Posts Tagged ‘Second World War’

On collective amnesia

May 5, 2022

I haven’t posted much lately because I haven’t been reading much. Escaping the current dire state of the world seems to elude me.

I realise, as I get older, that not everyone remembers as much or as far back as I do; it’s like that strange moment when you eventually realise that policemen are now younger than you, and it didn’t use to be like that. You have to be approaching seventy to have any memory of the Cuban missile crisis. Apart from Biden, no current world leaders hit that.

Back then, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other; two hostile alliances. Now NATO faces Russia alone. Back then, the two alliances faced each other in Europe; there was a buffer of “friendly” states between Russia and the West. Now there isn’t. NATO has always had its missiles in the Russian back yard; the closest Russian missiles get to the US back yard is …. Alaska.

In 1961, world leaders were rather wiser than now, I think; they all knew what the horrors of the world war that had ended less than twenty years previously had been. Today all that is history, rather than memory, for our leaders. And I am horrified by their approach. Correct me if I’m wrong, but EU leaders seem mostly to be being calm and measured, even if they’re getting nowhere. Biden is past it, to be honest: should he have a driving licence at his age, let alone leadership of the “free” world? His public messaging is all over the place.

Britain continues to be a joke. Our PM gives away military secrets during a TV interview. His ministers say outrageous things about Putin publicly; they’re entitled to say what they like in private, but name-calling, doubting the man’s sanity, calling for him to be tried for war crimes when we aren’t at war with the Russians (yet) is barking. I wouldn’t trust the cabinet to run a ‘win a goldfish’ game at a funfair.

Putin, whose actions are evil, does look like a physically ill man. Some call his sanity into account: we don’t actually have access to information to verify that. But if that is the case, then threats and abuse are surely more likely to trigger a more outrageous and over the top response: we should be more measured in our response, without being any less determined.

Meanwhile, consider what is actually going on. Russia, left alone, might well have overwhelmed Ukraine in a matter of days. What they see is the West once again fighting a war by proxy: NATO is providing Ukraine with whatever it needs apart from troops on the ground and planes in the air. Ergo, to them, Russia is fighting NATO.

Here we are again with the Irishman’s reply to the lost traveller: “If I were you, I wouldn’t be starting from here.” Western triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union got us here; a more measured approach to Russian needs for security would have been a good start. We are in a serious mess now.

I have no suggestions for a way out. I do know that war is not good for humans and other living things. And, while Putin threatens rapid, fiery destruction, let us not lose sight of the fact that American capitalism is busy, quietly boiling the frog: big business is burning up the planet in the quest for profit, and social media is constantly stirring the cauldron of hatred. Putin has a hell of a lot to answer for; our side does not have clean hands.

Some thoughts on the Ukrainian tragedy

April 14, 2022

Warning: politics ahead

The tragedy of the Ukrainian people is evident, without my needing to say more. Even if the war ended now, several million people have gone into exile, thousands are dead, large parts of the country have been comprehensively trashed, and the economy is in ruins.

Putin has accused Ukrainians of being Nazis. This accusation has been ignored, or simplistically dismissed in the West. And yet, for Putin, there is a kind of truth behind it, for during the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as he would call it) some Ukrainians did collaborate with the Nazis, fight in their armies. Why? Because they naively saw them as liberators from what Stalin had inflicted on them in the previous decade, when millions of them were deliberately starved to death… Ukraine suffered grievously at the hands of both sides, just like another country not so far away.

