The Destructive Power of Nationalism: Eric Weitz reviews Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide and Bartov Responds
“Human life is cheap” in Casablanca, says Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) to Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in the renowned film. In Buczacz, human life was cheap, and then some – expendable, worthless, targeted for obliteration. As Omer Bartov shows in his extraordinary new book, Buczacz, an isolated, backwater town in what is today western Ukraine, was crisscrossed by all the pathologies of twentieth-century political movements.
The consequences were devastating for the inhabitants, Jews especially, but Ukrainians and Poles as well. Not that they were the passive victims of abstract political forces or of the actions of the major powers, Habsburg Austria, Imperial and Nazi Germany, and Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, that variously dominated the town and region. Perhaps the prime achievement of this book is that Bartov brings to life the people of Buczacz and shows their involvement in mass murder on a devastating scale, including some Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. No one could be a mere bystander amid the various occupations and destructions of two world wars and hyperactive Ukrainian nationalism, Polish nationalism, Soviet communism, and Zionism. Precious few were the heroes and heroines in Buczacz.
Bartov has pored over diaries, letters, interviews, trial transcripts, Jewish memorial books, and more on four continents (even Australia shows up) in an array of languages — German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, English. The sources mirror the town. Buczacz, until 1945, was a classic East European multiconfessional, multilingual, and multiethnic place. Bartov, true to his purpose, tells us, in effect, that if we want to understand how the Holocaust occurred, we need to deploy all these languages and sources over decades and centuries.
The town’s beginnings, and subsequent life, were inauspicious, yet it is here that twentieth-century history, with all its thunderous force, unfolded. Buczacz was founded in the thirteenth century by a Polish noble family. Over the centuries, Polish Catholics, Armenians, Jews, Ukrainian Orthodox, Habsburg Germans, and Ukrainian Catholics populated the town and its surrounding area. Ottoman, Polish-Lithuanian, and Habsburg armies fought over it, wreaking havoc on all the inhabitants. Occasional peasant uprisings became grisly affairs, especially for Jews. Yet long periods of calm existed as well. The various communities lived side-by-side, interacted in markets and shops, Poles and Ukrainians sometimes intermarrying. The Russian, Prussian, and Austrian partition of Poland in the late eighteenth century made Buczacz part of the Habsburg Empire. The legal emancipation of Jews soon followed. Buczacz lived the Galician stereotype: Germans officiated, Polish lords dominated the countryside, Ukrainian peasants worked on Polish estates, and Jewish merchants traded horses and grain and distilled the cheap alcohol that they sold in their taverns.
World War I shattered the veil of calm, permanently. Even before the outbreak of war, the three major communities, Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, had largely retreated into themselves as young people sought a political solution to poverty and oppression in exclusive nationalism, in a Greater Poland, a Greater Ukraine, or a Jewish something somewhere. Socialism was also finding support among younger Jews; Polish socialism was largely restricted to the major cities of Congress (Russian) Poland, while Ukrainians had yet to hear (and would never hear, at least not in Buczacz) the siren song of Marxism. But no one could have anticipated the no-hold-barred conflicts of all sorts, the mix of great power, religious, class, national, and racial violence and the rivers of blood that World War I unleashed and would not be stanched until 1948, when the Soviets finally defeated Ukrainian nationalist fighters.
Russian troops captured and occupied Buczacz twice during World War I. Regular warfare was bad enough for the inhabitants, Russian rule even worse. Cossacks terrorized Jews at random, looted and pillaged everywhere. When the Habsburgs won Buczacz back for the second and final time in July 1917, they found a devastated, nearly lifeless town. Many Buczaczers had been killed, either by the violence of war or by targeted attacks on civilians, thousand more had fled in all sorts of directions, the start of vast population movements that also would not cease until 1948. Habsburg rule would not last long. The Empire soon collapsed amid the wreckage of World War I, while the Bolshevik Revolution added a wholly new dimension to the political conflicts that engulfed the region.
