Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I've been spending some time this summer in the bloodlands

The historian Tim Snyder has finally published in book form, findings previously exhibited in The New York Review, on the conduct of the Soviet Union's and Germany's war in the 1940s. Together with Max Hastings' broader history of the last year of the war, Peter Longerich's meticulous tracing of decisions leading to the judeocide, and Vasily Grossman's writings from within the belly of the Stalinist beast, I find a prejudice being strongly reinforced, which germinated for me at a tender age. 

I refer, as a lifelong historian, to my regret that the discipline exists. If it did not, the facts of the Second World War, which destroyed progressivism in the United States, led directly to a state of chronic war for 50 years, and which recast the very identity of the American republic as a perpetual parody of its worst original elements, would have had to have been assimilated by everyone and as early as possible in life, rather than optionally and by the few, whenever they felt like fitting it in between Austen and Ayn Rand. Instead of denouncing the ignorance of these generations, I denounce its cause, in the retirement of data to a priesthood.

You can come to the same despondency by happier means, of course - my original means, in fact. I refer to an enthusiasm for its method and its enormous lev-erage of related discoveries, which stipulates that history is a fit subject for well-bred conversation. As a naïf, I'm always the last to believe we desire ignorance. I'm trying, therefore, to see if shirt-lessness can help, because I still believe in the pertinence of facts, and they still seem urgent to me to know, when yet another campaign for the Presidency of the United States bids fair to turn on terror and phobia, misrepresentation and op-pressive, cynical expenditure.

The campaign boarding a bus this day, to scare the people of Iowa into catatonic obliviousness to the sucker punch of fascism once again, is really not one's cup of history. But this should be an easy call; and that for who-knows-how-many millions, it isn't, is more than perplexing. It spoils the chapter in Twain on the King and the Duke; and that really isn't nice to do, in a state lying on the Mississippi.

One never knows. The Summer can be a gainful season of growth; and for that matter, who does not recall with special fondness, the histories one learned to trust and to treasure, in that most blissfully autodidactic of intervals. If so few as 1,000 copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been read in Iowa this Summer - a not unreasonable assumption, in a State of 3 million - that's bad news for demagogues, bad news for bigotry, bad news for hypoc-risy, and bad news for folks who think they can mess with a boy's heart. It may just be that Iowans might love the family and the friends they really have.

Tim Snyder
Bloodlands: Europe 
  between Hitler and Stalin
Basic Books, 2010©

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