And yet, there is also a tragedy for the Russians, whose economy is also being gradually wrecked, and whose international reputation cannot go any lower, we think. Their tragedy is having no tradition or experience of anything remotely resembling our flawed Western democracy: they have always – apart from a brief anarchic shakeout after the fall of the Soviet Union – been ruled by “strong” (read brutal) leaders, who have spouted words about the greatness of the nation, a delusion largely propagated by its enormous physical extent. This was true in Tsarist as well as Soviet days. Russian leaders have always done brutal very well, brutal to others, and total lack of care towards their own: what caused the Russian Revolution, after all? And, although again we in the West are inclined to overlook the Soviet effort in defeating Nazism, that effort was at the cost of regarding troops as cannon-fodder and the commanders being prepared to sacrifice however many were necessary to achieve their goal…

So the Russian approach is to wreck anywhere that opposes them: we have been reminded of Chechnya by our own commentators, and the same tactics seem to be being used in Ukraine at the moment. However, our generally ignorant, ill-informed and mouthy commentators manage to overlook the similar achievements of the West, which we are cleverer in allowing to be done by our proxies: look at the brutality being used in the Yemen, or in occupied Palestine, for example. Except it’s not the US or UK that’s doing it…allegedly.

I have been astonished by the drivel, the war-mongering nonsense written by journalists and spouted by Western politicians. If Putin does suffer from some kind of mental disorder, then it’s probably not very sensible to shout about it publicly: who knows what, in extremis, he might feel driven to try? Shut up Joe Biden (and others). And the amateur histrionics of our own government are laughable, dressing themselves up in sub-Churchill cloaks and pontificating from the sidelines as if what we thought or did made any difference. At least Macron has been trying. And then there’s all the financial aid and succour given to Putin and his kleptocrats in the past, which we are trying to sweep under the carpet.

OK so there are my opinions. And what should be done, you may well ask? I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. I do know that war is not good for ordinary people under any circumstances. And I do know that war is very profitable business for some. I do know that the West handled Russia very badly in the years after the collapse of communism, making lots of money but hardly fostering the kind of ‘democracy’ we’re usually so fond of talking about when we start our own wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq… I could go on but you get the idea). We have no real understanding of what Russia means by security: their definition may be over the top but we ought to have listened.

Apparently there were moves years ago to rule out Ukrainian membership of NATO, to enshrine some kind of neutrality for that new nation. What happened? We are very good at hindsight over here. And what would we do if that weren’t enough for Putin? The sanctions we have imposed seem to me to be the bare minimum that we can do; if we didn’t let big business get in the way, we might have been far less dependent on Russian energy than we are currently.

To finish, I’ll repeat: war isn’t the answer, and nobody will get what they want; that’s evident already. More mature and longer-term thinking and reflection is needed; our businesses and our leaders are not up to the mark here. We blunder on from crisis to crisis while the planet burns: future generations will not thank us. Meanwhile the innocent suffer.

Heinrich Gerlach: Breakout at Stalingrad

October 19, 2021

     The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning-point in the Second World War; its history is chronicled well in Anthony Beevor’s book, and the Russian (Soviet) experience of that part of the Great Patriotic War is portrayed very effectively in Vassily Grossman’s two novels, Stalingrad and Life and Fate, the latter being one of the greatest war novels ever, in my estimation. So I was interested to read something from the German perspective.

The history and genesis of this autobiographical novel – for Gerlach is lightly concealed in the character of Breuer the intelligence officer – is astonishing in itself: written during his captivity in a Russian camp, confiscated by the Soviet authorities, re-created using hypnosis for recall after his release and originally published as The Forsaken Army it became a bestseller; then the original – this book – was rediscovered about ten years ago in Russian archives and finally published. It’s apparently rather different from the bestseller.

The most striking thing is the utter chaos, lack of clear information, how overstretched the Nazi forces have managed to get themselves, and the luxurious lives the general staff and higher ranking officers carve out for themselves while the ordinary footsoldiers suffer the atrocious conditions of the Russian winter, poor equipment and lack of food. The picture of what the Germans are trying to do is never clear, and their actions are hamstrung by their blind obedience to Hitler’s unhinged orders and their fear of the consequences of personal initiative. There’s no sense of unity of common purpose here, and you do get a clear image of the moment when Nazi Germany finally overreached itself and sealed its eventual fate.

