Superb and Somber
A few months ago I posted excerpts from Anne Applebaum’s appreciative review of a new book by Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. I quoted then Applebaum’s stark conclusion which is worth repeating:
If nothing else, a reassessment of what we know about Europe in the years between 1933 and 1953 could finally cure us of that “lack of imagination” that so appalled Czesław Miłosz almost sixty years ago. 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. The more we learn about the twentieth century, the harder it will be to draw easy lessons or make simple judgments about the people who lived through it—and the easier it will be to empathize with and understand them.
Having now read the book itself, and especially its stunning Conclusion: “Humanity,” I find Applebaum well captures Snyder’s purpose. He himself writes of his labor:
The Nazi and the Stalinist systems must be compared, not so much to understand the one or the other, but to understand our times and ourselves.
He suggests some of what we need to understand when he writes:
Ideologies also tempt those who reject them. Ideology, when stripped by time or partisanship of its political and economic connections becomes a moralizing form of explanation for mass killing, one that comfortably separates the people who explain from the people who kill. It is convenient to see the perpetrator just as someone who holds the wrong idea and is therefore different for that reason. It is reassuring to ignore the importance of economics and the complications of politics, factors that might in fact be common to historical perpetrators and those who later contemplate their actions. It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical situation they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands. The identification with the victim affirms a radical separation from the perpetrator. The Treblinka guard who starts the engine or the NKVD officer who pulls the trigger is not me, he is the person who kills someone like myself. Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge or whether this kind of alientation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral.
He explains further:
The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim, but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding … Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible.
To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.
In my opinion Snyder’s book is a must read for the New Year: harrowing and imperative. I would love to see him discuss further his “Conclusion” in an article for, say, Commonweal or First Things, or in a Symposium at Boston College or Fordham. Without coming to grips with his historical and ethical discernment, invocations of “the common good” can appear merely facile and rhetorical.