The future of genocide

Richard Handler on Thomas Snyder's Bloodlands and the future of genocide.

Genocide, a term coined after the vast bloodletting of the Second World War, has a powerful resonance. Just thinking of the word conjures up images of factory death camps and butchered and emaciated bodies all over the world.

From Ukraine, central Europe and Armenia to Rwanda and Cambodia, genocide has invoked powerful revulsion and also raised the question of whether any one group can lay claim to the moral authority that flows from that revulsion.

That is the problem facing those in charge of setting up the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, which is set to open in two years time.

The singularity of suffering. An unidentified youth jumps from one pillar to another at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin in March 2010. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

Is the Holocaust of the Jews to be given special space and status in this museum? Will other groups, such as the Ukrainians who were starved and murdered under Stalin, have to share a "mass atrocity gallery."

It is a debate about the singularity of suffering, its special meaning.

For some, like Taras Zalusky, executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, "It's about fair and equitable treatment of these tragedies," as he told the Winnipeg Free Press.

But to rate genocides according to their special meaning and purpose only leads to endless, partisan bickering — and lots of hurt feelings.


Timothy Synder is a Yale historian  who has been criticized for wanting to sidestep some of these debates. Comparing victim status, he says, risks turning any lessons into a "genocide derby."

But his new book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, is nonetheless receiving considerable attention for its meticulous and human account of the slaughter committed by both the Nazis and the Soviets between 1933 and 1945. 

Bloodlands, a term Snyder coined, refers to the killing fields between Berlin and Moscow — in Eastern Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus and other areas in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Interestingly, Snyder does not use the word genocide when writing and talking about these events.

As he explained to me in an Ideas interview (to run on Feb. 2), the term genocide has both legal and popular definitions. But employing it, he says, just closes the door to discussion.

The 1947 legal definition by the UN incorporates several aspects of targeted oppression, such as "Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group" and "Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

The popular definition is simpler: The wholesale killing of a people because of religion, race or ethnicity.

Double victims

For his part, Snyder prefers the term "mass killing," which there was certainly plenty of in that barbarous 13-year period ending with the Second World War.

By his count, 14 million people were murdered in those European blood lands, a staggering number almost outside of our imaginations.

Synder is a one of that new generation of scholars since the fall of the Berlin Wall with access to the archives of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. His book is cool and humane, scrupulous and horrifying.

Turn to almost any page and precise statistics leap out — for instance, that 35,454 kulaks (wealthier peasants) were shot at a set date.

The book begins with the Ukraine famine of 1932-33 when some parents were forced to eat their dead children — and some children, their dead parents. Some 3.3 million died from starvation and other causes.

It notes that nearly 2.5 million Jews were killed outside the death factories by bullets, over ditches. (Snyder spends considerable time on the precise step-by-step history of the Holocaust.)

One thing he makes clear is how often the civilian populations of Eastern Europe were caught between the see-sawing armies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

People could become, in a sense, double victims.

Can it happen again?

One of Snyder's important contributions is in exploring how Stalin and Hitler enabled each other in these mass killings.

Hitler learned much, for example, from Stalin's starving of Ukrainian peasantry. (Their grain was seized to feed workers in the cities and for export.).

Then they took turns destroying the Polish elite and bourgeoisie.

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, thousands of Soviet soldiers were left stranded by Stalin to die horrible deaths by exposure in Nazi pens.

Who then, asks Snyder, was ultimately responsible?

When I asked Snyder how could so many ordinary people stand over ditches to shoot Jews (or Poles or Belarusians or Soviet prisoners of war) he, normally a forceful talker, hesitates and tells me simply that such activity was, unfortunately, "normal."

Not that Germans in 1933, at the start of the Nazi regime, could imagine some day standing over ditches to put a bullet in the back of a Jew or Russian. They were led to it, step by step.

A racist ideology helped. So did the prospect of economic advantage in a period of protracted want (take the apartments and wealth of those you imprison and exile).

Throw in desperation over food shortages and living space as populations were moved about. Then add conformism and fear of criticism.

In fact, the more the Nazis began to lose on the battlefield, the more they insisted on the mass killing of the Jews — as a desperate justification for the war itself.

Could this happen again, perhaps in the near future? This is a question Snyder asks in a New Republic essay ominously titled "The Coming Age of Slaughter: Will Global Warming Unleash Genocide."

Snyder's chilling point is that all us who see ourselves as bystanders in history's grand events can become participants in ways we can't now imagine.

For example, what happens in a time when resources are shrinking? When food and especially water are up for grabs?

Certain decisions must be made. Millions might die in us-against-them scenarios. Eventually, mass killing, mass starvation on a Stalinist scale, might even seem normal.

With the right conditions, and a mixture fear, conformity and ideology, ordinary citizens can, history tells us, turn into murderous participants.

That means you and me. And that means we all have an equal stake in this debate about the real meaning of genocide.