Posts Tagged ‘Norman Naimark’

Indefatigable spirit: Remembering the legendary Robert Conquest (1917–2015)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

My favorite photo of him, by the matchless Linda Cicero.

 

To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I’d lose to you? Don’t kid yourself.

Robert Conquest wrote these lines in his last collection of poems, Penultimata (Waywiser, 2009). I suppose, although he was too polite to say so, I might be included in his roster, since we met when I interviewed him – here.  Although the interview form is a kind of exploitation, I suppose, it didn’t exactly bring me either fame or pelf, but something much better. I expect my own “processing” will continue for some time now, as I digest, in future years, his work over a long lifetime. As everyone now knows, the Anglo-American historian and poet died on Monday, after long illness. He was 98.  (Obituaries from the New York Times here, the Wall Street Journal here, and London’s Telegraph here.) He was working until his last few weeks on an unfinished memoir called Two Muses. I hope there’s enough of it to publish.

The short quatrain above refers, I expect, to his dirty limericks and light verse, rather than his sobering prose and more serious poems. “Limericks are not very gentlemanly – or it’s a special kind of gentleman,” he told me. But perhaps the lightness of much of his verse was a necessary psychological counterbalance to the grim history he relentlessly documented in the books that were his major achievement, chronicling the devastation caused by the Soviet regime, throughout its existence. His landmark book, The Great Terror reads like a thriller, and is a detailed log of Stalin’s assassinations, arrests, tortures, frame-ups, forced confessions, show trials, executions and incarcerations that destroyed millions of lives. The book instantly became a classic of modern history, and other titles followed, including The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) and a 1977 translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s 1,400-line poem, Prussian Nights, undertaken at the author’s request.

The late Christopher Hitchens, a close friend, praised Bob’s “devastatingly dry and lethal manner,” hailing him as “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.” Timothy Garton Ash said“He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn.”

When he revised The Great Terror for republication in 1990, his chum Kingsley Amis proposed a new title, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.” Catchy title, although Bob settled for the more circumspect The Great Terror: A Reassessment. 

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Mentor and mentee, 2009.

“His historical intuition was astonishing,” Norman Naimark told the New York Times (we’ve written about Norm here and here and here). “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”

My 2010 interview, however, wasn’t my first encounter with the poet-historian, although it was his first encounter with me. I was one of a throng of people who attended a 2009 ceremony at Hoover event when Radosław Sikorski, then Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, awarded him the country’s Order of Merit. (I wrote about the occasion here. Incidentally, Bob received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.)

“His books made a huge impact on the debate about the Soviet Union, both in the West and in the East. In the West, people had always had access to the information about Communism but were not always ready to believe in it,” said Sikorski at that time. “We longed for confirmation that the West knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. Robert Conquest’s books gave us such a confirmation. They also transmitted a message of solidarity with the oppressed and gave us hope that the truth would prevail.”

An excerpt from my 2010 article:

Susan Sontag was a visiting star at Stanford in the 1990s. But when she was introduced to Robert Conquest, the constellations tilted for a moment.

“You’re my hero!” she announced as she flung her arms around the elderly poet and acclaimed historian. It was a few years since she had called communism “fascism with a human face” – and Conquest, author of The Great Terror, a record of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, had apparently been part of her political earthquake.

Sitting in his Stanford campus home last week and chatting over a cup of tea, the 93-year-old insisted it’s all true: “I promise. We had witnesses.” His wife, Liddie, sitting nearby confirmed the account, laughing.

Conquest, a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus, moves gingerly with a walker, and speaks so softly it can be hard to understand him. But his writing continues to find new directions: He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year, finished a 200-line poetic summa and is working on his memoirs.

He’s been a powerful inspiration for others besides Sontag. In his new memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens described Conquest, who came to Stanford in 1979, as a “great poet and even greater historian.” The writer Paul Johnson goes further, calling Conquest “our greatest living historian.”

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He deserved the medal. In 2005.

I made a few return visits to that immaculate and airy Stanford townhouse on the campus. Liddie was always bubbly, intelligent, and hospitable – a thorough Texan, and always a charming and welcoming hostess. Often the two of us were talking so quickly and with such animation Bob couldn’t keep up – he spoke barely above a whisper. He was still a terrific conversationalist, one just had to listen harder. Among his considerable gifts, “He had a wicked sense of humor and he loved to laugh: the look of playful delight that animated his face as he nailed a punch line is impossible to forget,” said Bert Patenaude (I also wrote about Bert here). “His poems and limericks convey a sense of his mischievousness—and naughtiness—and his late poems chronicle the aging process with sensitivity and, one is easily persuaded, acute psychological insight.”

