Posts Tagged ‘Mein Kampf’

Timothy Snyder: Black Earth

June 29, 2019

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I’ve admired Timothy Snyder’s previous books, The Reconstruction of Nations and Bloodlands, because I’ve comes across nothing else in English that deals so clearly and in so much detail with the history of my father’s part of the world during his lifetime; I was immediately interested when this, his most recent book, came out, but was also warned off by reviews which didn’t like his links between Hitler, ecology and what was happening in the contemporary world.

I was instantly uncertain when reading this late twentieth century term in connection with Hitler and the Holocaust, but it’s clear Snyder has studied and analysed Hitler’s Mein Kampf in great depth, which not many do, and which is the source of his ideas about the struggles between races, for domination and survival. There were times when I did feel Snyder was striving too hard to fit all of 1930s history and politics into his own neat theory.

Snyder’s analysis of inter-war Polish politics and its relations with Germany, together with his explanations of why, ultimately they didn’t become allies in a war against the Soviet Union, are very useful, and we see how in the end Poland, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany all misunderstood each other, and misread each other’s intentions. Poland wanted to sort its Jewish problem through mass emigration to Palestine, and spent time and money training Zionists for their armed struggle against the British who had the mandate; Poland suffered from mass unemployment, and felt it had too many Jews (over 3 million). Jews were regarded as human beings whose presence in the country was economically and politically undesirable. What is so well treated is the complexity of all the issues, including the question of Polish anti-semitism. Equally Snyder is clear about Hitler deliberately provoking crises hoping to embroil Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in a war, as well as the Soviet Union fomenting tension along its border with Poland.

Where Snyder’s analysis seems to make most sense, and the greatest contribution – at least to this non-historian’s understanding – to analysis of events in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is in his exploration of the gradual way in which Jews were made stateless, ie without any formal protection in law, and how vast tracts of nations were made lawless zones, in which anything became possible. Once again Snyder makes it evident how the West never really understood the Nazis’ intentions and behaviour towards Eastern Europe and its populations, imagining those lands’ experience of war and occupation as being similar to their own, which was never true.

Soviet occupation of the borderlands in 1939-40, consequent on the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, made the Nazis’ work in 1941-42 much easier: Soviet occupation and chaos followed by Nazi occupation and chaos in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland was crucial in facilitating the wholesale massacre of civilians.

Snyder also unpicks different kinds of anti-semitism in different parts of occupied Europe, the differing ways in which the Nazis encouraged and took advantage of it, and the different ways in which the extermination of the Jews was carried out in different countries. In the West we are not usually aware of the fact that most of Europe’s Jews had already been killed before the extermination facilities at Auschwitz were opened; the focus on Auschwitz has allowed Germans to claim that they didn’t know what went on, whereas any German on service in Eastern Europe could not have been ignorant of mass shootings in hundreds if not thousands of locations.

There is also a very interesting chapter of individual stories which reflect how complex relations were between Jews and non-Jews at all levels during the war, and examine why some helped Jews and others did not. Again, Snyder challenges simplistic Western commentary on Polish anti-semitism: not that there was none, for indeed there was, but that many complex factors lay behind people’s behaviour.

After the war there was collusion between the new Soviet-backed regimes and many of those who had in various ways collaborated with the Nazis; in Poland the Holocaust laid the foundations for the new Soviet settlement and transformation of a now Jew-less society.

I am not a historian and so I cannot comment on Snyder’s analysis and how it fits in or doesn’t with what others have written, but for me he does explore issues carefully, sensitively, in detail, makes connections where they haven’t been made before, and provokes further reflection. As I mentioned at the start, I did find his overall thesis somewhat forced; nevertheless he makes the important point that we don’t necessarily now live in a more secure or saner world from which the spectres and horrors of the past have been banished, and indicates where some future dangers may lie. For me, this is the mark of a good historian.

Why I read…

January 14, 2014

2008_1227stefsphotos0001I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember.

The first book I was ever given was Winnie The Pooh, and I never looked back; the first book I ever bought myself was with a Christmas book token (anyone remember those?) – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It cost the amazing sum of 3/6 (for those who never met real money, that’s the equivalent of 17.5pence). I’ve never looked back from Holmes, either.

As a child I wore our the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, with daily visits during school holidays. At the age of 12 they let me loose on the adults’ section… James Bond was a revelation. I hoovered up everything I could at school, and was astonished to be paid a grant to study literature at university, where I lay on the bed, reading huge numbers of books, some brilliant and others dire. After that, I received grants to read for two more literature degrees… and then spent my working life teaching English, mostly centred around reading & literature. And now I’m retired and can and do read to my heart’s content.

And there are often times when I ask myself what I’m missing, what I’ve missed, through having my nose in books all this time. When I got too uppity as a teenager and argued the toss about everything with my father, he would remind me that you can’t learn everything from books. He was right, even though he was the one who had encouraged me to read, to study and to learn. And I realised that actually, by reading, I could learn from the experiences of others as they wrote about themselves.

I read because I can enjoy (vicariously) the lives and experiences of others.

I read to escape from myself and my world, sometimes.

I read for pleasure.

I read to stimulate my mind and my brain, to make myself think.

I read because I’m seeking information.

All of those in no particular order. There have been failures, some of which may shock people: I have no time for Dickens; I read Hard Times at university because I had to; it was fair, but I have no desire to read any more. Similarly, I had to read Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but have never felt the urge to explore further. An unopened copy of Jude the Obscure is on the shelves somewhere. I tried to read Mein Kampf once, but it bored me stupid and I gave up. (I also fell asleep in the cinema trying to watch Triumph of the Will). Several people at different times tried to persuade me to read Nabokov’s Lolita; I’ve had three goes, and failed – it makes my flesh creep. It took me thirty years to tackle Saul Bellow; I managed to get to the end of The Adventures of Augie March, and it was okay, but…

If you want to know what I really like, then I point you to the page somewhere on here called ‘My Lists’.

I calculated, from the reading log I’ve kept since the age of 18, that I’ve read over 3000 books since then. It doesn’t really seem very many, and I know that I have lots to re-read, along with the large piles of unread ones: I hope I’m granted enough life and eyesight to get through them all. I’m certainly not going to change the habit of a lifetime…

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