I have to say that, in the end, this description of chaos became rather tiresome to read. What saves the book is the exploration of the manifold psychological effects of the gradual realisation that there can be defeat, after so many years of success and hubris; intelligent officers finally begin to ask the questions they should have been asking and responding to long before. The focus is largely on the general staff attempting to do the impossible, and unable to face reality or tell the truth.

There are enlightening moments, such as the aftermath of the capture and interrogation of a Russian prisoner, where the German officers begin to see through the propaganda fog which has surrounded their atrocities so far, and yet are unable to realise the hypocrisy of the attitudes they must continue to espouse… And there are moments where you begin to feel sorry (!) for some of the Germans, when they begin to realise how they have allowed themselves to be misled and duped by their leaders and generals, and they have now been abandoned to die, and thus create a heroic myth for the German nation. Faced with the inevitability of surrender or death, scales fall rapidly from eyes… there is powerful stuff here, presented mainly through the thoughts of the author’s alter ego. (I honestly never imagined being able to write those last few lines.)

I wouldn’t describe it as a compelling or necessary read, but it’s worth it if you have the time and interest. Ultimately the message is the same as emerges from any number of novels, really: ordinary folk catch all the shit; leaders are vain, deluded, ambitious, insane but persuasive and are usually allowed to play out their mad ideas.

Noel Barber: Trans-siberian

December 26, 2020

This is an account of a journey on the Transsiberian Railway in the winter of 1939, so a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The writer and his wife begin their journey in Dairen, part of Japanese-occupied China, formerly the Russian city of Port Arthur, and now the city of Dalian. The casual anti-Japanese racism is quite shocking to this contemporary reader. Here is a white Westerner whose nose is put seriously out-of-joint, because of the way the Japanese clearly behave in a way that makes it clear they are the racially superior and more powerful ones. Of course, the Japanese treatment of China and the Chinese was abominable at this time; equally, everyone seemed to be anticipating war between Japan and the Soviet Union, a revenge re-play for the debacle of 1905…

I’ve always found old travel books fascinating, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the actual travelling requires a real effort, unlike so much of today’s travel. Then, there are the writers’ impressions of the places through which they pass, and the often very interesting casual encounters they have as they progress. All of these aspects combine to give a much clearer picture of a past era than you can necessarily derive from a history book.

What was particularly interesting about this book was that although the journey was made in 1939, the book wasn’t published until 1942, when we are in the middle of the Second World War, and the Soviet Union is one of our allies. Throughout, I was looking at the book as part of the propaganda effort to paint Stalin and the Soviets in an acceptable light, and how this was quite subtly done. The whole account of the journey and the places the writer sees and visits is interspersed with comments that update the reader to the current war and our ally’s efforts.

Stalin is very much in the background; we don’t get much more than references to the ubiquitous portraits garnishing public buildings. There is one slightly shocking reference to awkward social elements being ‘liquidated’. What is foregrounded is the military preparedness of the country, its massive industrial capabilities, large amounts of which are beyond the Ural mountains and therefore out of the reach of Germany. Much of the heavy industry can easily be converted to the war effort. And their troops are well-trained, well-prepared for action. A fair amount of this flies in the face of what we now know: Stalin’s refusal to believe the blindingly obvious German preparations for invasion and the country’s consequent chaos when war did finally break out, and the rush to move as much industry and production away from the German advance…

The idealism and the patriotism of the Soviet people is played up, as is women’s major contribution to the economy; there is much praise for the massive and rapid industrialisation and general modernisation of the country in the previous decade, and the master-minding of this is attributed to Stalin’s foresight. The picture of the genuine idealism of many Russians, especially the young, is borne out by later stories of their heroism and their suffering during the Great Patriotic War. As propaganda, such aspects are carefully presented, and the writer is also clear to admit what he doesn’t get to see, what he is not allowed to see, what he isn’t told, and the questions which those he meets are unable to answer…

