Tuesday 23 September 2014

Bloodlands: Timothy Snyder's book and Daniel Lazare's violent attack on it


A joint Soviet-Nazi victory parade was held in Brest seventy-five years ago today to celebrate their invasion of Poland. 

I have been reading Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, a book which at first I gave up on because I found it an unreadable catalogue of death in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states: first famines and massacres caused by the Bolsheviks, then killings by the German army and the SS. It seems like an account of hell, the historical equivalent of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Unlike most middle aged Englishmen I am not a fan of military history or what a friend of mine calls 'Hitler porn', which seems to go with rattling ones car keys and opining on the best way to get to Luton. But I persevered and found that Snyder's book, though very painful, told me much that I didn't know. It benefits from the many languages he reads. What he christens 'the Bloodlands' do not really form a natural unit but by combining a distressing account of the famine and terror that Stalin instituted with the heart-wrenching accounts of the killings by the Germans he brings both into focus. Best it enables him to look at the killings outside the confines of national history or of a book on either the holocaust or on Stalin's killings.

The juxtaposition angers one very left-wing writer, Daniel Lazare, an apologist for Vladimir Putin, who this month published an oddly vitriolic attack on Bloodlands. He never makes it clear why he is so very angry but his bile almost reminds me of the pamphleting style of Marx or Lenin. Lazare seems to be offended because the killing of the Jews by the Germans is implicitly being compared to the killings for which Stalin was responsible. Professor Snyder puts Mr. Lazare in mind of the ideas of German historian Ernst Nolte, who in a 1986 essay asked:
"Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an 'Asiatic' deed [of mass killing] merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an 'Asiatic' deed [by the Soviets]? 
The answer to this question is no but it is a very stimulating question to debate. I thought no-one these days imagined there was very much to choose between Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, but it seems I was wrong. 

In Mr. Lazare's world view equating Hitler and Stalin leads one to blame Lenin for the Holocaust. This of course is not the case - Lenin is not to blame for the murder of the Jews or even the millions whose deaths were caused by Stalin and other Leninists. It is enough that he is to blame for possibly millions who died in famine caused by his economic or (as Richard Pipes describes it) his anti-economic policy. What is clear, however, is that Lenin was an evil genius and the spiritual father of fascism and Nazism. Mussolini, an ex-socialist, copied Lenin. 

In Mr. Lazare's view conflating German and Russian killings, while ignoring many appalling deeds by Poles, Ukrainians and Balts, makes Russia a bogeyman. From there, he thinks, before you know it you find yourself objecting to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was, he says, a response to American aggression. This sounds like the sort of thing far left Western writers said before Mr. Gorbachev came to power.

One of the things I liked about Timothy Snyder's book is that it points out the moral ambiguity of Communist partisans carrying out attacks on the Germans in full knowledge of the terrible reprisals that would follow. This is the reason why the Communist resistance in Yugoslavia, Albania and France was effective and why Churchill and Britain ended up supporting the future tyrants, Tito and Hoxha. 
Mr. Lazare thinks there was no alternative. Perhaps he is right. And he is furious that the role of the partisans should be questioned - here he is not right.

He is very shocked that Professor Snyder defends the Polish Home Army's reluctance to help the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. It is shocking, but everything in this story is shocking. 
Warsaw Home Army commanders had strategic concerns that militated against giving the Jews any weapons at all. Although the Home Army was moving in the direction of partisan action, it feared that a rebellion in the ghetto would provoke a general uprising in the city, which the Germans would crush. The Home Army was not ready for such a fight in late 1942. Home Army commanders saw a premature uprising as a communist temptation to be avoided. They knew that the Soviets, and thus the Polish communists, were urging the local population to take up arms immediately against the Germans.
The Soviets wanted to provoke partisan warfare in Poland in order to weaken the Germans — but also to hinder any future Polish resistance to their own rule when it came. The Red Army’s task would be easier if German troops were killed by partisan warfare as would the NKVD’s if Polish elites were killed for resisting Germans. The Jewish Combat Organisation included the communists, who were following the Soviet line, and believed that Poland should be subordinated to the Soviet Union. As the Home Army command could not forget, the Second World War had begun when both the Germans and the Soviets had invaded Poland. Half of Poland had spent half of the war inside the Soviet Union. The Soviets wanted eastern Poland back, and perhaps even more. 

From the perspective of the Home Army, rule by the Soviets was little better than rule by the Nazis. Its goal was independence. There were hardly any circumstances that would seem to justify a Polish independence organisation arming communists inside Poland. Despite these reservations, the Home Army did give the Jewish Combat Organisation a few pistols in December 1942.

Mr. Lazare considers that Professor Snyder wants the reader to think that the blame for the Nazi genocide should be shared between Hitler and Stalin, though Mr. Lazare concedes that Professor Snyder does not say or hint this. 

Mr. Lazare, for his part, seems to want to share the blame with the Poles instead. Unfortunately, although the Poles are not to blame, there is some truth in the idea that Poles were ambivalent about the fate of the Jews. How complicated history written for grown-up people is. He quotes the following Polish Home Army declaration from 1942, which is not quoted by Professor Snyder:
Whether we like it or not, Communism is attacking us. The extermination of the Jews in Europe by the Germans, which will be the final result of the German–Jewish war, represents from our point of view an undoubtedly favourable development, for it will weaken the explosive power of Communism at the moment of the German collapse — or earlier. Let us have no illusions. The liquidation of the Jews is not tantamount to the liquidation of the Commune, behind which is the Comintern and through which the Jews want to take their revenge on us.
Mr. Lazare draws attention to something that startled me when I came across it in Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder's statement that 
“forty percent of high-ranking NKVD officers had Jewish nationality recorded in their identity documents, as did more than half of the NKVD generals.”
Mr. Lazare comments
the implication is that left-wing Jews played a major role in developing the techniques that would later be their undoing at the hands of the ultra-right.
Bloodlands does not imply anything of the sort. In any case, most Jews were not Communists until the time came when everyone had to be.

