Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Snyder’

Marci Shore on Ukraine, a graduate seminar via Skype, and “the return of metaphysics”

Saturday, August 29th, 2015
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marci-shoreIntellectual and cultural historian Marci Shore remembers Tony Judt in the current issue of the New Yorker, which quickly segues into the current plight of Ukraine:

“We are unwise to laugh too quickly at those who describe the world as a conflict between good and evil,” Tony said, in a lecture in 2003. “If you can’t use the word ‘evil,’ you have a real problem thinking about what happened in the world.” In February, 2014, the Polish philosopher Marcin Król told an interviewer that Europeans were facing a serious political crisis and a potentially fatal spiritual crisis: they had ceased asking themselves metaphysical questions, questions like “Where does evil come from?” As Król’s friend Adam Michnik, the Polish writer and dissident, once said to Václav Havel, “This is a civilization that needs metaphysics.”

Marci reminds us of Judt’s “insistence on the historian’s moral responsibility not only to understand, but also to engage.” Her own form of engagement, or one of them, took the form of skyping in for graduate seminar on Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century, Israel: An Alternative, and Past Imperfect. (The first is an excellent series of conversations between Judt and Timothy Snyder, who happens to be Marci’s husband.) “And so this spring, from my office at Yale, I saw Mykola [a graduate student and now soldier] in uniform on my computer screen, the unmarked walls of a Soviet-built bunker in the background. He had Skyped in as well, from the undisclosed location, and he appeared on one half of my screen; Yaroslav [Hrytsak], together with Mykolas’s classmates, appeared on the other half.”

In response to Michnik’s call, she said:

judtThe Maidan was the return of metaphysics. It was a precarious moment of moral clarity, an impassioned protest against rule by gangsters, against what in Russian is called proizvol: arbitrariness and tyranny. It united Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, workers and intellectuals, Ukrainians and Jews, parents and children, left and right. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak … described the Maidan as akin to Noah’s Ark: it took “two of every kind.” For Yaroslav, the wonder of the Maidan was the creation of a truly civic nation, the overcoming of preoccupations with identity in favor of thinking about values. People came to the Maidan to feel like human beings, Yaroslav explained. The feeling of solidarity, he said—it cannot be described.

You can read more about Marci’s unusual graduate seminar here.

Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan at the end of Europe

Friday, July 31st, 2015
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Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, earlier this year. (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

We wrote about Serhiy Zhadan, Ukrainian poet, novelist, essayist, and translator over a year ago, in a post titled, “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” That’s when the pro-Russian demonstrators broke his skull with bats in his native Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine, a place that has the misfortune to be close to the Russian border.

“Americans need to understand, in Eastern Europe, writers still have a huge influence on society,” Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic literature at the University of Kansas told the New Yorker in a story here. “It may sound like an old-fashioned ‘poet stands up to tyranny’ story, like something out of Les Miz—‘Can you hear the people sing?’—but it’s really kind of like that. … He’s a writer who is a rock star, like Byron in the early nineteenth century was a rock star.”

We were happy to see him appear last week in a New York Review of Books blogpost by Timothy Snyder, “Edge of Europe, End of Europe.” Tim said “What Zhadan actually seems to aspire to – and here his willingness to risk his life for Europe is a clue – is what [writer Mykola] Khvylovy called ‘psychological Europe’: the acceptance of conventions, the work to transcend them, and the absolute indispensability of freedom and dignity for the effort.” The discussion includes Czesław Miłosz as well:

Zhadan’s most recent work, a collection of poetry published earlier this year entitled Lives of Maria, is a book of Ukraine’s war and of Zhadan’s own survival: “you see, I lived through it, I have two hearts/do something with both of them.” Yet as the book proceeds the meditations are increasingly religious, the poems often taking the form of conversations with Maria herself. No one, in eastern Slavic culture or anywhere else, combines the writerly personas of tough guy and holy fool as does Zhadan. He raps hymns.

A happenstance Californian.

Kindred spirit?

