On April 6-8, 2017, CHGS held a symposium in celebration of its 20th anniversary titled, “Comparative Genocide Studies and the Holocaust: Conflict and Convergence”. Timothy Snyder, a professor of History at Yale University gave the keynote on “The Politics of Mass Killing: Past and Present”. Joe Eggers was able to sit down and talk with him.
CHGS: What drew you to studying the Holocaust?
I became an eastern European historian because I was interested in intellectual history, and I was interested in the history of diplomacy, and the history of power. The late 80’s, early 90’s were a time when suddenly one could see those two sets of interests coming together, which is eastern Europe. It was only becoming an east European historian that I realized that the Holocaust and other mass crimes, German and Soviet alike, were the responsibility of east European historians. The problem with the Holocaust, or one of them at least historiographically, is that it’s not quite Jewish history because the Jews are of course the victims, but the perpetrators are from many other places. It’s not quite German history either, because although it was a German policy, more than half the perpetrators are not German and it takes place almost entirely beyond the borders of pre-war Germany. So it has to be both Jewish and German history but it also has to be east European history because that’s where it happened.
What I tried to do was write about the Holocaust that brought together these various historiographies. It was out of a sense of responsibility and then out of a sense of trying to make different things make sense together. How can we make sense of the fact that the Germans and Soviets were present in the same territories, juxtaposed or overlapping? How can we bring these things that we know are important – nationalist history, German history, Soviet history, Jewish history together? That was Blood Lands. Blood Lands was a kind of clearing of the deck, saying that these things happened at the same place and the same time. As I was talking about Blood Lands I thought ‘Okay, can I actually develop the arguments that I made in there about the Holocaust and not just say, as I do in Blood Lands, that if we know that all these events happened in the same place and time, are contemporary events that only bring so much sense.’ That led to Black Earth.
I think of myself as a historian, and not as a historian of the Holocaust. That is to say I wrote about other things and I intend to write about other things.
You talked about the differences of living in and recognizing the memory of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe versus Western Europe, especially in terms of the reluctance of some Eastern European countries to acknowledge their role in it. Could you expand on that?
In terms of East European memory, there’s an inherent plurality that we don’t necessarily see in the West because the average person living in Warsaw or Kiev is going to be thinking of not just a single German crime. An American memory of German crimes is going to be mostly limited to the Holocaust, but no one in Eastern Europe will be thinking of it that way because there was a plurality. The Germans also executed the intelligentsia, they also deported people, and they also had millions of forced laborers, so it’s not possible from an East European perspective to see the Holocaust as the only crime. Then the Soviet Union is also present, which we don’t like in the West. We would like for it to be like France, where the Germans came and people righteously rose up; something like that – we like that. We want for it to be sort of simple and dramatic. As Americans, we want for the Americans to provide the muscle.
The whole Eastern Europe story where the Soviets commit some of the crimes and the Soviets are some of the liberators is very hard for us to handle. From an East European point of view, you can’t just come in with the idea that the Holocaust is the only thing that happened, which is a bit more like where our memory is.
You’ve talked about your reluctance to use the word ‘genocide.’ Why do you feel like it is a problematic term?
In the East European context, the idea of genocide becomes very problematic. On the one side, you have people who understand that genocide is the coin of the realm morally. They therefore say the execution of the Poles at Katyn was genocidal, which legally speaking I think it was, but I fear the reason they say it is that it will be compared to the Holocaust. Or people say the Holodomor, the famine in Ukraine, was genocide, which I also believe that legally it was but I’m also afraid that the reason they say it is so people see it as equal to the Holocaust.
Then the response is that you have many more people who are in Eastern Europe who say they’re defending the memory of the Holocaust by saying the Holocaust is the only genocide. Which is legally speaking totally wrong, but in some political sense they are playing the same game as the other side, because the other side say genocide when they mean Holocaust, and so when this side says Holocaust they’re trying to say genocide. It ends up going around and around and around. The only way that I’ve been able to find some way of building out some kind of historical understanding of the various crimes in Eastern Europe is to just not use the word [genocide] because the word is like a roadblock in every chapter and you cannot write a sentence without people saying “what about this?” or “what about that?” and genocide becomes the only thing you can talk about, and so in my own work I don’t use the term.
Joe Eggers is a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota. His master’s thesis explored the cultural genocide of indigenous people through the boarding school system.