All-in-all this was a fascinating glimpse into a long-vanished world, and also a reminder of the genuine idealism of many as they strove to build a new and better society. Everyone knows of the excesses, abuses and mass repressions and murders of the Stalinist era; no-one can or should make any excuses or apologies for them, and yet the desire of, and commitment to, a different and better world, by so many ordinary people, should not have been lost…

Geraldine Schwarz: Those Who Forget

July 15, 2020

61udheakoXL._AC_UY218_    71n8k53ll6L._AC_UY218_     I read this book in French, having come across it on a French website, and found myself cynically thinking, ‘here’s another really important book that will never make it into English’. But I’m pleased to admit I’m wrong as it’s due to be published here in September, as the illustration shows.

Géraldine Schwarz is of French and German parentage, and she explores and documents the amnesia that overtook entire nations after the Second World War: the French blotted out the shame of their collaboration with the Germans and their eager assistance with the deportation of the Jews, pretending that their Resistance was far greater than it actually had been. Germans, only too glad to have the war finally over, ‘forgot’ how they had almost all aided and abetted the Nazis’ insane and evil plans by remaining silent, becoming what Schwarz calls ‘Mitläufer’ – those who go along with… Her origins allow her to anchor a good deal of her investigations in her own family’s history on both sides, and much of what she explains illuminated for me things I had been vaguely aware of in my younger years.

Nazi leaders were judged and condemned at Nuremberg, but collective guilt and fellow-travelling was swept under the carpet of ignorance: Hitler and his top henchmen could thus be seen as a ‘criminal gang’ who had managed to ‘take over’ Germany, and lesser fry could be exculpated. Of all the Allies, the Americans were the most vigorous in their pursuit of war crimes but ultimately they all allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the scope of the task of de-Nazification and overtaken by the needs of the Cold War. Because their own situation was so dire in the immediate post-War years, it was harder for ordinary Germans to feel any guilt about what they had allowed to happen to Jews. It was shocking to learn of the wholesale whitewashing of everyone’s Nazi past – including the Wehrmacht and many of its military ‘heroes’ – under the Adenauer government, and the acceptance of all this by the Western Allies.

Coming to terms with the evil had to be done if a healthier society was to develop, and the way this happened in Germany was most interesting. Ordinary Germans had to have known and been implicated in what happened to Jews if only because there were many public auctions of Jewish property after the owners had fled abroad or been deported, and the origins of the goods were obvious, auctions often taking place in the recently vacated apartments themselves.

French anti-semitism was cultural rather than racial, the anti-semitism that had resulted in the scandalous Dreyfus affair at the turn of the 20th century; there was also the more silent anti-semitism of the US and Britain who did not use the knowledge they had of the ongoing extermination programme to make any effort to disrupt or halt it. It’s also important to note that there are no recorded instances of Germans being executed for refusing to carry out orders connected with the extermination programme: they may have been demoted, received a military punishment, had promotions blocked, but that was as far as it went.

The breadth and scope of the book impresses as Schwarz shows how German attitudes were shaped and developed in the 1970s and 1980s, with the coming to maturity of a new generation of citizens: it was these generations who had grown up after the war who started asking the necessary questions of and about their forebears. Schwarz is very good on how subsequent generations challenged the willed amnesia, and revealed the truth and reality of Nazi times in the country. According to Schwarz it was the fact that the challenge of facing the past, and changing attitudes came from within German society and not from without, that ultimately made it so powerful and effective. She also addresses the issue of relativism, in comparison with Stalin’s crimes, a favourite trope of apologists for German warcrimes and Holocaust deniers. It took the French even longer to come to terms with their shameful Vichy past but eventually they did. Schwarz’ dual nationality allows both trenchant analysis and also sensitivity to the human factor in people’s actions and denials, without excusing any of this.

