The Diplomat of Shoah: History Does Yale Historian Timothy Snyder Absolve Eastern Europe of Special Complicity in the Holocaust?
The dispute between Poles and Jews about the Nazi period can move in unsettling directions, ones that make an unhealed wound hurt even worse. Perceived insults, like President Barack Obama’s recent reference to “Polish concentration camps,” are seen by right-wing Poles as part of a plot to blacken their country’s name in the West. Some on the Polish right are also quick to argue that Poles who assisted the Nazis in anti-Jewish actions, or who slaughtered Jews on their own initiative (such pogroms occurred both during and just after the war), acted from understandable motives: After all, Jewish “treachery” had handed their country to the Bolsheviks. But the treachery is a fiction. Polish Jews were overwhelmingly anti-Communist, and the Soviets deported many of them.
The Polish role in the Holocaust had other roots, darker ones: traditional anti-Semitism and the greedy desire for Jewish property. When the historian Jan Gross in his books Neighbors and Fear (and, most recently, Golden Harvest, written with Irena Grudzinska Gross) charged his fellow Poles with aiding the Nazi genocide and profiting from the death of the Jews in their midst, he wanted them to mourn the vanished Jewish lives they had known so well, to come to terms with their guilt, since many of them had been indifferent or complicit or satisfied in the face of the Shoah. Instead, Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarity and former president of Poland, called Gross “a mediocre writer … a Jew who tries to make money.” (Gross’ father was Jewish.) When Gross, who teaches at Princeton, returns to his native Poland, he has to contend with public prosecutors who, a few years ago, threatened to take him to court for “slandering the Polish nation.” His fellow historian Jan Grabowski says that Gross demolished the myth of Polish innocence by focusing on the reaction of Poles to the murder of 3 million of their fellow citizens, a reaction that was often craven, money-hungry, and cruel. “He was the one who brought this stinking mess into the open, single-handedly,” Grabowski remarks.
Enter Timothy Snyder.
The Yale historian’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—hailed by Antony Beevor when it appeared in 2010 as “the most important work of history for years”—is grim and magisterial; it puts together the tragedy of the Holocaust with earlier mass murders in the regions that Snyder christens the “bloodlands” (Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, Poland, and Ukraine). Snyder begins with the terrible famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine (more than 3 million dead); he goes on to the Great Terror, in which 700,000 died, including many Poles; and he writes movingly of the 3 million Soviet prisoners of war whom the Nazis starved to death, many of them in Byelorussian camps that were little more than barbed wire strung around masses of helpless, doomed POWs.