The armistice of November 11, 1918 hardly put an end to the fighting. Ukrainian nationalists were the first to claim Buczacz as their own; they held it for less than a year. The Great Powers at Paris placed the town in the newly constituted Poland, and Polish nationalists secured control in the summer of 1919. Each side made exclusive claims; no one proposed a binational or federal state. Each sought to drive out the other, and both blamed the Jews for everything. To Ukrainians, Jews were closet-Polish nationalists; to Poles they had been too close to the Germans. And that was the political tip of the iceberg of antisemitic accusations that Poles and Ukrainians wrote and spoke, in endless, mind-numbing repetition, all the accusations and charges that we know only too well. And they killed. They killed Jews and they killed one another, oftentimes in drawn out, sadistic fashion. In word and deed, each side said: this is my land, be gone or be dead.
It is in regard to this period, twenty years before the onset of the Holocaust, that Bartov’s deep reading of the sources in many languages offers readers a visceral account of life in Buczacz in all its chilling detail. For the most part, he lets his informants speak without much commentary. We get widely contrasting accounts and interpretations. A Jewish soldier in the Russian army, a Polish schoolmaster, British officers (they really are everywhere) — each tells us something different about the city and its inhabitants; all of them reveal a society fractured into its component parts.
The fractures only deepened in the interwar years, even though direct violence waned as the Polish state established its rule. Many young Jews could only see a way out of the bleak conditions through emigration to Palestine (including Bartov’s mother; before World War I the famed novelist S. Y. Agnon, one of Buczacz’s few luminaries, had also left for Palestine). A few others found hope in communism. Meanwhile, Ukrainians chafed under Polish rule, while the Polish authorities were not reticent to use beatings and extra-judicial detention against Ukrainian activists.
A sense of impending doom infuses the arc of Bartov’s narrative. We know the villain, as we do in a Hitchcock film, yet we read on just as we continue to watch the screen. First come the Soviets, not quite the villains but bad enough. Buczacz lay in the domain granted them by the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, signed in August 1939. The world turned upside down. Many Jews greeted their arrival, a form of protection, they hoped, against the Polish and Ukrainian nationalists who oppressed them and the Nazi war machine, churning ever closer to Buczacz. Ukrainians were happy to see Poland dismembered and Polish authority shattered, thinking that their political moment had now arrived amid the chaos engendered by Soviet occupation. Poles grieved at their loss. Revolution from the East often came in the form of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, who deported and killed those of all three groups whom they suspected of anti-Soviet activity. As was its wont, the NKVD threw its net broadly, snaring many innocents in the process. Yet many Jews would survive the ensuing horror because they found protection under Soviet rule. A few Jews actively collaborated with the Soviets, something for which Ukrainian and Polish nationalists have never forgiven Jews as a whole.
The “Anatomy of a Genocide” of the title comes, strictly speaking, in the second half of the book. But the pathway has been lain for us by the pre-1940 history of competing nationalisms, ethnic prejudices of the worst sort, and massive violence. The Holocaust was a German creation, Bartov suggests, but it fed on local patterns that long predated the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. Nor were the “bloodlands” invented by Hitler and Stalin; Ukrainian and Polish nationalists, Ukrainian peasant rebels, Polish authorities, and the imperial Russian army in World War I had already seen to that. Amid it all were the Jews, battered by all sides.
The account Bartov offers of the Holocaust in Buczacz is harrowing, excruciating at times, even for one who has read legions of histories and eye-witness accounts. Here again, he lets his interlocutors speak. The strength of the narrative lies in the agglomeration of sources in multiple languages — Jewish survivors, Polish and Ukrainian rescuers, Soviet investigative agencies, postwar German prosecutorial evidence, perpetrator testimonies. It is all there, the utter devastation of a community in all its cruelty, most Jews murdered in direct, face-to-face killings, often by Ukrainian auxiliaries, some in the Belzec extermination camp.
