Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz

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The history of Eastern Europe is a series of national or ethnic conflicts, one on top of another. Galicia, now Western Ukraine, which came under the rule of the Habsburgs when Poland was partitioned in the 18th century, was always divided by conflicts between the Austrian government, the Polish landed gentry, the Jews who dominated business and the professions, owned 20% of properties and half the property leases, and the Polish and Ukrainian (or Ruthenian) peasants. 


I think Ukrainians and Ruthenes are the same thing but some think otherwise. Gentle reader, please educate me on this point.

Omer Bartov, an Israeli historian, has written 
Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, about his mother's home town in Galicia, which was in Austria when she was born, in Poland when she emigrated to Palestine, was later ruled by the USSR, the Germans, the Soviets again and is now in Ukraine.

Before the Second World War Jews made up the majority of the town's population and lived in the best houses. They were a minority of 11% in Galicia as a whole but made up most of the Galician business class, owned 20% of terrains of land and held 50% of the leases. They were resented for racial, religious, class and economic reasons, as were the Poles and Ukrainians.

Violence was part of the town's history going back at least to 1648 when the the town's large Jewish population were tortured and killed by Cossacks (Ukrainians) in extraordinarily horrible ways, including skinning Jews alive, tearing unborn children from their mothers' wombs and other equally terrible things. From the first chapter, then, this is a harrowing book to read, though after the town was liberated from the Turks by the Poles for the last time in 1683 it seems to have been largely undisturbed by war until 1914.

The town changed hands several times during the First World War and the enormities committed during and after the war are hard to read or to believe. Witnesses tell of mass murders, mass rapes, torture and gouging out of eyes. These things happened to Jews, especially at the hands of Russians, and also to Ukrainians and Poles, who killed one another and raped one another's women.

Austria Hungary had kept order and peace between the ethnic groups. It was an E.U. that worked. When the Empire fell apart in 1918, thanks partly to the foolish idealism of the American President, Poles and Ukrainians struggled to replace Austrians. 


Jews were seen as having been loyal to the Austrians, which made them unpopular with both nationalities.

After seven years of horror in which a generation of frightened and embittered Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish children grew up, 
including a brief period of Bolshevik rule, peace returned in 1921 and the town settled down as part of Poland. The monarchy had provided its own legitimacy but Poland's legitimacy rested on ethnicity. It was an ethnic state where minorities made up almost a third of the population and who were inevitably second class citizens. 

So the peace that lasted until 1939 was a frozen conflict.

With the Poles now in charge, the Jews started speaking Polish (almost everyone in this drama spoke German, Polish and Ukrainian) and Ukrainians dreamt of their moment of national revival. Some joined the nationalist party of Stepan Bandera that began to use violence.

The First World War and the Second World War were one Thirty Years' War. This is the background to the atrocities committed by Germans, Ukrainians, Poles and Russians between 1939 and the late 1940s when Stalin asserted Communist control over the area, deported the Poles and slowly suppressed the Ukrainian resistance.

The Soviets took over Buczacz in 1939. The Soviet invasion meant

"those national minorities that had been under the thumb of the Polish authorities, the Ukrainians and even more so the Jews, now had the upper hand as the Soviets used them to enforce their rule."
No doubt the Jews were very grateful to be ruled by Communists rather than Nazis. The local Catholic priest, Father Rutyna, an ethnic Pole, testified that Ukrainians and Jews greeted the Soviet soldiers with flowers and pointed out to them whom to arrest, including teachers and municipal officials. 
"'I saw how they threw their captives like cattle into the truck and sat on top of them with their rifles and took them away. These were teachers, people from the administration whom they unfortunately all later slowly murdered.'"
The Polish elite suddenly lost its power. A Jew became mayor and Jewish proletarians were appointed to jobs in the town hall and police. Poles were anti-Soviet and many were deported. 

When the Germans invaded in 1941 the Ukrainians thought that their time had at last come. Ukrainian militias, some members of which had resisted the Communists, took charge of the town and began killing Communist collaborators and others against whom they had a grudge, but in a couple of weeks the Germans took over. With the help of very many Ukrainian collaborators the SS began a comprehensive massacre of the vast majority of the fifteen thousand Jews in the town, drawn out over three years, as well as killing people from other ethnic groups.

Professor Bartov is writing about the fate of the town's Jews, not the townspeople as a body, but acknowledges that another tragedy was also unfolding, the ethnic cleansing of the Poles by the Ukrainian militias. In my opinion it would be a better book had it covered this story too. 


He says that the Polish government in London estimated that half of the original 48,000 Poles in the town were lost through killing, flight or deportation and that the Poles were pleased when Soviet soldiers returned to deal with the Banderite Ukrainians. I'd have liked much more about this but the book skirts it.