Another of our mutual friends, the poet R.S. Gwynn, agreed: “As a poet Bob is funny, intensely lyrical and deeply reflective,” he said. “Whenever I read him I think of how rarely we are allowed to see a mind at work, and what a mind it is.” (I’ve written about Sam Gwynn here and here.)

Bert said that Bob’s final speaking appearance on the Stanford campus may well have been his participation in an annual book event, “A Company of Authors,” where he discussed Penultimata on April 24, 2010. “Bob seemed frail that day, and at times it was difficult to hear him and to understand his meaning, but no one in the room could doubt that the genial elderly man up there reciting his poetry could have carried the entire company of authors on his back. Seated next to me in the audience was a Stanford history professor, a man (not incidentally) of the political left, someone I had known since my graduate student days—not a person I would ever have imagined would be drawn to Bob Conquest. Yet he had come to the event, he told me, specifically in order to see and hear the venerable poet-historian: ‘It’s rare that you get to be in the presence of a great man. Robert Conquest is a great man.’ Indeed he was.”

In the last few months, I tried to visit – but the Conquests were either traveling or packing, or else, more distressingly, he was in the hospital or recovering from a round of illnesses. And finally time ran out altogether. Time always wins. We don’t have time; it has us.

Postscript on 8/7: My publisher Philip Hoy pointed out in the comments section below that Penultimata was not Bob’s final collection of poems, it was (as the name suggests) a penultimate one. Blokelore & Blokesongs was published by Waywiser in 2012.

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A pleasure to know you, sir. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

 

Former Baltic president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga: “Ukraine is being dismembered and torn apart.”

Thursday, October 16th, 2014
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At Stanford, Latvian president recalled the long, hard road to independence. (Photo: Jim Hatlo, EyeDoMedia)

Former Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was in town last week – and, just as I anticipated before my live-tweet session below, she was smart and bold and knew how to throw a punch. She has been an outspoken critic of Russia’s recent incursions into its former Soviet vassal-states and criticized what she called “wobbly” Western resolve to support Eastern Europe. Stanford historian Norman Naimark, who introduced her, said she had provided “the moral straight-shooting that Latvia needed.” Stanford got a taste of it, too.

The woman who shepherded Latvia into NATO and the EU during her term as president (from 1999 to 2004) spoke about recent Baltic history in her keynote address, “Against All Odds: The Path of the Baltic States to the EU and NATO,” for the “War, Revolution and Freedom: The Baltic Countries in the 20th Century” conference sponsored by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives and Stanford University.

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Kind of a straight-shooter himself

During the question-and-answer session, Hoover scholar Paul Gregory asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: what did she predict for Ukraine?

“Ukraine is being dismembered and torn apart – it’s the Russian resolve to get Ukraine in its grips again,” she said. Their diplomatic weapon of choice? “A whole bouquet of arguments.” She took the petals off, one by one. For example, she challenged the Russian claim that “there’s no such thing as a Ukrainian people, it’s just another kind of Russian.” A related argument is that Russia had “brought a life of civilization and culture” to its western neighbor. Yet, she said, Kiev had been the center of the Rus civilization way back when St. Petersburg was still marshlands.

Finally, the Russians contend that the Ukrainians “don’t know how to govern themselves.” Without endorsing the Russian argument, she conceded that Ukraine had not made the “painful reforms” that the Baltic states were required to make for entry into NATO and EU.  She noted the vast amounts of money that had flowed through Ukraine to a few kleptocrats, which had  “polluted and subverted the political system.” However, “that is not an excuse for neighbors saying we’ll do a better job of it.” She compared the situation to a hypothetical one in which Mexico reasoned that, with so many compatriots in the U.S., it had a right to invade, using a  standoff between the president and Congress as proof of U.S. incompetence to manage itself and a reasonable pretext to bring in  tanks. “How would you feel about it?” she asked.

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Democracy as “an acquired trait.” (Photo: Jim Hatlo, EyeDoMedia)

She remembered Latvia’s history after World War I, when Latvia became a democratic parliamentary republic, and said that “hardly ever was there a nation with less going for it to become an independent nation.” However, democracy “is not an inherited trait, but an acquired trait,” for “anybody who wants to make a go of it.” In 1940, however, the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, then invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany the following year, and the reoccupied by the Soviets in 1944. It found freedom at last with the fall of the USSR in 1991.

When she took office, the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration was not as bright as it might have looked, she said. While some EU/NATO countries thought integration might be a good idea, “very few countries were deeply convinced.” In the end, their consent was a “political decision that had to be taken at political level,” she said. “It was the political leaders who would have the last words …it was very plain and simple as that.”

