Bloodlands: Book Review

In 1951 Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, coined the pseudo-Latin term Reductio ad Hitlerum, which stood for making an argument, political or otherwise, that used Adolf Hitler as its substitute for logic, the classic example being, 1) Hitler is bad, 2) Hitler was a vegetarian, 3) Therefore vegetarianism is also bad.

Just a few months ago Gavriel Rosenfeld wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Adolf Hitler has been dead for more than 70 years, but he has gained immortality as a historical analogy.” Certainly this is the case. Hitler is invoked often, now just as much as then, as the worst of all possible political realizations, in either part or in whole. In high school we were taught the horrors of Auschwitz. One of the most popular video games of my childhood was called Medal of Honor, a game in which endless streams of Nazis poured forth from Normandy bunkers to be shot one after the other.

It’s also the case that American public policy and culture, up until this very moment and surely well beyond it, has been deeply influenced by a contentious relationship with the Soviet Union and now Russia. From the Cold War to Vietnam to wars in the Middle East to Donald Trump, America has defined itself as a global superpower committed to minimizing the influence of communism in its many forms but most often its Russian variant. And well before Donald Trump and the recent rise of global nationalism and populism each of these European specters, Nazism and Stalinism, haunted certain types of American political discourse, standing in as shorthand for our enemies on the left-right spectrum. Once upon a time “commie” used to be a popular insult for those on the left, which has evolved into “SJW.” Then and now we use versions of “fascist” and “Nazi” for those on the right.

Given how large Nazism and communism still loom in the public consciousness, I was surprised to find just how little I really knew about the Holocaust and Soviet atrocities during WWII after reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.

The typical account learned by American students unsurprisingly focuses on America’s involvement in WWII and therefore misses much of what really happened and why it happened. For instance, I had always assumed Auschwitz was one of the larger Nazi death camps. It wasn’t. Camps like Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec, and Chelmo killed far more and were designed for that purpose. I had also always assumed the Holocaust was primarily about German Jews. It wasn’t. German Jews were about 1% of victims. The majority of Jewish victims lived to the east of Germany in the Baltic States. And most of them were not killed in concentration camps but shot over death pits.

Bloodlands corrects many misunderstandings but most importantly it reframes the struggle for 20th century Europe around these atrocities. The title ‘bloodlands’ is meant to refer to the geographic locations in which these killings took place. Another surprise: there was much overlapping territory. But Snyder goes further. Not only was there overlapping geographic territory but overlapping justifications made by both Hitler and Stalin for killing huge numbers of ordinary citizens, including women and children.

I knew even less about the Soviet side of this coin because there were only very vague references to the Great Terror in school, maybe because it makes Americans (and FDR) look not-so-great foreign policy wise. The Great Terror (or “The Great Purge”) was carried out by Stalin in the 1930s, with the express goal of ridding the USSR of political dissent through terror and intimidation. The Great Purge was not carried out in concentration camps but through politically-enforced starvation, Gulags, and mass shootings. Snyder estimates 3.3 million Ukrainian peasants were killed.

Bloodlands is a well written and terribly depressing book; the story of how 14.4 million people were brutally tortured and killed using mechanized terror; a black hole around which much of our political imagination still orbits. Snyder takes the fuzzy details from American popularizations and sharpens them.

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The True Believer: A Common Sense Book for Politically Weird Times

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Moscow, January 20, 1991 – Source: The Atlantic

1.

Reductio ad Hitlerum is a pseudo-Latin term coined by Leo Strauss in 1951, which was a funny way of pointing to a growing trend in political argumentation within the U.S. and Europe after WWII. Rather than thinking carefully through the complexity of political theory, it was becoming increasingly common to dismiss a political opinion, or any opinion, by associating it with Adolf Hitler. This was a popular version of the classical argumentum ad hominem which is an attempt to undermine an argument by linking it with a boogeyman, no matter how irrelevant the connection, instead of offering a substantive counterpoint. A classic example:

Hitler was a vegetarian, X is a vegetarian, therefore X is a Nazi.

In that same year, 1951, an unknown longshoreman, who worked in the San Francisco docks and had lived in the slums of Skid Row, published a short book that was an attempt to think clearly about totalitarianism and the precipitation of WWII. Rather than pick out irrelevant details to use as a club against his political opponents, Eric Hoffer tried to define what makes all mass movements tick. Hoffer saw what few others see:

“All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

This was a new way of thinking about politics—party lines during and shortly after periods of crises become increasingly sharp as uncertainty mounts, not because everyone all of the sudden becomes philosophical, on the contrary: crises breed fear, irrationality, and tribalism. We think less and feel more during times of crises. The actual moral doctrines within political positions, which are complicated and take a lot of effort to learn, become secondary to the establishment of a group identity, which is easy and natural when adrenaline kicks in.

