March 20, 2011 | 3:14 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
After my review of “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder ran in The Jewish Journal, I received an email from Ken Waltzer, Director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University. Prof. Waltzer has graciously allowed me to share it with our readers.
“I read your uncritical review of Timothy Snyder’s important book ‘Bloodlands,’ and was surprised that you didn’t notice the subtle flattening effect on the Nazi Holocaust from interpreting it in the geographical and interpretive frame Snyder embraces. While Snyder neither denies nor decenters the Holocaust, he does examine it as just one of several genocides, diminishing its distinctiveness – especially its intentional quality and its totalistic quality. He also diminishes the agency of European Jewish neighbors, some of whom joined in the killing or benefited from the proceeds. While never made completely explicit, the subtle impact of the book is to diminish the Nazi Holocaust. It is also the case that Snyder’s book makes little or no mention of Nazi anti-Semitism. It also misdates the decision for genocide, placing it later than the most persuasive accounts, including those by Christopher Browning. I’m afraid there is more to say. Your readers deserve to know more.”
I am happy to share Prof. Waltzer’s discerning comments here, and they have prompted me to rethink not only my review of “Bloodlands” but also some of our assumptions about the Holocaust.
A constant theme in Holocaust scholarship — and a constant source of tension and anxiety — is what we might call the exceptionalism of Jewish suffering. Much effort has been made to distinguish the Jewish experience at the hands of Nazi Germany and its collaborators from the experience of others who were also victimized during World War II. The same impulse prompts us to make distinctions between the Holocaust and, for example, the more recent acts of genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda.
I hasten to say that I agree with Prof. Waltzer on two points. First, I am persuaded that the Holocaust is something unique in history, and there are crucial differences — qualitative as well as quantitative — between the Holocaust and other genocides. Scholars like Prof. Waltzer are duty-bound to remind us of these differences. And, second, I concede that it is important for the rest of us to bear them in mind and speak about them aloud, if only because we are now faced with the burden of convincing some people not merely that the Holocaust is exceptional but that it happened at all.
That’s the slippery slope on which scholars like Timothy Snyder are walking when they reframe the history of World War II in imaginative and provocative ways. But it’s also true that his book stimulating precisely because, as I pointed out in my review, it reminds us that Poland and Russia were the ground zero of the Second World War — something that Americans tend to overlook.
But we need to remind ourselves that there is also a moral danger in making fine distinctions between degrees of suffering when we consider an evil as profound as Nazi Germany. We need to carefully consider what we are seeking to accomplish in making the point that Jews suffered more — and suffered differently — than the men and women who were tortured and murdered because of their politics, nationality, class, ethnicity, or sexuality.
That’s a slippery slope, too.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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