I was not aware of the deliberate obfuscation by Austrians of their Nazi past, enthusiasm and collaboration; it took far longer for them even to admit that they had been Nazis, sheltering as they did behind the idea that they had been occupied by, rather than welcomed the Nazis. The situation, although a little more complex, was similar in Italy, where there are even now extreme right-wing and openly fascist groups and parties in power. Schwarz’ concluding analysis is right up-to-date and a serious warning to us all, with the growth in power and influence of the far right across the entire EU. Truly, we are living in dangerous times, and in danger of forgetting the past.

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

May 9, 2020

51XM13WNJGL._AC_UY218_     I’ve been meaning to come back to this for a while, because I remember really enjoying it first time around, but also to see if Neal Stephenson stands up to a second reading, which I had my doubts about: Seveneves was a good yarn but I can’t see I’ll ever want to read it again, and I think I feel the same about Anathem. But, I really enjoyed his Baroque cycle and hope I will enjoy getting back to that eventually…

This one’s about code-breaking and the science of cryptography in general, with strands woven around the real-life Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, and the code-breaking efforts in the Second World War and a plot that involves finding an enormous gold cache supposedly hidden by the Nazis and the Japanese somewhere in the Philippines as they were losing the war. That strand takes place in the 1990s and involves the descendants of the participants in the wartime strand of the story; it’s also the plot-line which has dated rather, given the enormous progresses in computing and related technology since then.

The disquisitions on computing and cryptography are interesting and well-written, as those aspects of a Stephenson novel invariably are: he’s not afraid to attempt to educate his readers in passing, and those not in want of such education can skim-read for a few pages. He becomes even more interesting when he explores the notion that if you have broken an enemy’s codes and can therefore take evasive actions, that enemy will eventually be able to deduce that you have broken his codes and so do something about that… unless you can lay false trails so that he cannot be sure. Then it all gets a great deal more complicated.

It’s a pretty gripping yarn, and the key characters are very well created, fleshed out and developed; we grow to like them and become attached to them in a way that doesn’t always happen in this kind of (almost) science-fiction. There’s also a really good sense of place developed, particularly in the sections set during the war. And yet, in the end, I couldn’t get away from a feeling that it was just a little bit too wordy and long-winded this time around: a good story and entertaining characters, but that was it… a bit self-indulgent at times. I’m being churlish, I know: there’s nothing wrong with a novel being a good one-time read. That’s what it was first time around, and perhaps I should have left it at that.

8 May 1945 – 8 May 2020

May 8, 2020

So, today I remember the end of a war which began in support of the Polish nation, victim of Nazi aggression: today I remember that at the end of the war it suited the UK and the US to sell Poland down the river, and it became a Soviet satellite for 45 years.

Today I remember the Soviet aggression of 17 September 1939 which sent my father to Siberia and then to Britain, and which divided his family into three parts, living in different countries.

Today I remember the German Willy Brandt’s act of contrition in Warsaw in 1970. I also remember Mikhail Gorbachev’s admission that the Soviets carried out the massacre at Katyn. I remember that Russians today still refuse to acknowledge their aggression. I acknowledge the incredible sufferings and efforts of the Soviet people, without which the war could never have been won.

Today I fear those nationalist, racist and supremacist forces and politicians who would push us in dangerous directions which might lead to history repeating itself: today I am horrified how little of the history of those dark times so many around me know.

And today I have no trust in politicians and men of power who refuse to learn the lessons of history.

I remember the untold millions who died in those dreadful years, and today I wish you peace for the rest of your lives.

On a 75th anniversary

May 5, 2020

This week sees the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and commemorations somewhat muted under current circumstances. I have to say, I’m in two minds about this.

I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the war, my father’s two years in Siberia ending in his joining the Anders army, coming to England where he eventually met our mother… his war was a horrific experience of destruction, starvation and disease which separated his family in different directions, and he never got to return home and see his parents again.

