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Showing posts with label Timothy Snyder Bloodlands. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Timothy Snyder Bloodlands. Show all posts

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Review: Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War

In 1978, Svetlana Alexievich (1948- ) began the interviews which comprise this book. It was turned down for publication in 1983, but Soviet Perestroika allowed it to be published in a censored and self-censored but impressively large state edition in 1985. It is now translated in an edition which restores omitted material, but it was the 1985 edition which underpinned the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature to Alexievich, who was born in Ukraine but is now Belarussian by nationality.
Alexievich does in-depth oral history and then composes her material into books where there is only a small amount of authorial narrative. In this book, she assembled the voices of women who were with the Red Army in the second world war, at the front and especially in the bloodlands of  Russia’s western front, Germany’s eastern front. Partisan, underground and liaison front liners are also well represented.

The narratives are harrowing and I read the book slowly, in sections, so as not to skip too easily over what was being told. Several times I was struck by the thought that these are the women who survived and lived to tell the tale thirty of forty years later, often hesitantly and in tears. Many others would have survived the war but died before then; some would have emigrated to Israel and maybe other countries; some refused to co-operate with the historian.

Several times also I thought this would make a splendid choice as a core text for a course in gender theory. It would disrupt a great deal of polite and facile thinking. Alexievich’s women have a lot to say about being women at the front line and are acutely aware of the tensions between their transgender occupations as snipers and fighter pilots and their previous existence as young women – often girls – in pretty frocks. There are no lesbians in the book, which I am sure has everything to do with Russian culture not the author’s selectivity. There is one woman who claims to be a man to get into the navy and tells a very funny story about it (pp. 202 -3).  But there is a general absence of vodka which surprised me.

There are many splendid examples of young women refusing to take No for an answer even from hardened Soviet bureaucrats. Most of those who fought at the front had first to overcome attempts to place them at the rear when they volunteered. Several simply hitched lifts or hid under tarpaulin to get to the front line and once there tried to make themselves useful and resisted attempts to send them away. Some were  under eighteen and under average height. A repetitive theme is the complaint that they had to wear men's army uniforms and boots many sizes too big for them.Only late in the war did the Soviet bureaucracy start supplying appropriate clothing. 

Alexievich’s patience and empathy – she cries a lot too – is rewarded with astonishing cameos and vignettes which made me cry too. Not the ones which are tales of the kinds of barbarism which still happen every day in modern war zones, but the absurd and poignant. There is the female commander of an anti-aircraft gun, listening to a wireless in the middle of the night and first to hear the Victory declaration. She then rouses her team from sleep to ready their big gun, and personally fires a four-round Victory salute, only to be arrested and then promptly un-arrested by the senior officer she has woken up (p 204). There are the boy and girl kissing publicly on a ghetto bench while a German pogrom is in progress. They are observed with horror by a female Soviet underground fighter who then realises, as the couple stand up and are shot, that they have seen their public kiss as a way of ensuring that they die together (p 208 - 09).

She also elicits oral one-liners which any writer would be proud of and she saves a couple until late in the book. An underground fighter explains that now, decades after the war, she doesn’t like spring. The war stands between us, between me and nature. When the cherry trees were in bloom, I saw fascists in my native Zhitomir (p 277). And on the last page, a medical assistant, Tamara Stepanova Umnyagina, tells us that There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my heart. (p 331)

Do read this book and remember that the context is a war in which twenty million Soviet citizens died, leaving after-shocks which still continue.

See my Blog of 7 February 2017 for a review of Alexievich's Second-Hand Time

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Review: Svetlana Alexievich, Second-Hand Time

It’s often said that in Russia human life has never been valued. Ever since the Romanovs installed themselves back in 1613, human beings have been at the mercy and disposal of state and state-backed power. Tens of thousands serf labourers died to create Peter the Great’s capital, St Petersburg. Plough a field almost anywhere in Russia and you turn up more recent human bones.

