Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Heart of Darkness

It is so easy to think our lives difficult, until we remember far more difficult times not so very long ago, indeed, within the lifetimes of many retired people still alive. The 30s and 40s were a truly dreadful time, all around the world. Many millions of people lost their lives in depression and then world war. If this was a time of darkness, then the 'heart of darkness' was, as Timothy Snyder puts it in an article in the New York Review of Books, the lands between Germany and Russia, namely, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus.

The emphasis on Auschwitz and the Gulag understates the numbers of
Europeans killed, and shifts the geographical focus of the killing to the German
Reich and the Russian East. Like Auschwitz, which draws our attention to the
Western European victims of the Nazi empire, the Gulag, with its notorious
Siberian camps, also distracts us from the geographical center of Soviet killing
policies. If we concentrate on Auschwitz and the Gulag, we fail to notice that
over a period of twelve years, between 1933 and 1944, some 12 million victims of
Nazi and Soviet mass killing policies perished in a particular region of Europe,
one defined more or less by today's Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and
Latvia. More generally, when we contemplate Auschwitz and the Gulag, we tend to
think of the states that built them as systems, as modern tyrannies, or
totalitarian states. Yet such considerations of thought and politics in Berlin
and Moscow tend to overlook the fact that mass killing happened, predominantly,
in the parts of Europe between Germany and Russia, not in Germany and Russia

The geographic, moral, and political center of the Europe of mass
killing is the Europe of the East, above all Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the
Baltic States, lands that were subject to sustained policies of atrocity by both
regimes. The peoples of Ukraine and Belarus, Jews above all but not only,
suffered the most, since these lands were both part of the Soviet Union during
the terrible 1930s and subject to the worst of the German repressions in the
1940s. If Europe was, as Mark Mazower put it, a dark continent, Ukraine and
Belarus were the heart of darkness.

By starving Soviet prisoners of war, shooting and gassing Jews, and shooting civilians in anti-partisan actions, German forces made Belarus the deadliest place in the world between 1941 and 1944. Half of the population of Soviet Belarus was either killed or forcibly displaced during World War II: nothing of the kind can be said of any other European country.

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