By Mark Roosevelt, President
Kafka wrote, “A book must be an ice-axe to break the frozen seas inside our souls.”
I have received many wonderful responses from Antiochians about this column, some with suggestions of books to read. Last month, Zee Gamson ’59 wrote me about how she had stayed up late into the night reading Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder.
So I read Bloodlands, a mind-numbing book that epitomizes what it means to be an “ice-ax” to our souls and that provokes wonderment about the murderous nature of ideological fanaticism.
I have long been meaning to read more about the horrors that befell much of Eastern Europe during that time. I had been stirred by the historian Tony Judt’s observations in The Memory Chalet about how the vast majority of left-leaning westerners of the 1960s were oblivious to the breathtaking cruelty of communism as practiced by the Soviet Union as well as Mao and his brethren. I remember that I too owned a “Little Red Book” as a teenager, furious with my own country’s misdeeds in Vietnam and Chile, but oblivious to anything that was happening in the overflowing prisons and graveyards of Beijing, Prague, Berlin, or Moscow.
Judt spent his life “on the left,” but he grew to realize that in his rebellious youth, it was the student rebels in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia not London, Paris, or New York who were making the history that mattered most. Judt asks of his younger self, “What did we know of the courage it took to withstand weeks of interrogation in Warsaw prisons …for all our grandstanding theories of history we failed to notice one of its seminal turning points… We protested the things we didn’t like, and we were right to do so. In our own eyes at least, we were a revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.”
I think about how important it is to search for the truth, and how difficult. So much can confuse what we see and don’t - our own personal histories, the limits of our knowledge and comprehension, the times in which we live, and the less-than accurate lessons we have been taught about history from when we were first able to read and hear.
How easily history can be distorted, or ignored, is especially clear when we think of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, for example, Americans were taught history from textbooks that warped our understanding of how World War II was won and the role played by our Russian allies. Reading many of these texts you would hardly have known that there was an “eastern front,” not to mention that it was the largest military engagement in the history of the world and resulted in 30 million deaths and was the primary cause of Hitler’s defeat.
Who makes these decisions on what is taught and what is not? On what stories we are told and those that are kept hidden? It is perhaps easy to understand that it was difficult for many Americans to acknowledge the bravery and suffering of the people who had become our most feared enemy. But a more honest depiction of the past would have provided a clearer understanding of what we were up against in the Cold War and how to best deal with it.
If honest reporting had depicted Russian bravery and sacrifice, it would also have depicted enormous barbarity. For Americans and Europeans of the left, some of whom saw the Soviet Union as a beacon of hope, acknowledging that barbarity was difficult. That is unfortunate, for, as Bloodlands reveals, the Soviet Union, both before and after the war, engaged in the systemic killing of millions through starvation, work camps, and executions, based on ethnicity, national origin, profession, and other characteristics now almost too obscure to fathom.
Bloodlands overpowers the reader with statistics of these grisly horrors, one after another, page after page. There is no escape for the reader as for decades there was no escape for Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Russians, Belarusians, and Jews from every country, and so many others for whom their homeland would become the largest killing fields in history.
Snyder’s extraordinary research from multiple sources in multiple languages pulls together a complicated story into a cohesive whole that has heretofore mostly been told only in its horrific parts. Sometimes the piling up of statistics, and of bodies in mass graves, is more than the mind can absorb. The horror and the learning come through most in specifics. For example, because neither the Russians nor the Germans honored codes for the treatment of prisoners of war, on any given day in the autumn of 1941 as many Soviet POWs died as did British and American POWs during the entire war. Another example—as the war in the east went increasingly badly for the Germans, their dedication to “the final solution” increased. By 1941 the Nazis were killing all the Jews in communities they controlled. In the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, they engaged in two days of continuous shooting, leaving more than 33,770 corpses. Eventually they would slaughter two-and-a-half million Jews in occupied Soviet territory.
In Bloodlands you read about individual people whose barbarity is beyond description. People such as Vasily Blokhin, the chief Soviet executioner in Kalinin, now Tver, a Russian town north of Moscow, who “wore a leather cap, apron, and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform” and “shot, each night, about 250 men, one after another,” reaching a total of over 7,000 Polish prisoners executed in this one episode of mass killing alone. Because the extent of the depravity revealed in Bloodlands is so monumental in scope, Blokhin and the Kalinin massacre receive only a paragraph. Perhaps Snyder was sparing us from having to learn more gruesome details of Blokhin’s technique, which earned him various “honors” from Stalin, including the Red Banner, and make him, according to other sources, “the most prolific official executioner in recorded world history.” Such details jolt the reader to comprehension.
As Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, observes in her article “The Worst of the Madness” in the November 11, 2010 New York Review of Books, Bloodlands records the misdeeds of two of the most murderous ideologies the world has ever seen—Soviet communist totalitarianism and German national socialism. Americans still lack the “jolt” of comprehension required to come to terms, if that is indeed possible. Applebaum notes that the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz could never quite forgive Americans this lack of awareness and explained that because of that “the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously…their resultant lack of imagination is appalling.”
What might true comprehension mean?
My own answer is that, at the least, it requires us to ponder the limits and dangers of ideology, to seek as much truth as possible, and to open our eyes as wide as possible.
Applebaum’s own conclusions are worth quoting at length. She believes that “if we remember the twentieth century for what it actually was, and not for what we imagine it to have been, the misuse of history for national political purposes also becomes more difficult.”
She also believes that this larger comprehension requires us to revise our view of World War II as “the good war,” because although it is true that we fought successfully for human rights in Western Europe, “we ignored and then forgot what happened further east. As a result we liberated one half of Europe at the cost of enslaving the other half for 50 years…That does not make us bad—there were limitations, reasons, legitimate explanations for what happened. But it does make us less exceptional. And it does make World War II less exceptional, more morally ambiguous, and thus more similar to the wars that followed.”
Applebaum concludes that such a painful “reassessment…could finally cure us of that ‘lack of imagination’ that so appalled Czeslaw Milosz almost 60 years ago. When considered in isolation, Auschwitz can be easily compartmentalized…But if Auschwitz was not the only mass atrocity, if mass murder was simultaneously taking place across a multinational landscape and with the support of many different kinds of people, then it is not so easy to compartmentalize or explain away.”
That is the sort of revelation or “ice-axe to the soul” that kept Zee Gamson up through the night.