I don’t often read a 700 page book now, but Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history, Second-Hand Time is gripping. It’s also harrowing and I found myself putting it down at the end of a section, as if it would be indecent to hurry on to the next tale. People tell her their stories back to the 1930s and in to the early 2000s and the themes are repetitive but realised in different ways in every case. State violence, a mendacious bureaucracy, poverty, alcoholism (without end), domestic violence, forced separation of parents and children, husbands and wives, love in a cold climate, the importance of books, the failure of perestroika, a seemingly unshakeable loyalty to Stalin. And then there is the thin and uncertain line which separates those who do evil from those who try to do good.

Alexievich is a seventy year old Nobel Prize winner and what is remarkable in this book is how she elicits narratives from her cast of mainly female characters and how, in what I guess is an exceptionally good translation, those narratives pull you along. You never want to stop reading.

Many of her cast want to memorialise lost grandparents, parents, lovers, children. It’s one of the few things you can do to try to make reparation to them and to heal yourself. In the week when I was reading this book, I came across a story of a man, Andrei Zhukov, who has just completed a twenty-year  self-imposed task. He has sat in the archives and made a list of all the names of all the 40 000 NKVD officers who executed Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s. The victim count is thought to number 12 million and the Russian organisation Memorial has so far managed to list about a quarter of the names. In Alexievich's book, that Terror still affects everyone.

This book should sit alongside the kinds of memoir and historical work which I have reviewed elsewhere on this Blog – see the labels to this post.

The footnote apparatus provided by the translator to assist the reader is excellent; I noticed only one error, Latvia rather than Lithuania (page 341). As for the translation itself, I queried only kikeling (basically, little Jew) finding that little kike sounded better to me.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Review: Timothy Snyder, Black Earth

This is really three books in one.

The first part aims to shift the way we see the Holocaust. When something becomes familiar and taken-for-granted like the Holocaust, then it is always a good thing when someone tries to make us see it afresh. This Timothy Snyder does. He wants to produce two shifts (at least).

First, away from Auschwitz – a late and relatively minor Holocaust scene – and towards the Bloodlands of eastern Europe where mass murders, mainly by shooting, claimed the lives of over a million Jews in 1941 – 42. Waitman Wade Beorn's Marching into Darkness is the companion book for this part of the narrative. Unhelpfully, the book jacket design misses what Snyder is arguing and gives us the familiar railway tracks. Most Jews did not travel by train to die; they were rounded up where they lived and shot in local fields and forests by ordinary soldiers and locals as often as by specially trained killers.

Second, away from an emphasis on (Nazi or traditional) anti-semitism, as sufficient explanation on its own, and towards an understanding of the broader contexts in which people turn on their neighbours and kill them. In this broader context, Snyder emphasises eastern Europe as a world of shortages (land, food, clothes …) and a world of insecurity. The insecurity was dramatically increased by the wilful destruction of state structures by both Germany and the Soviet Union – in the worst cases, we find both of them attacking in rapid succession. When you destroy states – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – remove their leaders, their leading classes, their political parties, their armies, and so on, you turn citizens into stateless individuals, denied a Leviathan to protect them. Fear alone is enough to turn them against each other; anti-semitism channels the direction of pre-emptive violence in which those who have no prior or no profound ideological commitment willingly join.  

When the world becomes seriously insecure, the idea of killing your neighbour takes hold almost as if it is human nature. At the end of his book, Snyder briefly ( page 336) references the US-UK invasion of Iraq as an exercise in state destruction which functioned very much like the Nazi and Soviet invasions of 1941 – 42 in turning people into killers of their neighbours. Snyder singles out one phrase from a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and Stalin's Gulag to illuminate what he is trying to get at: "a man can be human only under human conditions" (page 341)

The second part of Snyder’s book takes us over familiar ground – some of it familiar because of his earlier book Bloodlands -  and takes us through thumbnails of how the Holocaust proceeded (or was halted) in different countries and how individuals responded to their generally complex and intolerable situations. This is all readable (and occasionally perhaps sentimental) but does not add to or shift the way we see things, except insofar as it seeks to confirm the role of state destruction in unleashing the Holocaust.