“There was lots of negative PR about our countries,” she recalled. The Balts were accused of turning their backs on Russia, which was precisely what they had intended to do. “We would be reproached for being Nazis because we did not want to stay within the embrace of Moscow.” She recalled nasty, and untrue, accusations about Latvian collaboration during the Holocaust.

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Afraid of bears

The EU worried that the Balts would drain the finances of the organization. They had voiced the same concerns, she said, when considering Poland’s entry, saying “the Polish plumber would be distinct danger to countries in Western Europe.” Now, however, “Poland has one of the highest growth rates in Europe – higher than those countries who sneered at it,” she said. She joked that “any number of Frenchmen ask me, ‘Where are those Polish plumbers? We need them.'”

A major hesitation for political leaders considering Baltic entry into NATO was “the bright idea that, in order not to offend or displease Russia, the enlargement of NATO and EU should proceed cautiously.” French president Jacques Chirac warned, “You must not pull the whiskers of the bear, it’s a very dangerous thing to do.” She battled a prevailing attitude that “whatever we do, must not offend Russia. Such sensitive souls, such delicate violets! Easily humiliated!”

“Their economy is a shambles, their social security systems are in disarray, but the point is we must not upset them,” she said, with a note of exasperation as well as amusement.

As for my first frenetic foray into live-tweeting, you can see the results below – with an occasional assist from my colleague, Lisa Trei.

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When is murder genocide? Obama drops the “g” word.

Friday, August 8th, 2014
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The word that gives gravitas.

It was, perhaps, his most statesmanlike moment: a president brought to the decision he didn’t want to make, to defend a far-off nation he’d hoped was part of our nation’s past. “Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said in a somber statement delivered from the State Dining Room. “Well, today America is coming to help.”  The New York Times described the situation with a certain amount of prissiness:

Speaking at the White House on Thursday night, Mr. Obama also said that American military aircraft had dropped food and water to tens of thousands of Iraqis trapped on a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq, having fled the militants, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who threaten them with what Mr. Obama called “genocide.”

Dropping the “g” word gives gravitas to any presidential statement. What Mr. Obama “called” genocide presumably included not only the attempt to wipe the small tribe of Yezidis off the face of the earth by allowing them to die of thirst and hunger on a mountain, but also the attempt to erase 2,000 years of Christian history in Iraq, along with its Chaldean, Assyrian, and other adherents (some of whom are the last speakers of Aramaic anywhere – we wrote about that here), along with the massacre of hundreds of young Shia men at Takrit, with more, much more, to come.

If that’s not genocide, what is? What does it take to get the scare quotes off? It’s a more complicated question than might first appear. The current definition includes the planned elimination of national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups. In that case, the definition definitely embraces what is happening in Iraq today, even if carried out by a non-governmental actor.

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Genocide as “the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.” (Photo: John LeSchofs)

However, Norman Naimark, author of  Stalin’s Genocides, argues that we need a much broader definition of genocide, one that includes nations killing social classes and political groups. His case in point: Joseph Stalin. I wrote about this a couple years ago, here – it turns out that the Soviet genocidaire had a hand in deciding how we define the word genocide.  The Soviet delegation to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide vetoed any definition that might indict its own leader, who killed 15-20 million of his own people.

Accounts “gloss over the genocidal character of the Soviet regime in the 1930s, which killed systematically rather than episodically,” said Naimark. In the process of collectivization, for example, 30,000 kulaks were killed directly, mostly shot on the spot. About 2 million were forcibly deported to the Far North and Siberia.

He argues that the Soviet elimination of a social class, the kulaks (who were higher-income farmers), and the subsequent killer famine among all Ukrainian peasants – as well as the notorious 1937 order No. 00447 that called for the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people” – were, in fact, genocide.

“I make the argument that these matters shouldn’t be seen as discrete episodes, but seen together,” said Naimark, who argues that social classes and political groups should be considered in the definition of the “g” word. “It’s a horrific case of genocide – the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.”

Read “Stalin killed millions. A Stanford historian answers the question, was it genocide?” here.  (We’ve written about Norm elsewhere, here and here and here and here.) Also, Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, and Norm on genocide here.

Postscript: Here’s more: “Isis persecution of Iraqi Christians has become genocide, says [sic] religious leaders” in The Guardian. You mean marking homes with a “nun” sign; torturing, mutilating, raping Iraqi Christians; the destruction of 1,800-year-old churches and shrines; beheading children and crucifying adult adherents; burning homes and driving thousands of people from their homes with a warning to convert or be put to the sword – that didn’t count already? Is it  only the success of the mission what determines the label “genocide,” rather than the intent? In that case, the Holocaust was not genocide because it failed to kill every Jew.

