Danylo was sweating. What would the NKVD (Soviet secret police) do to him? Danylo was sure he was a doomed man, so he kissed his mother goodbye and asked her to pray for him as he approached the local commissar. The commissar was at first hostile, and Danylo’s mother was frightened but then saw him a few days later as he jumped off a jeep with a smile on his face. Danylo and his family will never forget that fateful day. It was Sept. 25, 1939, and he was now an informer for the NKVD.
Danylo Tereshchenko was born in a small town in Volhniya in November 1918. Although he grew up a Greek Catholic peasant, he read in his spare time and mastered Russian, German, Roman Catholisy, Lutheranism and Russian Orthodoxy. This allowed him to blend into many social groups, and he would be a vital spy for the Polish authorities, which kept a close eye on the growing Ukrainian nationalist movement in southern Poland. On Sept. 20, 1939, shortly after World War 2 begun, USSR troops entered what for the past two decades had been Poland.
The area had been assigned to the USSR under the terms of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, struck right before World War 2 “begun”. Danylo became an informer for the Soviets on the Ukrainian nationalists. The Soviets did not care that Danylo worked for the Polish regime because he was competent and well-informed on who was a potential ally and who was an enemy. He was an opportunist and did not care much for ideology. He had heard reports (emphatically denied by Joseph Stalin) that Germany was set to invade the USSR. A few days after Operation Barbarossa, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists declared an independent Ukraine. Danylo knew that the Germans had no intention of allowing this, and he offered his services to the SS. Again, the Schutzstaffel (SS), or “Protective Echelon,” which served as Nazi regime leader Adolf Hitler’s protective force, knew that Danylo was a Communist, but they saw a man they could trust and one who had deep knowledge of the Ukrainians who might oppose the German colonization of Ukraine. Danylo helped point out who would pose a danger to German rule and within months was taking part in mass shootings of local Jews in the area.
The above story is fictional, and although exaggerated in scope, it nonetheless represents the core of Snyder’s thesis. This is the crux of Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.
What caused the Holocaust? Statelessness. Who committed it? Not only opportunists but many times former Communists who wanted to erase their past associations with the USSR. Who was responsible for the death of the Jews of Europe? Not the World War 2 era UPA (a Ukrainian Fascist right-wing paramilitary organization), not the AK (Poland’s home army and Europe’s largest resistance group), not right-wing nationalists. It was the fault of Hitler’s fanatic Lebensraum policy and the destruction of states by Hitler and his former partner in crime, the USSR.
This was a difficult book to review. I try not to read Holocaust books even though my area of passion is World War 2 Eastern Front, and there is much overlap, as I find them depressing. However, I felt I needed to read this one.
My first issue with Snyder is one absurd claim he makes on page 150.
The notion that local east European antisemitism killed the Jews of eastern Europe confers upon others a sense of superiority akin to that the Nazis once felt. These people are quite primitive, we can allow ourselves to think. Not only does this account fail as an explanation of the Holocaust; it’s racism.
We fall into the trap of ethnicization and collective responsibility, we collude with Nazi and Soviet propagandists…..
Yet, Snyder himself places all the blame for World War 2 and the Holocaust on the Russians and the Germans. Just like it is not wrong or racist to state that the Americans had a horrific, racist system only 50 years ago (parts of which still exist today), so too, it is not Nazi (a.k.a. racist) to say that certain parts of the population hated Jews and participated in massacres state the same as Poland and Ukraine in the 1930 and 40s. It should also be noted that this is not a genetic composition. In fact, Poland was probably the best place to live for Jews and even Muslims (and possibly even Catholics) for many hundreds of years. Before being dismembered by Russia and Germany, Poland was arguably the most advanced democracy on earth (for more on this topic see Poland: A History).
However, many nations have dark periods, and while I am not saying all or even a majority of Poles or Ukrainians, etc. supported murdering Jews, there were collaborators and a good percentage of Jew haters. I am not even going to begin to get into the fact that many Poles saved Jews or that everyone, especially Jews, owes a debt of gratitude to the Poles who made a massive contribution to the war, especially in the Battle of Britain (Poles in Defence of Britain), and by helping crack the enigma (Enigma: How the Poles Broke the Nazi Code). It is both hypocritical and non-objective to ignore these facts.
Snyder was not as blatantly pro-Polish and Ukrainian or anti-Russian as he is in some of his prior books. In The Reconstruction Of Nations, Snyder argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that the reason Eastern Europe did not end up like the Balkans after the Iron Curtain fell was largely due to the attitude of the Polish Government. The Poles reconciled themselves to the post World War 2 borders created by Stalin, renounced territorial claims to cities like Lvov and Vilna, and discouraged the agitation of Polish minorities outside of Poland. Snyder, whether justified or not, comes with a bias, just as I do, coming with family who came from current day Belarus and Ukraine. However, besides this one page which I found outrageous, Snyder only implied the lack of any guilt by anyone besides the Germans or Russians by roundabout methods. His bias with Poland notwithstanding, Snyder showed more objectivity in this book than he did in some of his prior books and recent articles.
Snyder, in a roundabout way, attempts to downplay hatred of Jews (judenhass) as a cause for the Holocaust as much as possible, although he does it in a way which does not hit raw nerves as Bloodlands did a bit. He does make some convincing arguments,