LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 57, No.2 - Summer 2011
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Naimark, Norman M. Stalin’s Genocides. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-691-14784-0.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-465-00239-9.
These two books make excellent reading. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is a bestseller not lacking in scholarship, whereas Norman Naimark’s book is a short polemic about the term genocide and its uses. In addition to providing scholarly evidence for his subject, Snyder often interjects vignettes of individuals suffering from Hitler’s or Stalin’s genocide. Like his previous study, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, which was translated into Lithuanian, Bloodlands and Naimark’s Stalin’s Genocides will doubtlessly also be translated. Both, Snyder and Naimark are among the most respected and authoritative scholars in East European history. Although the borders of the bloodlands roughly correspond to those of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the authors deal with the Baltic States only tangentially. Both have a broader agenda. Snyder and Naimark use a transnational approach to analyze their subject, rather than focusing on the Baltic States or any single nation. They put all of the “smaller” genocides into the context of the massive deaths perpetrated by the Soviets and the Nazis. The number of Lithuanian Jews killed during the Holocaust, 200,000, seems rather small in comparison to the total number of six million killed. Whereas, the number of Lithuanian citizens deported to Siberia in 1941, 40,000, seems even smaller in comparison to Stalin’s murder of tens of millions.
The two authors correctly point out that Westerners know very little about this region. Westerners might be surprised to find out that very little of the Holocaust took place in Germany, just as most of the victims of Stalin’s mass murders did not come from Soviet Russia. The Holocaust and Stalin’s massive purges of various nationalities and social classes took place in the bloodlands. Westerners familiar with the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by the Western allies may see Snyder’s history as groundbreaking, but he does not present a great deal that is new or original for readers already interested in Lithuanian or Baltic history. An English-reading audience is simply not as familiar with Stalin’s crimes as they are with Hitler’s. Terms such as kulak, or names like Yagoda or Yezhov, and places events like Holodomor or Katyn are vague in most Westerners’ memories.
Snyder starts with Ukraine, where Stalin induced the Holodomor Famine in the 1930s. Then he proceeds to Hitler’s Final Solution, continues with the ethnic cleansing that followed the war, and ends with some rather facile ethical pronouncements. Naimark starts his book by declaring, “Stalin’s mass killings of the 1930s should be classified as ‘genocide’.”(1) Snyder mentions Lithuanian pogroms, but nothing specifically, such as the events at the Lietūkis garage or the murders at Kaunas’s Ninth Fort, which where incited by the Nazis, but perpetrated by “local collaborators.” However, he mentions the shooting of Jews by Lithuanian auxiliary forces at Paneriai Forest. Snyder clearly states that, “As a result of trained collaboration and local assistance, German killers had all the help they needed in Lithuania.”(192) But, later Snyder writes, “Interwar communist parties had in fact been heavily Jewish...” but he warns that not many Jews were communists.(194) In general, Snyder paints the Lithuanians as willing perpetrators of the Holocaust. Naimark’s polemic about Stalin’s genocide starts with a small digression about the Baltic States legislating a redefinition of genocide to include deportations, imprisonment, loss of freedom, and other Soviet crimes. This makes it seem as if Nazi and Soviet crimes were equal.
However, Naimark’s emphasis is on the use of the term genocide, not on current Baltic political machinations. He starts with a short history of the term itself. Originally coined by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943, the term evolved once the Soviets, as allies of the Western democracies, were included in defining it through their own political prism. By the late ‘40s, genocide had become a legal and political football in the United Nations, where, under Soviet pressure, the U.N. accepted a definition that excluded political groups. Its decision was deliberately narrow. Because of the U.N.’s language, Stalin’s crimes could not be considered genocide.(15) But Naimark argues the opposite. He essentially broadens its definition. Nevertheless, like Snyder and most serious scholars, Naimark accepts the fact that the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis was the worst and most unique genocide, requiring a special category: Holocaust.(137) Another factor that must be kept in mind is that Stalin was a Western ally who helped defeat Hitler. One genocidaire assisted the defeat of the other. Snyder and Naimark admit that Hitler was history’s greatest genocidal dictator, but no doubt, Stalin was second.
Depending on the user and the context, terms like holocaust and genocide have alternately acquired specific or general meanings. The Bible uses the term holocaust in reference to the fire sacrifice of an animal to God. Others have warned against nuclear holocaust. However, Lithuanian philosopher Leonidas Donskis refuses to write the word Holocaust in lowercase when referring to the mass murder of the Jews. (Editor’s note: Lithuanian rules for capitalization require that it be lowercase.) Tomas Venclova, a famous Lithuanian writer, has coined the term “stratocide,” the elimination of a social class, to use when referring to Stalin’s crimes against kulaks and Lithuanians, but a new word does not change anyone’s emotional reaction to these events. Alternately, genocide has also been used in various contexts from Cambodia to Darfur, to Armenia. These terms may have a legal, historical, religious, and political context, but they do not explain the feelings of the survivors. One should always respect the sensibilities of victims and their descendants, but political correctness may be an impediment to understanding history. Naimark is saying that people should not be held hostage to definitions that regimes with specific political motives drew up. No one should be able to hijack terminology or fear to use it.
Snyder implies that Stalin’s policies in Eastern Europe prepared the way for the Holocaust. His purpose is to show that the interaction between the two genocidal regimes during World War II led to more mass killings than either might have carried out alone. Some Lithuanians will see Bloodlands and Stalin’s Genocides as proof of the “theory of two genocides.” Naimark and Snyder are not ant-Semites nor is their intention to obfuscate, or minimize Hitler’s and Stalin’s mass murders. Nor do they equate the crimes of Nazism and Communism, as some Lithuanians would like. Both Naimark and Snyder are moderate in their assessments, and their comparisons of genocides are a legitimate avenue of research.
Snyder presents the reader with a myriad of statistics and numbers, which he uses critically and carefully, but he warns that many politicians, with the help of nationalist historians, have inflated those statistics and numbers. He writes that Jews and Lithuanians have competed for martyrdom, and that “nationalists throughout the bloodlands have indulged in quantitative exaggerations of victimhood, thereby claiming for themselves the mantle of innocence.”(402) The Lithuanian government is fighting for memory rather than a dispassionate analysis of history. Lithuanians want to commemorate what the Communists did to them, but they do not want to be labeled as a nation of Jew-shooters. The present government is needlessly resurrecting a divisive and painful historical argument with its “theory of two genocides.” By equating and comparing the Holocaust with the crimes of the Soviet regime, Lithuanians want to vindicate their own suffering. In doing so, the government has gained nothing more than a reinforcement in the minds of Westerners that Lithuanians are anti-Semites. The irony is that anti-Semitism persists in a country with very few Jews.
Ultimately, readers must judge these two books on their own merits rather than the interpretations that political fanatics will attribute to them. Snyder is as objective as possible, whereas Naimark’s polemic is as thoughtful as possible. Snyder and Naimark are historians who have written masterly works that are interesting, well researched, and thoughtful.