At points in Lives of Maria, Zhadan sounds like Czesław Miłosz, the twentieth-century Polish poet, who also strove toward Europe through both the local and the universal: “I wanted to give everything a name.” Miłosz was the preeminent poet of a borderland, one to the north of Kharkiv, Lithuanian-Belarusian-Polish (and Jewish) rather than Ukrainian-Russian (and Jewish). His position, not so different from Zhadan’s perhaps, was that Europe can best be recognized on the margins, that uncertainty and risk are more substantial than commonplaces and certainty. And indeed, the last section of Lives of Maria is devoted to Zhadan’s translations of Miłosz. Zhadan begins with two of Miłosz’s poems, “A Song on the End of the World” and a “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” that ask the most direct questions about what Europeans did during the twentieth century and what they might and should do instead. The second poem communicates the pain and difficulty of actually seeing and trying to learn from the Holocaust, which was, or at least once was, a central idea of the European project. The first transmits, almost breezily, certainly eerily, what a European catastrophe might feel like. It concludes: “No one believes that it has already begun/Only a wizened old man who might have been a prophet/But is not a prophet, because he has other things to do/Looks up as he binds his tomatoes and says/There will be no other end of the world. There will be no other end of the world.”

Where Miłosz wrote in Polish that the old man had other things to do, Zhadan writes in Ukrainian that there were already so many prophets. Perhaps so. Pro-European Ukrainians are taking a chance, not demanding a future. They watch the Greek crisis too, and their position is often more scathing than anything western critics of the EU could muster. The point then is not certainty but possibility. Zhadan might well have died for an idea of Europe; other Ukrainians already have. Yet the risks he has taken, both physical and literary, are not in the service of any particular politics. Many of his essays and poems are about the attempt to understand people with whom he disagrees. He is an outspoken critic of his own government. Like Miłosz, who described Europe as “familial,” or like Khvylovy, who called Europe “psychological,” Zhadan is pursuing experimentation and enlightenment, a sense of “Europe” that demands engagement with the unmasterable past rather than the production and consumption of historical myth. “Freedom,” writes Zhadan in Lives of Maria, “consists in voluntarily returning to the concentration camp.”

It rather makes me hanker for a translation. Anyone? Oh well, you can read all of Tim’s article here.

Does “September 1” ring any bells? It should.

Monday, September 1st, 2014
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September 1, 1939.  The day has peculiar resonances if you are Polish, for reasons obvious in the 1939 headline above. The anniversary of the Nazi blitzkrieg almost slipped by me, were it not for my Polish friend Artur Sebastian Rosman‘s interesting and controversial post on the subject over at his blog, Cosmos the in Lost, in which the Czeslaw Milosz scholar discusses Timothy Snyders internationally acclaimed Bloodlands, which we’ve discussed before here and here and here and here. While Artur acknowledges that the Holocaust has become almost a “metaphysical measuring stick of humanity’s capacity for radical evil,” he reminds us that Hitler had even bigger plans in mind:

snyderBloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin puts the Holocaust within its Central European context. What’s frequently lost is how Snyder’s international bestseller suggests the Holocaust is not some ahistorical transcendent metaphysical essence, but rather a contingent historical event. First of all, Snyder’s book puts the Holocaust within the context of the genocides perpetrated against other populations stuck between Germany and the Soviet Union. Second, Bloodlands gives a thorough account of the Generalplan Ost: the secret German plan to exterminate the Slavs so that Germans could repopulate their lands and take advantage of the Ukrainian breadbasket.

The extermination of the Slavs was Germany’s main plan. What they did not anticipate was the strength of the Soviet resistance and how the herding of Jewish populations would cause the Nazis logistical problems. The rapid accumulation of large populations in ghettos led the Germans to send them to preexisting concentration camps. These camps were first used to systematically kill Catholic clergy, Polish resistance fighters, and Communists.

