that while the Soviet’s were preparing and carrying out the Katyń massacre, the Nazis executed about 40,000 Poles in the part of Poland that they occupied from  1939-1940. These were also local government officials, public servants and professionals, the community leaders of their respective areas.”

This was news to me, though I don’t pretend to be a scholar of the war.  I asked Tim about it.  He apparently finds Nick’s numbers a little conservative:

“The first major killing actions of the German Einsatzgruppen involved the murder of educated Poles.  At almost exactly the same time as the Katyń crime, the Germans were carrying out the AB-Aktion, which murdered thousands of people thought likely to resist.  The demographic profiling of the two regimes was so similar that, in some cases, the Germans murdered one sibling in the AB-Aktion right after another was killed at Katyń.  The Germans kept poorer records than the Soviets, but we can be sure that these policies killed more than 50,000 Polish citizens.”

September 1939. Warsaw.

That’s right.  That means the Nazis had a systematic killing that was more than double the Katyń murders.  Who speaks of it?  When it came to the Poles, the Nazis and Soviets worked, more or less, as a team – not a surprise to anyone who remembers the Nazi destruction of Warsaw, as the Soviets waited for the Nazis to complete their block-by-block destruction of the city before they entered the city the following year.

Of course, after the Germans discovered the mass graves at Katyń in 1943, the Soviets naturally blamed the Germans for the crime. This was the version that the Americans and the British found convenient to believe.  After all, we had been allies of the Soviets – and the denial of what Stalin was ran deep.  Time magazine put Stalin on its cover 11 times.

“Thus the Polish sense of abandonment runs a bit deeper than perhaps we like to remember,” Snyder writes.

There’s more.  A little chunk of history even Poles scarcely remember that occurred just prior to the outbreak of war:

“We know now that the Great Terror in the Soviet Union of 1937 and 1938 included a number of ethnic shooting and deportation actions, the largest of which was the Polish Operation.  In the Great Terror, about 700,000 people were shot, of whom about 85,000 were ethnic Poles (who represented only 0.4% of Soviet citizens).  An ethnic Pole in the Soviet Union was 40 times more likely to be shot than his fellow Soviet citizens during the Great Terror.  Katyń was the last time that the Soviets applied the methods of the Great Terror.  It is no less horrifying but it is perhaps less surprising when this prior history is borne in mind.”

August 1944. The destruction of Warsaw.

Why is this so little known, even compared to Katyń?   Tim points out that these Nazi massacres bring back the “awkward recollection” of a time when the Nazis and the Soviets were allies — not a memory the Soviets wanted to revive.  Nick Siekierski suggested this:

“I haven’t studied the issue enough to know so I can only hypothesize. Since the Katyń graves were uncovered during the war and the Nazis made a concerted propaganda effort to use it against the Soviets, it entered the public consciousness early on, and continued to be a sore spot as the Soviets denied complicity for half a century. The cover-up of the massacre magnified the crime. Also, the list of crimes committed by the Nazis is so lengthy that their earlier crimes are less focused on than the Holocaust. It seems that slowly a greater understanding of the breadth and depth of the atrocities committed by both the Nazis and Soviets, against a variety of social and ethnic groups, is emerging.”

And as this understanding deepens,  it certainly gives more weight to Norm Naimark’s arguments in Stalin’s Genocides that our definition of genocide ought to be broadened to include what is certainly a systematic attempt to destroy a nationality through massacre, by two totalitarian states working in tandem.


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One Response to “A letter from Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands: Two genocidaires, taking turns in Poland”

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