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

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010
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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.

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.

Naimark, Snyder, and Applebaum: When is murder genocide?

Friday, November 12th, 2010
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An indecently incongruous setting for a discussion of genocide

On one of those legendary California afternoons, full of sunshine and overlooking the magnificent San Francisco Bay, I sat on the patio of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, talking with Norman Naimark about genocide.  It seemed a incongruous way to spend an afternoon in the crisp air and almost oppressive sunlight, but so it was.

Naimark’s contention, in his controversial new book Stalin’s Genocides: We need a much broader definition of genocide, one that includes nations killing social classes and political groups. His case in point: Stalin. He argues that the Soviet elimination of a social classes (e.g., the kulaks), as well as the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people” were, in fact, genocide.  We miss the big picture when we treat these as discrete episodes.

I had wondered at the time, and still, about the role technology in the last century’s explosion of genocidal episodes. Clearly, incidents within archaic society — for example, the Old Testament “bans” where every man, woman, child, and even livestock were killed to remove every trace of a people — show genocidal intent.  But mass communication and mass transportation have made it possible to coordinate deportation and organize killing on a scale previously unimaginable (even in Rwanda, where the weapons-of-choice were pre-tech machetes, radio was used to incite mobs and track victims) – hence the proliferation of genocide in the 20th century.  Often official enablers act on a genocidaire’s momentary whim, rather than the determined aim to obliterate a people.  So what does “intent” matter, under such circumstances?

The subject has come up again with Anne Applebaum‘s  provocative article, “The Worst of Madness,” in the current New York Review of Books.  She reviews Timothy Snyder‘s  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin as well as Stalin’s Genocides.  She calls Naimark’s argument “authoritative, clear, and hard to dispute.” Snyder studies the people caught between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, suffering two and sometimes three wartime occupations: “Between 1933 and 1945, 14 million died there, not in combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them,” writes Applebaum.

She takes the notion of genocide a step beyond motive, examining how two dictators, Stalin and Hitler, played off each other in their hatred of the people in the “Bloodlands” — Ukrainians, Poles, and the Baltic states. The sum of the parts was more than the whole.  The two genocidaires used a synergy of murder to kill more, and more hideously, than either nation would have done alone:

Applebaum: Complicating memory

“To the people who actually experienced both tyrannies, such definitions hardly mattered. Did the Polish merchant care whether he died because he was a Jew or because he was a capitalist? Did the starving Ukrainian child care whether she had been deprived of food in order to create a Communist paradise or in order to provide calories for the soldiers of the German Reich? Perhaps we need a new word, one that is broader than the current definition of genocide and means, simply, ‘mass murder carried out for political reasons.’ Or perhaps we should simply agree that the word “genocide” includes within its definition the notions of deliberate starvation as well as gas chambers and concentration camps, that it includes the mass murder of social groups as well as ethnic groups and be done with it.”

She finally questions the whole notion of “remembering” genocide — an argument which reveals how powerfully language can shape the way we think about reality.  Genocide has come to mean pretty exclusively the Jewish Holocaust, shaping and carving and in many cases eliminating from memory what happened to millions of others:

“Finally, the arguments of Bloodlands also complicate the modern notion of memory—memory, that is, as opposed to history. It is true, for example, that the modern German state ‘remembers’ the Holocaust—in official documents, in public debates, in monuments, in school textbooks—and is often rightly lauded for doing so. But how comprehensive is this memory? How many Germans ‘remember’ the deaths of three million Soviet POWs? How many know or care that the secret treaty signed between Hitler and Stalin not only condemned the inhabitants of western Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in slave labor camps, but also condemned the inhabitants of eastern Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in Soviet exile? The Katyn massacre really is, in this sense, partially Germany’s responsibility: without Germany’s collusion with the Soviet Union, it would not have happened. Yet modern Germany’s very real sense of guilt about the Holocaust does not often extend to Soviet soldiers or even to Poles.”

The implications of her reading are many:  For the U.S., World War II was the “good war,” against all the ambiguous or “bad wars” that followed—Vietnam, Iraq, Korea.  For Americans, WWII begins with Pearl Harbor and ends with the atomic bomb.  But Western peace was won by selling out whole nations to our murderous ally. “This does not make us bad,” writes Applebaum, “there were limitations, reasons, legitimate explanations for what happened. But it does make us less exceptional. And it does make World War II less exceptional, more morally ambiguous, and thus more similar to the wars that followed.”