Hoffer points out a historical example:

“In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss-up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis.”

And Hitler himself acknowledged, mid-war, while trying to broaden the appeal of his agenda:

“The bourgeois Social-Democrat and the trade union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.”

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Eric Hoffer: Time Life Pictures/Getty

2.

Hoffer pulls off a rare feat of cool-headedness (in the age of McCarthyism and Stalinism) by ignoring what political, national, and religious movements say and instead studying what they do. The structure of The True Believer models a chronology of a mass movement, starting from the conditions that give rise to movements, and ending on when and how they typically die out.

The first key ingredient for any mass movement, Hoffer says, “religious, social, or nationalist,” is discontent and a desire for change. This may seem simple but it has to be the right type of discontent to lead to an effective mass movement; there has to be the perfect balance between an unideal circumstance and the expectation of something better. This also has to be true for a large enough sub-segment of the population. “Misery does not automatically generate discontent, nor is the intensity of discontent directly proportionate to the degree of misery. Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved than an ideal state seems almost within reach… Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some.”

The right type of discontent is critical to the begetting of hope; it’s in the fomenting of hope that dogma and ideology are put forth as answers by those who are jockeying for position and, for followers, the price of admission is absolute allegiance.

3.

Hoffer puts potential converts into six categories: 1) the poor, 2) misfits 3) selfish, 4) ambitious, 5) minorities, 6) bored, and 7) sinners. These aren’t static, scientific categories. A nation’s particular situation will dictate the readiness with which each group will have access or motivation to be a part of a revolution. But, in general, Hoffer insists:

“The inert mass of a nation, for instance, is in its middle section. The decent, average people who do the nation’s work in cities and on the land are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both ends—the best and the worst… The reason that the inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are without reverence toward the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both… They also crave to dissolve [their ‘selves’] in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking—hence their proclivity for united action. Thus they are among the early recruits of revolutions,  mass migrations, and of religious, racial, and chauvinist movements, and they imprint their mark upon these upheavals and movements which shape a nation’s character and history.”

(It’s important to realize that Hoffer is making a generalization here. By ‘inferior elements,’ he does not mean to make a value judgment of his own, but to assume that all societies possess and dispatch social hierarchies with implicit judgments; most of the time in predictable and generalizable ways.)

4.

What a mass movement actually does once it starts bears largely upon its leaders prescription for discontent. But the two consistencies Hoffer points out in all mass movements’ ‘active phase’ are 1) united action and 2) self-sacrifice.

United action and self-sacrifice are interrelated. Both “arise spontaneously from discontented populations” who see their ‘selves’ as ruined and ineffectual, who would gladly give it up. Individuality is the enemy of mass movements because inherent in individuality is potential deviation from the whole. Doctrines are the glue that keep a movement’s actions consistent throughout, “…all active mass movements strive [to] interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ.”

So powerful is this type of hold on a person, that in the 1940s and 50s, when bleak intel was coming out about the Soviet Union, fanatical Communists in Europe and America “refused to believe any unfavorable report or evidence about Russia,” even when photos detailing the atrocities were brought to bear, “nor [were] they disillusioned by seeing with their own eyes the cruel misery inside the Soviet promised land.”

This type of behavior is expected when the spoils of a mass movement are only available to the loyal but, to the true believer, the real meaning of the spoils is not material gain or even prosperity. The real spoils are the renunciation of the self within the collective. This may not sound like much but it’s the true allure of any mass movement—the tumult and ambiguity of an individual existence is given up for the certitude and credulity offered by a supreme order.

And once they get going mass movements perpetuate via one organizing principle: their own practical interests. Anything outside of this is seen as a deviation and is squashed.

5.

I won’t give the rest of the book away. Suffice it to say, that in our current political climate, as lines are being redrawn continually, The True Believer is subversive and a real mental tonic because it refuses to interpret history by playing for a team; Hoffer was an old-fashioned individualist without a team to score points for. In many ways, Hoffer’s idea of truth was the polar opposite of the mass movement. Truth is not furthered by adherence to practical interests, no matter how pressing they may seem, but by removing any block that may be in the way of seeing the world as it is. Sometimes the biggest roadblocks to truth are the ones that give us the most personal comfort because, if we are honest, that’s why we put them there in the first place.

 

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