Yet even the end of this war did not bring an end to the killings. Once again, Poles and Ukrainians vied for power, both blaming the Jews for all that had gone wrong. It took the Soviets a good three years before they finally crushed the Ukrainian nationalist army, and remnants kept fighting until the early 1950s. Buczacz was now a part of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine; little of its Jewish and Polish past remained. Jews were dead or gone. In yet another of the twentieth century’s ethnic cleansings, Polish and Ukrainian populations were “exchanged.” The millennium-long history of Buczacz as a multiconfessional, multiethnic, and multilingual community was over.
The great, powerful force of Bartov’s book lies, again, in its rich vein of first-person materials. Only in the second half of the book does Bartov venture to comment and interpret. When he does so, his is an eloquent and commanding voice. One learns, for example, about all the ambiguities and ambivalencies of individual actions during the Holocaust: rescuers who saved Jews for a price, or saved them for a while only to turn them over for execution in the very last days of the war; Jews who provided Nazi officials with names of fellow Jews to be deported; killers who survived the war quite nicely with utterly clear consciences; people who blamed Jews for their own destruction. “For those who had lived through a daily routine of genocide,” writes Bartov, “observing from nearby the systematic murder of men, women, and children, partying with their killers, benefiting from their services, occasionally helping them out or even befriending them, at other times denouncing, robbing, or killing them, their capacity to emerge into the postwar era with a clean conscience was nothing short of astonishing” (228). Indeed. But can we say more? How does this mechanism work in human psychology? And was it typical, not only for Buczacz and the Holocaust, but for other genocides as well?
In Bartov’s vivid account, the long-standing distinction made in the historiography and literature on the Holocaust among victims, bystanders, and perpetrators, breaks down. To be sure, the majority of Jews were only victims, and many were the absolute perpetrators. Yet for the annihilation of the Jews to succeed, certainly in the dimensions the Holocaust became, the full range of human motivations and actions had to come into play. One is left wondering, once more, if “never again” is merely a hollow slogan, whether all the efforts at diversity education, tolerance, and genocide prevention are hopeless, or whether the problem lay in the very specific conditions of life and politics in Buczacz and the blunt force of Nazi power. It would have been good to read Bartov’s considerations on the matter.
Were alternate pathways ever possible? The historian William W. Hagen wrote a penetrating article in 1996 that demonstrated how the conditions of Jewish life were deteriorating all across Eastern Europe in the interwar years. Poland, Hungary, and other countries adopted antisemitic measures in the 1930s not all that different from Nazi policies in that same decade, prior to the onset of the Holocaust. Exclusive nation-states and nationalizing capitalism left no room for Jews, Hagen argued. Even if we imagine a past without the Third Reich — as difficult as that is — the prospects for East European Jews in the first half of the twentieth century appear exceedingly bleak. Does that mean that in the end, the Zionists were correct, that in the modern world, dominated by the political form of the nation-state, Jews could only survive and prosper in a Jewish state? Here too it would have been good to read Bartov’s views.
Human life was cheap in Buczacz, but human corpses were not. As Bartov shows in his eloquent, powerful, and disturbing book, they were the currency by which Ukrainian nationalists, Polish nationalists, and Nazis measured their victories, however fleeting.
Eric D. Weitz
Distinguished Professor of History
The City College of New York
RESPONSE from Omer Bartov
Response to Eric Weitz
I would like to thank Eric Weitz for his thoughtful review of my book. He has provided the gist of a complex narrative, and highlighted the main argument of a decades-long endeavor with admirable clarity and brevity. I am also glad to be given the opportunity to address some of the important questions he raises toward the end of his essay.
Weitz asks, “How does this mechanism” of routine, intimate mass murder of people, followed by decades of post-genocidal existence with a completely clean conscience, “work in human psychology?” He wonders, “was it typical, not only for Buczacz and the Holocaust, but for other genocides as well?” This is a big question and I obviously do not have a simple answer. To my mind, the most important contribution of the book in this regard is to identify and document this phenomenon rather than to speculate about it. We would like to think that those who perpetrate genocide are uniquely evil or distorted human beings, that the bystanders are appalled by what they witness, and that the victims are pure and innocent. But when we observe the workings of genocide on the local level, it does not look like that at all, as I have documented for Buczacz. That things were quite similar in hundreds of other multiethnic towns throughout Eastern Europe is, I think, indisputable.
