O P I N I O N
by Rachel Croucher
I have read and re-read the chapter entitled “Final Solution” in Timothy Snyder’s major new book, Bloodlands (Basic Books 2010), in an attempt to garner further insight into events surrounding the genocide of the Jews in Eastern Europe for a dissertation on contemporary Holocaust remembrance precisely in the countries of these so-called Bloodlands, and with emphasis upon Lithuania. I had hoped that the chapter would expand my knowledge on the specifics of and motivations for the disturbingly high levels of local participation in the actual mass-murdering (far beyond just collaboration) in these countries.
One remains somewhat baffled as to how a book of such overall high quality could let the reader down on the crucial point of genocide in the actual Bloodlands, particularly and critically in those territories invaded by the Nazis in June of 1941 in Operation Barbarossa.
True, if you are looking for a macro level review of an arbitrarily limited range of incidents that occurred while the Final Solution was being implemented this chapter is very useful. Moreover, like the rest of the book, it is written very well and does in fact provide for an interesting read while imparting a lot of information, not all of it well-known.
The essential problem, however, is that Snyder’s piecemeal development of a position on the Final Solution fails to sufficiently address the extent to which deeply ingrained and non-ideological antisemitism inspired the acquiescence and active participation in genocide on the part of local governments, nationalist organizations and civilians in those Bloodlands.
Instead of investigating the nuances of the Final Solution, Snyder mostly provides what must be said is a highly comprehensive overview of the military backdrop against which the National Socialist genocide of the Jews took place. Intentionally or not, this extensive focus on military events renders the unique nature of the historical circumstances which culminated in the Final Solution as secondary to the genocide of Europe’s Jews. At the same time, by failing to acknowledge the metanarrative of National Socialist antisemitism as well as its central role in the racial theories of Hitler and his ideological peers and followers to the East, Snyder gives weight to the troubling concept that the Holocaust was a mere adjunct to World War II rather than the hybrid result of spurious post-Enlightenment scientific theories and a centuries-long hatred towards Jews and Judaism.
Due to the crucial omissions and jumbled timeline of events, this chapter leaves itself open to abuse at the hands of politicians, nationalists, ultranationalists and sundry non-academics who possess a motivation to give credence to the minimization not only of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, but also the participation in it of local East European populations, most infamously in the Baltics and Ukraine.
Most disturbingly, given current trends in various Eastern European states to minimize the role of local participation in the genocide of the Jews, only cursory reference is made to the collaboration of local populations in the countries of the Bloodlands and even there the specifics are curiously lacking, when the literature of memoirs and historiography is both rich and plentiful far beyond the point of required critical mass. Moreover, the postmodernist methodology adopted of seeing events through individual victims’ eyes is disturbingly absent. There is not one quote from any of the memoirs of “pitside survivors” in the Baltics concerning the role played by a wide range of neighbors and countrymen and “anti-Soviet freedom fighters” in the humiliation and destruction of local Jewish communities, including the “volunteer work” of most of the actual shooting in a large selection of locations.
One of the most glaring such deficiencies in my opinion, being that the Holocaust in Lithuania is the primary focus of my own academic career, was contained in Snyder’s sweeping reference to the mass shootings undertaken by Einsatzgruppe A in the Baltic States, Einsatzgruppe B in Vilnius and Belarus and Einsatzgruppe C in the Ukraine in July 1941. Snyder asserts that “These were organized shootings, not pogroms” (p. 198). It surprised me at this point that Snyder makes no mention of the Kaunas pogrom which took place in the hours and days after the outbreak of war on 22 June 1941 in which some 5,000 Jews were murdered.
These murders were carried out by squads of partisans from the ultranationalist Lietuvos aktyvistų frontas, or Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), a “resistance organization” ostensibly aimed at re-establishing Lithuania’s independence after its occupation by the Soviet Union. The LAF however had determined well before the arrival of the Germans that independent Lithuania ought to be free of all minorities ― especially Jews. Additionally, on the evening of 25 June 1941, local paramilitaries independent of both the LAF and the Provisional Government of Lithuania established by them went about brutally murdering Jews in the Kaunas region.
These murders were not just shootings, but included public beatings to death of women, children and the elderly, as well as barbaric murders of indescribable cruelty in various locations. How are these not pogroms? How are these not the onset of the uninterrupted sequence of genocide in the actual Holocaust?
The example of the Kaunas area pogroms is enough to prove that hatred towards Jews and other minorities was at mass-murder-point before the Germans arrived, and was thus not just a result of National Socialist propaganda as suggested elsewhere by Snyder. It also beggars belief that “propaganda associating communism with Jews” (p. 218) played the overwhelming or sole role in inspiring the voluntary participation of individuals in the mass murder of innocent civilians which, again, included women, children and the elderly.
With his over-emphasis on the military context of the era, Snyder appears to suggest that the changing course of the war (failure to make it to Moscow in 1941 and so forth) dictated the policy of the Final Solution. This is a specious argument that disregards the historical evolution of antisemitic National Socialist policy which was dedicated to killing all of Europe’s Jews irrespective of Germany’s military aims. In short, Hitler and his allies wanted to exterminate each and every Jew in Europe no matter what the cost. His genocidal and military ideologies were largely mutually exclusive at their core, even if the implementing of one sometimes influenced the course taken by the other.
Surely enough, these ideologies complemented each other but they must still be regarded separately. The fact that the extermination continued well beyond the point where there was any doubt about Germany’s impending defeat is evidence enough.
As for the need to adequately describe the largely local genocide-perpetrating forces of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and parts of Ukraine, that may have “persuaded the Nazis” to move forward with all due speed every bit as much as (or more than) their failure to reach Moscow, but that is part of the story downplayed or ignored by Snyder’s book. The part that needs to be the focus just now, as some Eastern European nations prepare to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of June 1941 as some kind of anti-Soviet victory rather than the actuation of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
Rachel Croucher is a postgraduate student at Monash University’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation and has worked in the field of Holocaust education for five years.