Search This Blog

Showing posts with label Waitman Wade Beorn Marching into Darkness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Waitman Wade Beorn Marching into Darkness. Show all posts

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.