His argument is not only with Professor Snyder's book but with his backing for the revolution in Kiev:
In May, he accused Russia of sending troops to Donetsk and Luhansk, a deployment that no other journalist has been able to detect. A few days later, he accused Putin of not only seeking to destabilise Ukraine, but the EU as well.  
....the best way to understand such arguments is as a case of psychological projection in which the aggression that Snyder attributes to Russia is really a reflection of his own. After all, NATO has added a dozen countries to its roster since the collapse of the USSR, all within the former Soviet sphere of influence. Neocons such as Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, Midge Decter, Frank Gaffney, Michael Ledeen, and James Woolsey attempted to drum up support for the Chechen rebels beginning in the 1990s while, in August 2008, John McCain encouraged Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to launch an “ill-planned reconquista” of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, which, had it proved successful, might well have led to the unravelling of Russia’s entire southern tier.
I am not impressed by any of Mr. Lazare's ideas and he obviously has agenda which he does not explain. He is not really arguing about the Second World War but something else, though he does not state what - rather as he thinks Professor Snyder is rehashing Professor Nolte's ideas without saying so. I think Mr. Lazare is defending Communism and Vladimir Putin - but he doesn't say this. He settles for attacking instead.

People do not have to blame Stalin for the holocaust to dislike Vladimir Putin. Superficial thinkers see Mr. Putin as another Hitler without bringing Stalin into it. I do not agree with G.K. Chesterton that the superficial view is always the most profound, but superficial thinkers are almost always right up to a certain point.

By the way, I recommend Timothy Snyder on Stepan Bandera, whose statues dot Western Ukraine. Terrorism started long before September 11 or the IRA. Bandera was a terrorist and so were the Communists and the Nazis. Superficial thinkers would argue that so were the RAF at Dresden and the Americans at Hiroshima. I would not go that far.


  1. I don't get the Luton joke.

  2. Written very well. Lazare's reading of Snyder seems eccentric in parts and I had difficulty in places in relating it to Snyder's considerable academic achievement in consulting such a wide variety of multi-lingual sources As you say, there is an agenda in Lazare but one which is not obvious.


  3. Good blog post/article. I enjoyed it even if I do not know any of the two writes and many facts or names that you talk about.

    Some things I liked:
    “Hitler porn”
    Lenin was an evil genius and the spiritual father of fascism and Nazism. – Have never thought in this way about Lenin. I watched a very good documentary produced by the Russian national TV “pervii akanal” on Lenin’s life and I do remember him being presented in the beginning of his “career” not that much as a genius, but rather using some opportunities. Unfortunately I do not know that much about him, and his contribution to building socialist model of society.
    How complicated history written for grown-up people is. 
    Bandera was a terrorist and so were the Communists and the Nazis. – I guess it is a topic that could be debated in a longer discussion.


  4. Thank you for writing this very well thought out response to the drivel published in Jacobin. Now I don't have to write anything about it and can just refer people to your post.

    1. Thank you. I am not sure how exhaustive my response was but I think it was better than Mr. Lazare deserved. It's interesting that the left-wing and right-wing admirers of Putin in the West make arguments that are hard to distinguish, whether Marxists and people who think Mr. Putin is a conservative Christian. Both misunderstand Mr. Putin

  5. You should not mix apples and oranges

  6. Diagnosis: russophobia

  7. How could you actually like Timothy Snyder? He is a tool of the US State Department and Victoria Nuland: he is their guy, their intellectual who is doing his best to demonize east Ukrainians/Russians/Socialists and conflate and equalize Nazi war crimes such as Auschwitz with what Stalin did in the 1930s. Snyder is not a historian in the objective sense: he has an agenda and he's a historian for hire by the US State Department and US right wingers. It seems that the author of this blog is entirely swept up in the anti-Putin, anti-Russia hysteria that is so typical of the British and Americans. To say Lazre 'has an agenda' is laughable. Actually he is providing a much needed counterbalance to the propaganda of Snyder--who is the darling of the new Kiev regime who are currently running around Kiev and Ukraine murdering anyone who dares to criticise the regime. Snyder is also very popular with the Svoboda party, Bandara sympathizers and UIA members of west Ukraine as Snyder wrongly attacks and conflates Communists with the far, far worse Nazi war crimes of that era. So typical of American intellectuals who have been brainwashed since birth to despise any form of socialism, unions, or even sharing things. Anyways you're full of crap about Lazare: Lazare rawks! Go baby go!

  8. Daniel Lazare has since returned to the fray. http://daniellazare.com/2014/11/12/timothy-snyder-does-it-again/comment-page-1/#comment-1880

  9. How ironic that Daniel Lazare implied in his review of Bloodlands (fetchingly entitled "Timothy Snyder's Lies") that Snyder was a right-winger. But then, how was Lazare to know back then that when it came to the Trump presidency, Snyder would align himself with the far left? Snyder has not only drawn the customary parallel with the rise of Hitler and declared that it is "pretty much inevitable" that Donald Trump will try a Reichstag fire stunt, he has also maintained that "Trump's campaign for president of the United States was basically a Russian operation." This from a leading historian! Lately Snyder has tweeted out things like "To maintain leadership, prevent terrorism and control migration, the U.S. must reduce carbon dioxide emissions" and "Russian hush slush unshushed." I wonder whether Lazare will be at all mollified by Snyder's apparent convergence with his own position?

    1. I don't have any reason to think TS IS far left. I see many academics on Twitter and elsewhere saying things almost as stupid as TS.