One Ukrainian in the town told local Jews that
"the Ukrainian intelligentsia does not approve of the murder of the Jews"
but plenty of Ukrainians of a lower intellectual level did approve of it and of murdering Poles. They did not know that, had Operation Barbarossa gone to plan, the Germans intended to starve to death millions of Ukrainians that winter.

The Ukrainians in 1941 were repeating the murderous role they played in the revolt of 1648 but I'd have liked a detailed explanation of what sort of Ukrainians killed Jews and Poles and why. I presume that, as in 1648, they were peasants, wreaking revenge on groups who were perceived to be well-off and privileged, meaning this was a peasant's revolt. The Romanian revolt of 1907, always said to have been Europe's last peasants' revolt, and glorified as such by the Communists, was also aimed at Jews. As Solzhenitsyn said, writing about the Russian civil war, Jews were generally wealthier than the peasants and therefore they were obvious targets for attack.


In addition, Jews were no doubt considered by Ukrainians to have sided with first Austria, then Poland and then Bolshevik Russia. 

Professor Bartov has a good gift for narrative and details a very long and harrowing catalogue of atrocities by the Gestapo and the SS and their Ukrainian collaborators. He notes the
“astonishing ease [with which] spouses and children, lovers and colleagues, friends and parents, appear to have enjoyed their brief murderous sojourn in the region”
as they killed people whom they knew. 
“For many of them, this was clearly the best time of their lives.”
One Gestapo driver, who in the 1950s was investigated by the Germans for murder, before the case was dropped as most such cases were, told the investigation that he still could not understand why
“the Jews went to the execution like sheep. . . . I shook my head over that at the time.” 
He seemed, to the author, to blame the Jewish community leaders, not the Germans, for the killings.

There are many stories in the book of sickening killings, some horrible stories of Jews who were betrayed by Gentiles and somewhat fewer stories of brave Christians who saved Jews at great risk. There are also plenty of stories of robberies and murders of Jews carried out by young Jewish policemen recruited by the Germans. One Jewish witness said Jewish policemen 

"made a fortune from the torments of the Jews and lived by the slogan: 'Eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die!'"
The most affecting stories are the stories of children killed. They remind me of the unbearable stories of the children hunted and murdered by Gilles de Rais.
One five year-old girl in a school held a German officer's hand and begged her not to kill her, but he shot her first because she was annoying him.

A girl of six hiding in a bunker remembered hearing a Jewish boy saying to a Ukrainian policeman,

“I'll show you where there are Jews, will you let me live?"
A Jewish girl who was given shelter and passed off as Polish, despite speaking the language poorly, and who survived remembered:

"The children always played 'Germans and Jews' . . . and 'Jew hunt.'"
After a time, children at execution sites were buried alive rather than shot, to save bullets.

Meanwhile Frau Koellner, the wife of
 the SS man in charge of killing Jews in the town, discussed with a German woman friend how they could keep their children from knowing what was happening. The friend, years later, testified to this when, at her husband's trial, Frau Koellner denied that they had known about the killings.

I read it all, but you might want to skip parts.

At least one American reviewer has read this book and drawn the conclusion that after reading it we should be more welcoming to immigrants and refugees. This is obviously aimed at readers who support Donald Trump or aimed at making readers who dislike him feel pleased with themselves. 

Another conclusion is that because different ethnic and confessional groups can get along for generations, when forced to do so by a strong state, before exploding into violence, it therefore follows that increasing the size of ethnic or religious minorities creates a greater risk, in the long term, of terrorism, civil war or genocide.

18 comments:

  1. A propos of Gilles de Rais, I see that it has been suggested that he was not guilty but framed. http://gillesderaiswasinnocent.blogspot.ro/2013/04/

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  2. I was literally just reading my notes about Ukraine when you wrote to me. I can recommend John Loftus's and Ross Bellants' books on how the CIA used Ukrainian nationalists to undermine the USSR and how these nationalist movements had a great influence on making the cold war worse. Operation Bloodstone. Who was using whom?

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    1. I should like to know more. The story if the Ukrainian resistance after 1945 is interesting. Historians who write about it have current political arguments in view. Ukrainian nationalist historians do and so do Western historians for whom all nationalism is malign except when it is directed at colonial rule in Africa or Asia.

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  3. A new version of the Thirty Years War? That is a very good analogy.

    The joy in which people killed is explicable as loosing a secret or repressed wish.

    Interesting review!

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    1. Thank you. I wish the Thirty Years War analogy was one I thought up.

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  4. Human history in a nutshell. Karl

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  5. I have no doubt that a similar thing could happen in the UK. Andrew Withers

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  6. War, pillage murder rape is an inescapable ongoing condition of the human race.... the company of the preachers may be great but,inevitably, preaching proves futile against prejudice, envy, covetness, greed prejudice and hate win out as we all should have realised by now... the appalling,harrowing story the book tells and your synopsis of it tells a recurring familiar story throughout history It may inform even remind people of the ongoing worst humanity is capably of but alas, it won't materially change a bloody thing!
    Charles FitzGerald

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  7. That's a very insightful article on the atrocities that took place in Galicia, a region that Mihai Antonescu (Ion Antonescu's right hand during WW2) would have wanted in part for Romania (the Pocutia sub-region), had Germany won the war.