Read the whole thing here.  Of course, we couldn’t let the day go by without a mention of W.H. Audens September 1, 1939 (we’re glad that Artur didn’t forget it, either), which begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Right again

Sock it to us, Wystan.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

I’ve thought a lot of the last two lines of this excerpt in recent days – there’s plenty in the international news to remind us. What remedy? What remedy? How about the man who insisted that goodness properly understood is not passive, but active – that the world requires individuals who not only refrain from harming others, but energetically seek out those in need of help? Sir Nicholas Winton saved 669 Czech children from certain death in the Holocaust – about 6,000 people are alive today because of his efforts. He turned 105 years old last May, with an international celebration at London’s Czech Embassy; The Guardian wrote about that event here. “I am always surprised every time I come here to see all kinds of people who have come really very great distances to say hello,” Winton said. “As far as I am concerned, it is only Anno Domini that I am fighting – I am not ill, I am just old and doddery.”

wintonHis daughter has just published a book about her father – The Guardian wrote about that over the summer too, here. “Like her father, Barbara Winton is not sentimental; she lets the story tell itself,” writes Emma Howard. “Both father and daughter resist hero worship. The book’s title is a nod to his often-repeated motto: ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.'” An excerpt that tells the story:

“Nearly 6,000 people in the world today are alive because Winton responded to a phone call from Prague in December 1938. The call was from his friend Martin Blake, who was engaged in helping Jewish refugees and was asking for Winton’s assistance. On arrival in Prague, Winton immediately took action, setting up an office in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. He persuaded the German authorities to let a number of Jewish children leave, and identified British foster families who would open their homes to them. (In November 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, parliament approved a measure that would allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, if they had a place to stay and provided that £50 was deposited to pay for their eventual return to their own country.) He then organised eight evacuations on the Czech Kindertransport train from Prague to London’s Liverpool Street station. He spent only three weeks in Prague – the maximum length of time he could get off from his job as a stockbroker in the City – though he worked in the evenings during the following eight months to complete the mission.

“For half a century, Winton knew nothing of the nearly 700 people who now call themselves ‘Nicky’s children’. He did not seek them out after the war and rarely spoke of the episode. But the details were waiting to be found – in a scrapbook crammed with documents, photographs and a list of every child he saved. It was not until the BBC got hold of the scrapbook in 1988 that the story came to light. Invited by Esther Rantzen to sit in the audience of her show That’s Life!, Winton was overwhelmed when she announced live on air that the people in the audience around him were the children he had saved.”

Here’s how he found out he’d become a hero. It’s an awwwww video, for a little hope on a grim anniversary:

The man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s “report to the world”

Sunday, March 30th, 2014
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Last year, Georgetown University Press republished Jan Karski‘s nearly 500-page Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.  Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, wrote about the man who tried to stop the Holocaust in the Huffington Post here.  The Kosciuszko Foundation kindly awarded Humble Moi a grant for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz a few years back – let me take a moment here to thank the organization; they do good stuff.

Karski was a liaison officer of the Polish underground, who infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp and then carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. We’ve written about him here and here.  An excerpt from Storozynski’s weekend piece:

First published in 1944, Karski’s book reads like a spy novel on steroids. But you can’t make this stuff up. The truth is indeed more horrible than fiction. That’s why first hand accounts of the war such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel‘s Night, and Karski’s Story of a Secret State must be kept alive for posterity’s sake. Georgetown University Press has reissued Karski’s report to the world with a foreword by Madeleine Albright, an essay by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, and an afterword by Zbigniew Brzezinski that give context to Karski’s memoir 70 years after it was first published.

With the World War II generation nearly gone, opportunities to preserve their memories are fading. Brzezinski was a teenager and his father was a diplomat in Canada during the war when Karski came to visit. Brzezinski was stunned to see that Karski’s “wrists were badly slashed and cut and were healing.” After being arrested and tortured by the Germans, Karski was not sure if he could keep the Underground’s secrets, so he tried to kill himself.

karski2Polish Underground operatives were often equipped with cyanide in case they were captured, and Poles who collaborated with the Germans were killed. Whenever the Underground attacked the occupying German army, the Nazis took retribution with mass murders of Polish civilians. Poles where randomly put up against the wall and shot for minor infractions. Albright writes, “The Nazi’s demanded submission, the Underground mandated resistance. The residents of occupied Poland lived under two wholly incompatible systems of justice and law.” …

The Polish Underground told the world what was going on. Karski secretly traveled to the West, smuggling details about the Holocaust to the Allies. As early as 1942, Karski snuck microfilm out of Poland that resulted in a pamphlet called The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland.