I shall be glad that the celebrations in the UK will be muted. We’ve heard enough nonsense about the famous ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and surviving ‘the Blitz’ in connection with the current virus pandemic, from all sorts of idiots who weren’t even alive in the war. My mother was a schoolgirl, and her memories of those awful years were rather different: knitting gloves and scarves for sailors in the Arctic convoys rather than getting an education, and a father who was very frightened as Germans flew over their peaceful bit of the Yorkshire countryside on the way to bomb the hell out of the docks in Hull…

And yet, even more strongly, at a time like this I feel that the ending of that war must not go unremembered. It was fascism that was defeated, an ideology that triaged people into human and non-human prior to extermination, an ideology that subjugated and enslaved humans to a war machine. I carry no brief for Stalin and Soviet communism, but we are not aware in our comfortable West that without the immense sacrifices of the Soviet Union, the war may well not have been won. And the post-War short-sightedness of Western leaders soon plunged us into the Cold War, a mistake that some of our current ‘leaders’ are apparently eager to ape in their posturing towards China at present.

One aspect of George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-four which is often overlooked is his notion of the three world power blocs being constantly at war. That has always been the case and is still going on, if you look closely enough at those parts of the world which slip out of the news bulletins because of the lack of entertainment value: the major powers are fighting proxy wars all over the planet and thousands of innocent people are being killed every year. This supports capitalism’s immensely profitable arms industries, as well as allowing nations to attempt to corner the market in various natural resources which may be in short supply…

Where I’m heading with this is the notion that a lot of us so-called thinkers and intellectuals, particularly in the “free” West, have the idea that we are so much more liberal, tolerant, civilised nowadays, and that therefore the horrors of the past are safely locked away in the history books. We delude ourselves. Capitalism embeds competition and sees no higher cause; collaboration and co-operation removes profits and cannot be allowed. So those organisations which aim to foster international collaboration are emasculated and underfunded – the WHO, the UN – or vilified – the EU.

Human memories are short: the survivors of the last war are dying out. And history has a way of repeating itself if we are not careful. I cannot help thinking that we are actually living in rather dark times.

Thirty glorious years?

January 1, 2020

The French, in their supremely French way, have long referred to the years 1945-1975 as ‘les trente glorieuses’, thirty years of success, happiness, greatness and I don’t know what else. And it’s an interesting window through which to look back over my lifetime.

There was a determination to improve everyone’s lot after the horrors of the Second World War, and, as Europe re-built (with American help) there was an economic boom; most people’s living standards improved immensely as did their housing, health and life expectancy, especially with serious development of welfare states and the creation of organisations like Britain’s National Health Service and the European Union.

I grew up during this time. Life wasn’t easy, but the state looked after our health (who remembers free NHS orange juice, rose hip syrup and cod liver oil?), promised retirement pensions of a sort, provided unemployment benefits, and gave me a decent education, including a free university education through which I was supported by grants not loans.

It was a period where there seemed to be some kind of parity between the two sides of the economy, workers and bosses, although there was much conflict, and eventually the bosses had had enough and brought in Reagan and Thatcher’s economic neoliberalism to smash the power of workers for good. We are all still living with the consequences of this.

I do recall some grim times towards the end of the seventies. But what I don’t recall are food banks and thousands of homeless people living (and dying) in the streets of one of the richest countries on the planet. I don’t recall it being incredibly difficult for young people to try and buy a home. I don’t recall people on non-existent work contracts, not knowing whether they would have work the next day or not. I don’t recall being fleeced by companies for the essentials of daily existence like water power and transport.

It’s a truism that as we get older we get more nostalgic about the past, and tend to see our younger days through rose-tinted spectacles: as we grow older, life nears its end and we look back to those earlier, more carefree times when we seemed immortal, and surely those were better days?

And yet, I do feel very strongly that as a society we have lost something since those remote and more innocent days. Increasingly I have the feeling that those 30 years may have been a blip in our country’s and the world’s history, a very happy and fortunate time for those (like me) who grew up and enjoyed their younger years back then. I’m not enjoying growing old, and yet I’d not swap my time for the life of someone thirty years younger today.

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.

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