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Timothy Snyder taken to task by Walter Laqueur

Historians in the News
tags: Holocaust, Walter Laqueur, Timothy Snyder, Black Earth The Holocaust as History and Warning



Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, Weimar, A History of Terrorism, Fascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, has just been released by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

No author of books on Eastern Europe during the period of World War II and the Holocaust has been more widely reviewed and discussed in recent years than Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale. In Bloodlands (2010), Snyder presented what might be termed a Polish-Ukrainian version of the Holocaust, highlighting the brutality of Nazi rule over the countries of Eastern Europe—the “bloodlands” between Germany and Soviet Russia—and the horrific toll in lives, especially Polish lives, taken by the two battling powers.

Now, in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Snyder deals mostly with the mass murder of Jews, ascribing greater responsibility than have other historians to the early work of the Nazi SS killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) operating in occupied Eastern Europe, but also memorializing those who helped to save Jewish lives in Poland after the 1939 invasion and partition of that country by the twin forces of Nazi Germany and the USSR. Indeed, the book, which is based to a considerable extent on the stories of individual survivors, centers like the previous one mainly on Poland, and to a lesser extent on the three Baltic states. There is little here on the fate of Jewish communities in other European countries, most of whom were transported to their deaths in Poland. Nor, despite its subtitle—“The Holocaust as History and Warning”—is Black Earth properly seen as another history of the Holocaust. It is instead a new interpretation, and one with some startling arguments to advance.

The reception givento both of Snyder’s books has generally been rapturous, if more so in the United States than in Europe, and more so in some circles than in others. They have been called epic, haunting, brilliant, profoundly original, groundbreaking, provocative, erudite, challenging, unforgettable—exhausting the thesaurus. Most of those cheering, however, are not historians who have specialized in the study of Nazism, Eastern Europe, or the Holocaust. Within that more select group, a number have entered serious reservations and criticisms of Snyder’s work, and some have voiced harsher and more heated judgments; a harvest can be found at the website Defending History.

Some of the negative comments on Snyder are highly emotional and even personal to a degree unusual in historical debate. He has been accused of prevarication, of consorting with shady characters in the present-day Baltic republics, of deliberately downplaying anti-Semitism and the unique character of the Final Solution, of anti-Russian and pro-Polish bias, and more. Skeptical reviewers in Europe have focused on his alleged espousal of the “double- genocide” theme—that is, equating the scale and seriousness of the atrocities committed respectively by Hitler and Stalin.

In addition to these criticisms, of which some are at least partially justified, even experts otherwise disposed to Snyder are understandably irked by his frequent statements, easily disproved, that much of his work is based on material hitherto unknown or neglected or inaccessible. When writing in this vein, he is capable of such breathless confidences as that most of the killing of Jews took place outside Germany and that many and possibly a majority of the killers were not themselves German: all basic facts, long and solidly established. More broadly, Snyder insists that the “conventional” understanding of the Holocaust has been so thoroughly misguided that only now, with the publication of Bloodlands and Black Earth, is it possible to see things as they really were and to rethink the subject afresh. Such asseverations cannot but create the impression that our author sees himself in the role of Isaac Newton as imagined by Alexander Pope:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night

God said: Let Newton be! and all was light.

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