Snyder points out that Karski’s “incontestable heroism reminds us that the Allies knew about the Holocaust but were not much interested.”

Read the rest here.

Timothy Snyder nails it.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014
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We’ve written about Tim Snyder  here and here and here and here and here.

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Will we pay the price? Tim Snyder and Sławomir Sierakowski on Ukraine

Thursday, March 6th, 2014
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“The removal of a state from Europe has consequences for the continent.”

It’s hard to keep up with events in Ukraine. Every twelve hours some new development upsets what we thought to be true. Fortunately, longstanding Book Haven friend Timothy Snyder, author of the acclaimed Bloodlands and one of our leading experts on Eastern Europe (we’ve written about him here and here and here, among other places), has been writing a good deal. He’s worth googling, or following on Twitter and Facebook.  Here’s an excellent primer, “If Russia Swallows Ukraine, the European System Is Finished.”  An excerpt:

In Vienna, where I live, one also hears constant mentions of 1938. Austrians and other citizens of European Union countries are beginning to consider what the end of Ukraine might mean for their own European system. The point is not that Putin is like Hitler; the point is that the removal of a state from Europe has consequences for the continent.

When we consider any state in isolation from the system, it can seem fragile, new, perhaps unnecessary. Ukraine today, like Austria in the 1930s, is a creation of a dramatic change in the world order. Austria as an independent republic owed its existence to World War I, just as Ukraine as an independent republic owes its existence to the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. Independent Austria lasted for two decades; independent Ukraine has existed for only slightly longer. For some, an artificial creation that had no right to exist; for others home to a people indistinguishable from Germans, Austria had few friends in 1938. Ukraine finds itself in much the same position today. Just as most European leaders were happy to accept the German idea that Austria had no right to exist, many people around the West seem ready to forget about Ukraine or to believe the Kremlin’s propaganda that half of the country is Russian.

snyderYet the reasons why states are supposed to exist are general, transcending their particular histories. The principles of international law are not subject to particular claims about identities. As with Putin today in Ukraine, Hitler in 1938 in Austria based his claim on the need to protect fellow ethnics. It is easy to criticize Putin’s arguments in some important details. He claims to be defending Russian citizens. But since dual citizenship in Ukraine is illegal, the most visible of Russian citizens in Ukraine are (1) the Russian soldiers and sailors based in Sevastopol, (2) the Russian soldiers who have just invaded southern Ukraine and (3) Ukrainian riot police who are being given Russian citizenship at the Russian consulate in Simferopol to reward them for beating Ukrainian protesters. Putin claims to be defending “compatriots,” but that is a category that has no meaning. The suggestion is that anyone who speaks Russian needs a Russian invasion; that would mean that since I am writing in English I need an English invasion.

Read the rest here.  Or read his “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda” in the New York Review of Books here.  Or even his warning over a month ago in the New York Times – “Don’t let Putin Grab Ukraine” here.

Photo: Jarek Kruk

“Opinion polls have deprived politicians of conscience.” (Photo: Jarek Kruk)

Meanwhile, over at The GuardianSławomir Sierakowski‘s assessment is unsparing in “The West Must Act on Ukraine, But Nobody Wants to Pay the Price” (we wrote about him last month here):

“We can already hear politicians muttering that Crimea is in effect already lost. And the only specifics mentioned concern what the west will certainly not do, precluding military intervention and the irritation of Gazprom. ‘Economic sanctions against Russia would damage Germany itself,’ Philipp Missfelder, a member of the German government and key ally of Angela Merkel, told the Wall Street Journal. British government advisers are speaking in a similar tone, attempting to avoid aggravating Russian oligarchs.

