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The Last Salvo

Mikics Replies to Snyder

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Timothy Snyder, in his response to my article published on July 26, remarks that my approach is “precisely the same as that of the nationalists throughout Europe and a fair number of anti-Semites in the United States.” He discounts my argument, suggesting that I chose to pay more attention to Jewish than to non-Jewish victims. Snyder warns against ethnic categories. And yet, he seems eager to put me in one such category—by reducing my argument to the biased statements of a pro-Jewish partisan.

Snyder remarks, “Surely we should attend to the lives of all of the murdered, regardless of how we categorize them.” It is unfair and inaccurate to imply that I think that non-Jewish suffering is less worthy of our attention than Jewish suffering. Indeed, I made exactly this point in my article, which praises Snyder’s deeply humane description of suffering across national lines. Instead, I focused on the well-known statistics that he himself has cited: 90 percent of Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, 96 percent of Lithuanian Jews, and 98.6 percent of Volhynian Jews. It is not surprising that there is more emphasis on the Holocaust than on the losses of non-Jewish Poland, which had about 5 percent of its civilian population killed during the war. I simply do not believe it is an act of ethnic prejudice to see the Holocaust as distinct from the other episodes of mass violence.

Far from trumpeting an ethnic cause, I set out in my original piece to explore whether Snyder succeeds in explaining the Holocaust and the other mass murders on which he focuses in his work. That explanation cannot be delivered without a full account of the collaboration of Eastern Europeans with the Nazis, an account that I asserted Snyder failed to provide. In Bloodlands, his celebrated 2010 book, Snyder fails to mention the many anti-Jewish statements by Polish newspapers and church authorities, along with the descriptions given by individual Poles (as well as Ukrainians, Lithuanians, et. al.) of their own actions. He omits critical comments by Karski, Klukowski, and others about the anti-Semitic mood of Polish society—omissions I believe produce a skewed view of history.

Snyder writes of me that I “profess not to see the connections between the Soviet Union and the Holocaust.” But some of the connections he cites are not causal in any sense (for example, “Soviet Jews were the second-largest victim group in the Holocaust”). Others furnish only a dubious causality. Hitler did not require the example of a Stalin-imposed starvation in order to develop his “Hunger Plan,” which was completely different in its goals. It is certainly true that Hitler needed the cover of war in order to accomplish the Holocaust. But to say this is quite different from implying, as I believe Snyder does, that there was something about the Soviet mass murders that allowed Hitler to murder the Jews. The implication that Nazi violence was to some degree caused by earlier Soviet violence remains vague but central in Snyder’s work, and it is precisely this point that he fails to demonstrate.

It should be possible to describe a society (for instance, wartime Poland) without being falsely pigeonholed as either a slanderer or a defender of it. Such name-calling stands in the way of serious historical explanation. In this, at least, Snyder and I are in agreement.

Earlier: In Defense of Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder

The Diplomat of Shoah History, by David Mikics

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For a related discussion see my paper in
the American Association for Polish Jewish Studies on the harmful consequences
of ethno-centric or ‘closed’ tribal historical perspective for contemporary
Polish-Jewish relations:
. Snyder’s book is a wonderful example of non-national(istic) non-ethnocentric
historiography which accords with what Amartya Sen in The Theory of Justice described
as the need for ‘open impartiality’. Such a methodology is capable of overcoming the problem
common to nationalistic views of history which ‘select’ and ‘omit’ problematic
facts, perspectives and narratives which fit uncomfortably into a ‘closed’
cultural world-view. Rather than being a ‘last salvo’ as Mikics states, Snyder’s work exemplifies
the post-nationalistic historiography which is the methodological standard and
norm for serious Holocaust scholarship by the leading historians, in Israel,
Poland, the US and elsewhere. Unfortunately for some, reading about the ‘sufferings’,
tragedies and moments of pride of other national groups is too great an ask for
those who prefer the emotional safety of their own ethno-centric perspectives. If
we live in a Popperian open society, we must come to terms with historical
facts and perspectives that do not always fit with our own, and are often, as
Isaiah Berlin stated ‘incommensurable’, however it is only through this
engagement can our knowledge and understanding grow. We are no longer in the
position to misrecognise the sufferings and evils done to other groups whether
they be those done to Jews by the Nazi’s or to Ukrainians, Poles and Russians
by Nazi and Soviet regimes, and not just these groups, and not just in this
period. Snyder’s work dares us to take note and to recognise the individual who
is not a part of our ‘tribe’, and their sufferings in all their horror, which are
no less deserving of attention, recognition, and ultimately empathy.


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The Last Salvo

Mikics Replies to Snyder

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