The third part is a short essay which seeks to draw Lessons from the Holocaust which will allow us to understand the way our world is now and what threatens it. The main theme here is the potential role of food and water shortages – brought about by climate change -  in turning people against their neighbours, seeking to expropriate and secure scare resources for themselves. I would have turned this short essay into something a bit longer; as it stands it feels a bit schematic, despite brief references to interesting examples (like the Rwanda genocide of the 1990s).

If you are pressed for time, read the first part of this book. If like me you think that we can never stop learning from our own recent history, read it all.

Friday 17 January 2014

Review: Waitman Wade Beorn, Marching Into Darkness

This academic study of the Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus is an exemplary work. It is clear, concise and meticulous in its presentation of primary material and balanced and open-minded in its evaluation and explanation of the events - the crimes - that it describes. At no point when I was reading this book did I feel that I was engaging with anything other than a thorough, patient and honest study.

Beorn's study looks at the early stages of the Holocaust in the Bloodlands of eastern Europe - the so-called Holocaust by Bullets which accompanied the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941-2 and which saw over a million Jews in the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine shot either by Einsatzgruppen dedicated to the task or by units of the Wehrmacht. (By way of addition to the tally, of the three million Soviet POWs captured by the Germans in 1941 some two million were dead within a year, by starvation or disease or execution).

His specific focus is on the involvement in 1941-2 of regular German military units in village and town-level round-ups and executions of Jewish civilians in Belarus. These were units behind the front lines, initially responsible for administration of the civilian population until this role was partly or largely taken over by German civil administrative organisations and Nazi outfits.

He tries to show how Wehrmacht involvement in the killing of Jews increased and became routinised but was never completely unproblematic: there were unit commanders and individual soldiers who declined to take part (and suffered no subsequent harm) and there were others who dragged their feet or passed the buck onto subordinates. Beorn tries to tease out the factors which made soldiers and their leaders enthusiastic or reluctant to murder non-combatant civilians, including women and children.

If I have a criticism it is that though Beorn evokes it in various ways, he does not fully recognise that ethnic cleansing and genocide were embedded in European and other "civilised" cultures, right up to the 20th century. "Who now remembers the Armenians?" asked Hitler, referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915. And when German soldiers went Jew-hunting in the forests of Belarus in 1941, that was only a dozen years after the last "Abo Hunt" in Australia. (Hitler also referred to the extermination of Aborigines and Red Indians as a context for the grand Plan to clear the conquered Ostlands for new German settlers). One consequence of evoking the broader context is, unfortunately, to suggest that there is much less needing to be explained when it comes to looking at ordinary men as killers. They do it only too easily. That is one reason for always trying to avoid wars, even just ones, because your own side will certainly behave badly given half a chance.

At one point (page 242), Beorn expresses dismay and bewilderment that ordinary soldiers could (for example) package up the clothing of murdered Jewish children and ship it back to their own families. But just twenty years before, Red Army soldiers re-taking Ukraine and South Russia from Whites and Cossacks were doing pretty much the same. Their very large parcels home could be sent at special, cheaper Red Army tarriffs. Later, the post office documentation (with postage stamps affixed) which accompanied the parcels was retrieved from the archives and sold off for foreign currency through the Soviet Philatelic Association. You can find them now in collections and auctions. The same is true for their later German equivalents.

If you read this book along with Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands (previously reviewed here) you would have a very good picture of the eastern European killing fields where World War Two was fought out at its most horrific.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

This is not an easy book to read; it does not stray from the cataloguing and analysis of policies of terror, destruction and extermination between 1933 and 1945. But the analysis is new (to me)and there is much in the detail which I had simply not encountered before.

The analysis is new insofar as it places the Jewish Holocaust (six million dead) in the context of fourteen million dead from policies pursued by Hitler and Stalin in what Snyder calls "The Bloodlands" - Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, the Baltic States.