“Even the mildest sanction – removing Russia from the G8 – is being questioned. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, says: ‘I’m more with those who say the G8 format is actually the only format in which we in the west still talk directly with Russia. Should we really sacrifice this only format?’ This is quite a renunciation. Who here is ‘out of touch with reality’, Mrs Merkel?

“If the west allows Crimea to be torn from Ukraine, this will be a major shock for the countries that are celebrating a quarter century of freedom from Russian tutelage and who are the west’s most faithful allies and the EU’s greatest enthusiasts. They will have to seriously reconsider their foreign and defence policies. It is difficult to predict the direction – good or bad – in which this development will lead. One thing is almost certain – if the US and EU remain as indolent as they have been in dealing with the situation in Ukraine, eastern European countries will put article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, which may be summarised as ‘one for all, all for one’, back on the shelf with their fairy tales. Just like Russia. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, no one will believe that the west would move to defend one of the alliance’s smaller members.

“A fundamental reason for the west’s increasingly embarrassing ‘softy power’ in global politics is the growing weakness of democratic systems. The addiction of politicians to opinion polls, unbridled consumerism, the disintegration of social ties and the consequent weakening of the sense of solidarity between people have completely demobilised western society.

“The leaders of the western world would surely like to do something for Syria or Ukraine, but they know that any serious economic or military engagement, which would require sacrifices of their citizens, would amount to political suicide. Opinion polls have deprived politicians of conscience, character and any sense of responsibility for the future of democracy and freedom.

“This is not something dictators need to worry about, which is why Putin can do what he pleases. At least as long as he does not target the west. And the same applies to others who may be encouraged by his success.”

Read the rest here.

 

New York City in 62 hours: revisiting old memories, making new ones

Monday, May 6th, 2013
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I spent a whirlwind 62 hours in New York City, but they were “cherce.”  Fortunately, photographer (and friend) Zygmunt Malinowski was on hand to document some of the highlights, and has kindly allowed the Book Haven to feature them.

First, I spoke at a commemorative event for Krzysztof Michalski, the founder of Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, where I was Milena Jesenská Fellow a few years ago.  “Democracy is Controversy Plus Solidarity: In the Absence of Krzysztof Michalski” was sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Polish Cultural Institute, in conjunction with the P.E.N. Festival in New York City.

The panel left to right:  Alfred Gusenbauer, former prime minister of Austria;  literary historian and author Irena Grudzinska Gross of Princeton;  Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum; Marci Shore of Yale author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and Humble Moi…

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Whoops!  There’s someone missing from this line-up.  Same cast of characters, but below you can also see Yale’s Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands (and Marci Shore’s husband) at far right.

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Next, some of us who met for the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City two years ago decided to celebrate a reunion.  What better place than the famous Russian Samovar, a longstanding mecca for the Russian literati (and other Slavs … and non-Slavs)? The place was a familiar haunt for Joseph Brodsky, a friend of Miłosz’s.

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.

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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 Władek Zając.  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.

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After 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 you need one.

Here’s Roman Kaplan reading Joseph Brodsky’s poems in the commemorative corner:

 

Part Deux: Tomas Venclova on Arthur Miller, Timothy Snyder, and an imprisoned friend

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012
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More on Tomas Venclova.  I can’t get enough.

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 Snyder in 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.”

Timothy Snyder: On dissent and “the stories people tell about themselves”

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012
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Provocative author of "Bloodlands"

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.

His responses in the Q&A (with Alec Ash) are heartbreakingly insightful.  But then, he is often quoting maestros. He recommends five books: George Orwell‘s Homage to Catalonia, Czeslaw Milosz‘s The Captive Mind, Adam Michnik‘s The Church and the Left, Milan Kundera‘s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Václav Havels The Power of the Powerless.

“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.

Milosz

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.

Kundera

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.

Havel

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.

Read the whole thing here.

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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 …

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.