I spent a whirlwind 62 hours in New York City, but they were “cherce.” Fortunately, photographer (and friend) Zygmunt Malinowskiwas on hand to document some of the highlights, and has kindly allowed the Book Haven to feature them.
The Russian Samovar’s legendary proprietor Roman Kaplan appeared toward the evening – he’d founded the hang-out with Mikhail Baryshnikov and he’d also been an especially close friend of Brodsky’s. No sooner did he find out about my association with the Nobel poet than he pulled me into the corner seat, where Joseph Brodsky had usually held court, and a photo with the (by then) glassy-eyed Moi was snapped. Glassy-eyed, but nevertheless … stepping into a page of New York cultural history.
Finally, here’s the whole reunion crew. This is the only photograph in the group that is not by Zygmunt, because that’s him at far left, looking gravely into the camera (in the mirror you can see the mystery guest photographer’s arms). The poet Anna Frajlich is next to Zygmunt, then Alla Roylance, Moi, Izabella Barry, and Wladek Frajlich. Couldn’t find a better group of people. And you’d hard-pressed to find a better dinner, beginning with vodka infused with horseradish, cranberries, and lemon (you can read about them at the Paris Review here) continuing with Georgian and traditional Russian dishes, and finishing with samovar tea with jam. Dostoevsky would have approved entirely.
As for the panel discussion, we ended at the residence of U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik. Risotto with white spargel, a perfectly chilled white wine from the Kamp River region, quince schnapps, and plenty of Mozartkugeln. Can’t top that … but ohhhhh, I wish I could find that brilliant Austrian wine here, but the ambassador, rightly known as a connoisseur, told me the American market likes its wines a little more fruity, a little less delightfully sharp – you have to go to Vienna to get these. As good an incitement as any, should one need one.
Here’s Roman Kaplan reading Joseph Brodsky’s poems in the commemorative corner:
Below, a few more clips from the celebration of World Poetry Day at the Web of Stories, continuing my post here.
I certainly didn’t know the playwright Arthur Miller had championed the Lithuanian poet and written a letter to the Communist authorities to protect him. Here’s the story:
I’ve written a lot about Timothy Snyderin these pages – but I didn’t know till now he is friends with Tomas (who is a great fan of Bloodlands). “A relationship with him is something you can be proud of,” he says of the acclaimed author.
A reading of his poem “Before the middle of July, Paris.” The poem is dedicated to the imprisoned Lithuanian dissident Viktoras Petkus. “Well, this is about how a person attempts to reach public opinion in the West, and doesn’t succeed.”
You don’t have to live under a totalitarian government to understand some of the head trips Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands fame describes in his provocative and incisive interview over at the Browser. We run them through our minds daily – at home, in the workplace, in our social circles.
Which hardly undermines the stories of people for whom the stakes were astronomically higher – those who face prison, death, or poverty for risking free expression. But it does make his observations universal.
“The people whose books I’ve chosen lived in regimes which not only monopolized violence but threatened it in an everyday sense. And some of them suffered as a direct result of what they wrote,” he said.
Tim’s responses, and the books he has chosen, do not just tell us (as the subhead says) “how to challenge the over-mighty”; more importantly, they all demonstrate the way we delude ourselves – regardless of political stripe, personal beliefs, or external circumstances.
I have my caveats. He seems to put a lot of stock in such terms as “liberals”; I find that these labels increasingly meaningless if not misleading (and highly elastic), and have come to feel that it’s dangerous to identify oneself with any political group. Too often among my colleagues, such labels become simple synonyms for “good,” “truth,” and “people who think like me.” Which means you can do anything you like, because you’ve a priori identified yourself with the good. And why is the piece, which praises non-violence, illustrated with a clenched fist from Wikipedia Commons? Ah well.
That said, how can you argue with passages like this?
… The Captive Mind by the celebrated Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, seems to have some overtones of 1984 itself.
Yes. Milosz tried to explain – as the title suggests – how thinking people could accept communism from inside the communist system. How does one not resist or just endure, but actually place one’s mind in the system? He points to a number of ways in which the mind can adapt. You can accept one larger truth that guides your interpretation of all of the smaller untruths, accept a vision of the future that is so bright that it drives away the shadows of the various dark acts of your own time and place. Or you can collaborate on the outside but preserve an inner core of yourself that does not collaborate on the inside.
Milosz’s point was that all of these things are possible as human adaptations to a situation, but impossible as ways of preserving humanity. In fact they’re nothing more than stories people tell about themselves, as they give in to a system which is actually inferior and repressive.
Why did you choose Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting?
Milan Kundera was of course not really a dissident, but this book gets across the heartfelt reality of Stalinist faith. Kundera was a young Stalinist, as were his friends. So he knows what it was like to be on the inside, to have certainty about the rest of the world and to believe that everyone who didn’t share that certainty was a fool. To know where things were going and what you wanted from society – that glowing, overwhelming sense that one is young and the world belongs to you. Kundera really gets that sense across, and I think that’s incredibly important.
Also apropos of Czechoslovakia and very topical, your final selection is Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless.
In the end I think Havel will be remembered as the outstanding East European dissident writer, and he will be remembered as such above all for this essay. Its central point is that even a communist regime that controls the media and exercises a great deal of power depends ultimately on an almost visible collaboration with society – society meaning individual decisions taken by individuals, which accumulate to have a universal appearance.
And what does Havel say to that inner voice that you shouldn’t risk personal suffering and put your head above the parapet?
He understands it. There is this Christ-like patience, and he’s not programmatic. Havel doesn’t call for everyone to do what’s beyond them. He asks them to do what they can, and then – like [Adam] Michnik – he leads by example, does things his own way and pays the price for it. Michnik and Havel are among the dissidents who have spent the longest time in prison.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Some time ago, we explained that the Book Haven was moving, and there might be a few cyberspace bumps in the subsequent days as we switched servers. It never happened. But it is happening in the next 24 hours. Bear with us. All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well …
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.
The Economist reviewed the book last October: “Ian Morris, a polymathic Stanford University professor of classics and history, has written a remarkable book that may come to be as widely read as Paul Kennedy’s 1987 work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.”
Also receiving The Economist‘s best-of-the-year praise — in fact, right above the Why the West Rules, is Timothy Snyder‘s Bloodlands: “How Stalin and Hitler enabled each other’s crimes and killed 14m people between the Baltic and the Black Sea. A lifetime’s work by a Yale University historian who deserves to be read and reread.” (Bloodlands was discussed on The Book Haven a few weeks ago, with Norman Naimark‘s Stalin’s Genocides, and again here.)
In the spirit of Morris’s book, if you’d like to watch ten centuries roll by in five minutes — click “play” below. We think it’s kind of fun.
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.”
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.”
“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 Warin 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.
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 Naimarkabout 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.