    The author says that the Romanian peasants' revolt of 1907 was aimed at the Jews. That is unfortunately very true and while no argument can be brought in favor of murdering any population, be it indigenous or not, it must be said from the outset that the said revolt had no racial basis, as the whole Romanian antisemitism relied solely on economic and social grounds.

    For instance, in Moldavia there was a huge Jewish population that illegally immigrated from Russia in the XIXth century (due to the oppressive politics conducted by the Tsar's regime) and further occupied the speculative area of the local economy, owning various businesses in the agricultural field (i.e. landlords, lessors, etc). Therefore, bearing in mind that the vast majority of the Romanian indigenous population was very poor, most of the debts were contracted in local taverns ran by Jews, hence the subsequent revolt that erupted in 1907 and further spread across the country.

    Alex Anghel

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  8. Living outside Romania I was surprised to find that Romania is considered an active participant in the WW2 genocide.

    This was a surprise to me because, as many other Romanians, I had heard that while there were labor camps for Jews in Romania, they were not extermination camps; that while Jews were stripped of rights they were not killed, well except in the Iasi pogrom, and during the Legionaire's rebellion; that Romania allowed Jews from Transylvania to embark on ships to Palestine etc.

    I did not know about the atrocities committed by the Romanian army in Moldova until I read this report cover to cover: http://www.yadvashem.org/docs/international-commission-on-romania-holocaust.html

    I think all Romanians should read this report to bring clarity to what Romania did and did not so during WW2. The repoirt was initially commissioned by Iliescu btw.

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  9. So there's this (by now few hundred years old) fight between the old religion (Judeo - Christianity) and the new ones (Nationalism, Marxism with all their sub sects and neo sects).

    People committed an unbelievable amount of killing in the name of Christianity itself, in spite of its having a clear anti-violent and inclusive message, and a clear violence containing goal.

    Now I think things would have looked a lot worse without Christianity (something like a perpetual late Roman emperors or Game of Thrones) but even Christianity failed to contain the violent side of the human nature.

    What should we then expect them from these new religions of Nationalism and Marxism that have as a stated purpose to create closed in groups and exclude people, and also provide stories to help unleash violence.

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  10. The words with which I began this article about national loyalties being all important may be a mistake. To some extent the fighting may have been a peasant war.

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  11. 'An EU that worked' - a fitting description of the Hapsburg empire. And correct to blame Woodrow Wilson for destroying it.

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  12. Yeah, the Habsburg Empire would have worked as an EU only for the privileged nations or states that ruled it (Austria alone and later together with Hungary). However, for the Romanians that represented the vast majority of the population of Transylvania, it was a political, social and religious nightmare, as by the two Leopold's Deeds, the Romanians were not recognized as an official nation in Transylvania, being therefore deprived of all sort of social and political rights. Likewise, our secular Church was not officially recognized either.

    I really don’t understand how people complaining about the current state of the world’ affairs (i.e. globalization, EU’s desire of total integration within its structure at the expense of the members’ sovereignty) could dream of the Habsburg Empire. Thanks to Woodrow Wilson’ auto determination principle, many nations that lived under the umbrella of the Habsburg Empire were able to either create their own state or reunite with their mother country. In my view, only the "national" states could now stand against the "New World Order" and everything that comes with it.

    Alex Anghel


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    1. @ Paul

      "If the choice is between democratic federal Austria Hungary in Eastern Europe and the E.U. the latter wins hands down."

      Didn't you mean to write, the former wins hands down?

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    2. Sorry of course I did! Thank you for spotting that absurd error.

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    3. CORRECTED.

      I agree that making Hungary from 1867-1918 an equal partner was a disaster. Or at least they should have given the Czechs equal status with the Hungarians. But what was the alternative to the Habsburg Empire?

      Without the Habsburgs you had ethnic states like Poland and Romania where large numbers of citizens were not Polish or Romanian and therefore were marginalised and discriminated against. The Germans for example, who were also the second biggest ethnic group in Czechoslovakia, bigger than the Slovaks.

      This led to war, which was inevitable once the Hapsburg empire fell apart. Wilson, the George W. Bush of his day, is a lot to blame but not the sole culprit.

      Without the Hapsburgs a united Greater Germany was inevitable. Germany or Russia had to dominate Eastern Europe since Austria Hungary did not exist and the Turks had been thrust back to Eastern Thrace and Constantinople.

      If the choice is between democratic federal Austria Hungary in Eastern Europe and the E.U. the FORMER wins hands down. A democratic federal Ottoman Empire covering Greece, Bulgaria and the Middle East would have advantages too.

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  13. Romanians were actually represented post 1848/9.

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