Similarly, as we have known for decades, certainly since the 1974 publication of Into That Darkness, Gitta Sereny’s study of extermination camp commandant Franz Stangl, the Germans and Austrians who organized genocide had no pangs of conscience.
What my book shows is that others, much smaller fry among the perpetrators and the administrators on the local level, including their wives and mistresses, parents and friends and colleagues, appear to have emerged from the bloodbath they made possible unscathed. Conversely, the survivors were marked for the rest of their lives with a profound sense of guilt and shame. In the present context I cannot analyze the psychological mechanism that makes for this grotesque consequence of genocide, but to the extent that I know about many other genocides, ranging from the 1904 mass killing of the Herero by the German military in Southwest Africa, through the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman regime in 1915, all the way to the postwar genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, it appears that with few exceptions what occurred in Buczacz was hardly unique. Indeed, I began conceiving of this book in the 1990s, not least under the impact of the events in the former Yugoslavia and the horrors of the mass murder of the Tutsis.
Weitz goes on to ask if, ultimately, “’never again’ is merely a hollow slogan, whether all the efforts at diversity education, tolerance, and genocide prevention are hopeless, or whether the problem lay in the very specific conditions of life and politics in Buczacz and the blunt force of Nazi power.” As he well knows in view of his own important contributions to the study of this issue, the “never again” vows of 1945 failed to prevent numerous genocides since.
To be sure, every genocide has its own particular causes, circumstances, and consequences. But genocides also have some elements in common, not least of which is the identification of certain groups as different, undesirable, less then human, and pernicious. In the case of Buczacz, the strife between Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, which produced the preconditions for fraternal violence, was superimposed by the Soviet and then Nazi urge to cleanse, reorder, and remove those groups they identified as their enemies, and to do so with the help of local elements, which only exacerbated the already rampant animosity between these groups.
But we can identify similar mechanisms in other genocides, such as the use of the Kurdish population against Armenians by the Ottoman authorities, the mix of ethnic and class factors in the Cambodian genocide, and the relationship between the recent colonial past and increasingly rigid ethnic categorizations in Rwanda.
Yet none of this means that genocide is a phenomenon we must learn to live with and cannot prevent. The most important element to my mind in preventing genocide is to struggle always against the political and mental removal of certain groups in our midst and among our neighbors from the sphere of shared humanity and responsibility. Many regimes and political leaders, not least the current resident in the White House and his minions, are engaged in such practices, whether for short-term political gain or for reasons of prejudice and ideology. It is such tendencies in one’s own society that one must fight against tooth and nail, before it is too late, especially in countries who population is and has always been diverse.
Finally, Weitz asks, “Were alternate pathways ever possible?” As he rightly notes, “Even if we imagine a past without the Third Reich… the prospects for East European Jews in the first half of the twentieth century appear exceedingly bleak. Does that mean,” he writes, “that in the end, the Zionists were correct, that in the modern world, dominated by the political form of the nation-state, Jews could only survive and prosper in a Jewish state?”
To this I would say that in the wake of the Holocaust this certainly was the point of view of the Zionists, not least of the Yishuv leadership in Palestine. It was a view that played an important role in the decision to recognize a Jewish State by a majority of the states represented in the newly established United Nations. But in the 1930s there were of course many other options, and most Jews would have apparently chosen them if they only could, as they had done in the last few decades before World War I, and when well over two million of them emigrated to the United States, coming from what US legislators in the early 1920s would have described, had they been as crass as the current incumbent of the White House, as “shithole countries.”
The Immigration Act of 1924 was geared to preserve so-called American homogeneity and as a result increasingly sealed the gates of emigration for Jews trying to flee Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Hitler would have been able to do much less damage to European Jewry had Congress not passed that act. This is perhaps one more important lesson in genocide prevention.
Omer Bartov is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History and Professor of History and Professor of German Studies at Brown University.
Omer Bartov, 2018, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. Simon & Schuster. ISBN-13: 978-1451684537
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