And for Western Europe:  “When considered in isolation, Auschwitz can be easily compartmentalized, characterized as belonging to a specific place and time, or explained away as the result of Germany’s unique history or particular culture. But if Auschwitz was not the only mass atrocity, if mass murder was simultaneously taking place across a multinational landscape and with the support of many different kinds of people, then it is not so easy to compartmentalize or explain away.”

Postscript on 11/15:  Speaking of genocide…  “On Wednesday, al Qaeda militants launch a synchronized bombing attack on 11 Christian communities throughout Iraq, killing six and wounding more than 30. That attack followed on the heels of the ghastly assault last month on Christian worshippers attending a service at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were brutally murdered and another 60 wounded. …  the Iraqi government has done absolutely nothing to protect the besieged Christian community from further attack, despite a promise from al Qaeda in Iraq that ‘all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for Mujahedeen wherever they can reach them.’  Americans of all faiths must band together and pressure the State Department to do something about the wanton murder of Iraqi Christians before there are no more Christians in Iraq to protect.”  At the Daily Beast here.

Norm Naimark makes his case in the video below:

Mexico, war, genocide, and Richard Rhodes

Friday, September 24th, 2010
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Yesterday, the opening of the Mexico bicentennial exhibition — a true fiesta, with tamales, top-notch horchata, chips and guacamole, and other munchies I didn’t have time to sample, along with a man named William Faulkner playing Mexican tunes on a harp.  I have a personal debt to Mexico, and came to pay my respects — but my conversations tended to turn instead to my article about Norman Naimark and the need to broaden our definition of genocide to include Joseph Stalin‘s millions of murdered people.

Hoover librarian Lora Soroka, who is Ukrainian (land of the Holdomor) and archivist Linda Bernard were particularly pleased that someone was finally nailing Stalin for genocide — the article is featured on Hoover’s home page.  Frankly, I’m surprised there are two opinions about that.  My article on Naimark’s new book, Stalin’s Genocides, left out so many aspects of our discussion. (We spoke on a sunny day on an outdoor patio, overlooking the Bay, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where it seemed almost indecently incongruous to be discussing crimes against humanity.)

Naimark said, “Intent is very important in genocide.” In the case of the American Indians, more often than not “the intent was to steal land in any way possible” — which makes it an instance of ethnic cleansing, rather than genocide.  And yet, individuals within that context acted with “the intent to wipe out a tribe.”  Hence, that history is one of ethnic cleansing marked by incidents of genocide, he said.  Evidently, the lines of international law are blurry.

One question I would like to see explored more powerfully is the link between technology and genocide.  Clearly, incidents within archaic society — for example, the Old Testament “bans” where every man, woman, child, and even livestock were killed to remove every trace of a people — show genocidal intent.

But technology has magnified our ability to commit genocide — technology enables imitation, which brings us directly into René Girard‘s territory, and also into Hannah Arendt‘s.  She observed in Eichmann in Jerusalem that once an unprecedented crime occurs, it is likely to repeat itself:  “If genocide is an actual possibility of the future, then no people on earth … can feel reasonably sure of its continued existence without the help and the protection of international law.”

Replication occurs through the medium of modern communication, which also enables the event itself.  Could the Rwandan massacres have occurred without national broadcasters egging the murderers on, announcing the victims’ locations and tracking them as they tried to flee?  It would be impossible to murder a million people in 90 days without coordination, moving the murderers and murdered to locations where they can be effective shot or gassed en masse.

The less glamorous side of revolution: Mexican girl, probably an orphan, on a postcard. (From Stanford collection)

That brings us back to the Mexican celebration.  Andrew Herkovic was barking at me (we were all barking in the din of the gathering) about the work of Richard Rhodes, who wrote 2003’s Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.  His research discovered how murdering people the traditional way, one by one, proved traumatic for the murderers.  The Nazis escalated cautiously, improving mass murder methods; and finally,  “conditioning” the troops, to avoid “disabling trauma.”

The Jerusalem Post notes that Rhodes’s book “graphically and chillingly details the work of the special killing battalions of Himmler’s SS. . . Extremely well-written. . . [A] fine work of gruesome history.”  But I wonder, by detailing the crimes, do we risk their repetition?  By speaking about the unspeakable, do we ensure that it becomes a blueprint?

Coincidentally, Andrew had Rhodes’s cell phone number — he scribbled it down for me.  I’ll try phoning him today.  My reason:  Rhodes will be here for a November 11 talk during our Ethics and War program.  As war becomes more and more total … what do “ethics” mean in war?