Two new books by American historians shed light on the Soviet past and those who still avoid its implications





Winter is bleak enough as it is. This year the gloom was deepened by the publication of How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, by Eric Hobsbawm, one of Britain’s most feted historians, and, oh yes, a man who stuck with the Communist party until 1991 despite a global killing spree that took perhaps one hundred million lives. Naturally Hobsbawm’s new book has triggered the usual hosannas from the usual congregation for, to quote the Guardian, this “grand old man.”...

But who are we to quibble, when, as his admirers like to remind us, Hobsbawm’s life has been “shaped by the struggle against fascism,” an excuse understandable in the 1930s (Hobsbawm, who is Jewish, quit Germany as a teenager in 1933), but grotesque more than six decades after the fall of the Third Reich.

Just how grotesque was highlighted by two books that came out last year. In the first, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder describes the darkness that engulfed a stretch of Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century. He leaves only one convincing response to the question that dominates the second, Stalin’s Genocides, by Stanford’s Norman Naimark: For all the unique evils of the Holocaust, was Stalin, no less than Hitler, guilty of genocide?...

To suggest, as some have, that, by twinning his chronicle of Nazi atrocity with a history of the Soviet slaughters of the previous decade, Snyder has in some way diminished the Holocaust is absurd. The Holocaust was underpinned by a dream of annihilation that was all its own, but it was also a product of its era. Like Communism, Nazism was a creed with a strong religious resonance (it’s no coincidence that this was a time when more conventional religions were losing their traditional hold over the human imagination), yet it aimed at creating a utopia for its elect here on earth, a dangerous enough delusion under the best of circumstances, let alone those developing in the early 20th century. For these utopias were, quite explicitly, to be built by bloodshed and sustained by force, a prospect made all the more menacing by technological advance, the growth of the modern state, and, critically, the shattering of so much of European civilization by the First World War. That conflict opened the door to the Bolshevik Revolution, which in turn helped pave the way for the Third Reich, a state that was both reaction against and imitation of the Soviet Union....

Since the Balkan wars, the jurisprudence of genocide has, as Professor Naimark shows, evolved to the point at which there could be no serious legal doubt that the architects of Soviet mass murder would, if hauled before a court today, receive the judgment they deserve. Prosecutions for the Soviet genocides have, however, been pitifully few and confined to the liberated Baltic states. Thus, in May 2008, one Arnold Meri was tried for his role in the deportation of 251 Estonians almost sixty years before. He died before a verdict could be reached. Not long later Dmitri Medvedev awarded Meri a posthumous medal for his wartime service.

And if you want just one reason why these books by Professors Snyder and Naimark are so important, that’s not a bad place to start. Hobsbawm you can junk.


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