Big numbers to the death tally are contributed by Stalin's deliberate creation of famine in 1932-33 Ukraine (3.3 million, page 411), with which Snyder begins his narrative. More big numbers are added by the German treatment of Soviet Prisoners of War, captured in vast numbers as the Nazis swept into the Soviet Union in 1941 and either shot or allowed to die of starvation in horrific conditions (3.1 million, page 184):

"In late 1941, when [Soviet] prisoners of war were very likely to starve to death, some of them survived by fleeing - to the Minsk ghetto. The ghetto was still a safer place than the prisoner-of-war camps. In the last few months of 1941, more people died at nearby Dulags and Stalags than in the Minsk ghetto" (page 230; see also the figures at page 179)

In this connection, Snyder clearly has no patience with the distinction between a "good" Wehrmacht (professional soldiers doing their duty) and the Nazis: in the Bloodlands, the Wehrmacht were enthusiasts for killing.

The tally increases hundreds of thousands at a time from other policies of Stalin and Hitler:

- Stalin's Great Terror of 1937 - 38
- Stalin's selective executions and mass deportations of ethnic groups from Soviet border areas where they were thought likely to sympathises with an invader
- Hitler's and Stalin's joint actions in exterminating Polish elites, military and civlian. The Katyn Massacre of the Polish Officer class is the most familiar. The Soviets were responsible but it could equally have been the Germans.
- Hitler's "Reprisal" killings of civilians, notably in Belarus and Poland. In Belarus there was quite a lot of Soviet inspired Partisan activity and in Poland, there was both the Home Army of the Polish government in exile and Soviet-directed Partisans. After the Warsaw Uprisings, all of Warsaw was razed to the ground.
- The advancing Soviet Army's raping and killing spree in 1944-45

Snyder's list is longer than this summary.

New to me was his emphasis on the fact that Hitler did not want either the people or the cities of the occupied East: he wanted a tabula rasa on which to start again: new inhabitants and new infrastructure. What seems to an outsider wanton destruction was almost always part of a policy. The same is true of Stalin's Ukraine Famine.

Snyder does not write about acts of individual humanity or resistance to horrific policy and behaviour. The book is unremittingly bleak. Nor does he look at the role of institutions which still existed to some extent independent of Nazi or Communist control. He says nothing about the churches, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and (in the Baltics) Lutheran. Some of them were complicit in murderous policies and that should be analysed. Some of them housed individuals who risked their lives for others.

Snyder does emphasise that the Western allies - the USA, the UK - took little or no interest in what was happening in the European lands fought over between Hitler and Stalin, and declined to act on what they did know. I quote one story which was new to me:

'Shmuel Zygielbojm, the representative of the [Jewish socialist] Bund to the Polish government-in-exile in London, knew that the [Warsaw] ghetto was going up in flames. He had a clear idea of the general course of the Holocaust from Jan Karski, a Home Army courier who had brought news of the the mass murder to the Allied leaders in 1942....In a careful suicide note of 12 May 1943....he wrote: "Though the responsibility fro the crime of the murder of the entire Jewish nation rests above all upon the perpetrators, indirect blame must be borne by humanity itself" The next day he burned himself alive in front of the British parliament...' (page 292)[* but see my Footnote below]

In the shadow and the wake of fourteen million dead people, there were also those who survived, often Displaced, often Deported, often in Exile and almost inevitably traumatised. Their contribution to the post-war world often demonstrated an extraordinary ability to triumph over adversity. At times, their contribution was not constructive - so much so that in his book Political Journeys Fred Halliday concludes that the role of diasporas in the politics of their homeland is always negative. But the world of the survivors is another book.

I am glad I read Snyder's extraordinarily broad and detailed work, cover to cover. I recommend it.

Footnote added 19 May 2012: In his 1944 autobiographical book, Story of a Secret State,Jan Karski gives a detailed and moving account of his meeting in London with Zygielbojm. But the suicide is described as having been committed at home, by turning on the gas (page 366 of the 2012 Penguin edition). The Wikipedia entry for Zygielbojm makes no mention of a public suicide. It does, however, say that Zygielbojm's body was cremated at the time in symbolic solidarity with Polish Jews and that because this was contrary to Jewish burial traditions, it posed problems for the interment of his ashes, when they were located in 1959, and which were not resolved until 1961.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do