Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Tragic Sense of History

A New York Review of Books piece from some years back, by Timothy Snyder, relates an event which gets at how difficult to untangle and judge historical events and resentments can be.
The hangings took place on the last day of August 1941, on the town square of Wierzbnik, in what had once been central Poland. Two years had passed since the joint German-Soviet invasion that had destroyed the Polish state; ten weeks before, the Germans had betrayed their ally and invaded the Soviet Union. Wierzbnik, home to Poles and Jews, lay within the General Government, a colony that the Germans had made from parts of their Polish conquests. As Poles left church that Sunday morning, they saw before them a gallows. The German police had selected sixteen or seventeen Poles—men, women, and at least one child. Then they ordered a Jewish execution crew, brought from the ghetto that morning, to carry out the hangings. The Poles were forced to stand on stools; then the Jews placed nooses around their necks and kicked the stools away. The bodies were left to dangle.

Demonstrative killing of civilians was one of several German methods designed to stifle Polish resistance. The Germans had murdered educated Poles: tens of thousands in late 1939, thousands more in early 1940. Since June 1940, the Germans had been sending suspect Poles to Auschwitz and other camps. Polish society was to be reduced to an undifferentiated mass of passive workers. German policy toward Jews was different, though the nature of the difference was not yet clear. Jewish elites had been preserved; some of them as members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) or as policemen directing the local affairs of Jews in a way that suited Germans.

Although fatality rates in some ghettos were high, Jews in summer 1941 had little idea that they had been gathered into ghettos in preparation for a “Final Solution.” The Germans had first planned to deport the Jews to a reservation in eastern Poland, or to the island of Madagascar, or to Siberian wastelands. As these schemes proved impracticable, the Jews remained in the ghettos. It was in that final week of August 1941 that the German “Final Solution” was taking on its final form: mass murder. Two days before the hangings at Wierzbnik, the Germans had completed their first truly large-scale murder of Jews, shooting some 23,600 people at Kamianets-Podil’s’kyi in occupied Soviet Ukraine.

“I knew I hanged the right people,” one of the Jewish hangmen in Wierzbnik recalled more than fifty years later. He thought that those who were executed belonged to the Polish Home Army, and as such were guilty of murdering Jews. The people in question died, of course, not because Poles were killing Jews, but because Poles were resisting German rule. The hangings at Wierzbnik were a typical German reprisal, aiming to spread terror and deter further opposition. If it were not for the testimonies of the Jews from Wierzbnik, this particular event would have been lost. For most of them, it was a first stark demonstration of German mass murder, if only a small foretaste of what was to come.
It's not hard to picture the ripples that went out from this event through the lives of those who experienced it. How did the Poles who had seen friends or family hanged by Jewish executioners that day react in the coming years when confronted with Jews who needed to be hidden from the Holocaust? Yet why did the Jewish man pulled from the ghetto and ordered to do the German's dirty work think he had hung "the right people" in doing the Nazis bidding? In part because some units in the Polish Resistance (of which the Home Army was the main non-communist group) did in fact kill Jews out of hand when they found them. And what was the reason that anti-Nazi resistance fighters were killing Jews? In part because some within the Jewish population had strongly supported the Soviets who invaded Poland just days after the Nazis did, and occupied the Eastern half of the country until June 1941 when Hitler turned on Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviets had themselves engaged in mass killings of Polish officers and educated elites, but many Jews saw the communists as a far better bet than the Nazis (for obvious reasons) and aligned accordingly.

The other day I ran into a piece from the Jacobin Magazine taking strong exception to Snyder's brilliant (though incredibly dark) book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The charge? Snyder is unfair in portraying Stalin as nearly as bad as Hitler, and even more so Snyder is unfair to the communist partisans. Snyder writes repeatedly about how the violence of the communist partisans and the Nazi occupiers became a escalating cycle of violence.
When Soviet partisans sabotaged trains, they were in effect ensuring that the population near the site would be exterminated. When Soviet partisans laid mines, they knew that some would detonate under the bodies of Soviet citizens. The Germans swept mines by forcing locals, Belarusians and Jews, to walk hand in hand over minefields.

In general, such loss of human life was of little concern to the Soviet leadership. The people who died had been under German occupation, and were therefore suspect and perhaps even more expendable than the average Soviet citizen. German reprisals also ensured that the ranks of the partisans swelled, as survivors often had no home, no livelihood, and no family to which to return.
The Jacobin author answers with a historical anecdote:
[O]ne can only wonder what Snyder would have had Jews do instead. Faye Schulman was a nineteen-year-old girl living in a small town in eastern Poland when the Wehrmacht massacred her family along with the rest of the Jewish population in August 1941. Temporarily spared because of her skills as a professional photographer, she fled with the partisans at the first opportunity and, to her gratitude, was accepted into their ranks:
The fighting had ended. The partisans were returning to their bases, and I was with them and alive. It felt like a dream. I had been accepted into the Soviet partisans! I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me now, what kind of a life I would have. But I knew I was very lucky. I was now a partisan, no longer afraid of the Nazis. I tore off the yellow star of David. We started our journey into the woods.
“I resolved to volunteer for active combat operations, to fight for my people — for Jewish dignity and honor — and for an end to the Nazi killing machine,” Schulman added in her memoirs. Does this make her a criminal?
The question -- What would Snyder have had the Jews do instead? -- shows a mentality which I think is very common when people address a historical situation. Thinking in Hollywood terms, we ask, "Which side should she have joined?" As if history represents a sort of moral sporting match in which the primary question is whether one backs the right side. Reading within Faye Schulman's context, one understanding completely why why joined the partisans and was glad to do it. We might do the same if we had the courage. But this doesn't change Snyder's point that the actions of the partisans often brought down massively disproportionate retaliation from the Germans. And at a certain level, the Soviet leadership understood the cynical calculation that partisan activity both hurt the occupation forces directly, wiped out potentially disloyal "collaborators" when the Germans carried out reprisals, and provided a stream of new recruits to the partisans as Nazi retaliations left people with nothing but a desire to exact revenge against the Germans.

What we too often lack is a tragic sense: an understanding that people often do terrible things for understandable reasons. The actions are terrible -- understanding why they seemed reasonable to the perpetrator makes them no less so. But they were, at the same time, understandable. The perpetrator had reason to think the action justified.

To have a tragic sense it is necessary to set aside the idea of "good person" and "bad person", and instead think simply of persons. Persons who perform good actions and bad actions, for good reasons and bad reasons. Persons who do bad things yet not simply because they are "bad people" but rather because the bad things seem justified, perhaps even seem good, at the time.

This does not mean moral relativism or indifferentism. Sin is sin. A heinous act is a heinous act. A tragic sense of history is not indifference to its evils, or a willingness to see everyone as "basically good". Rather, it is addressing the past with pity and fear. Pit and fear are the feelings which the Ancient Greeks said that tragedy was mean to evoke. Reading about an event like the Wierzbnik hangings, a tragic sense causes us to feel both pity for those involved, for all involved, and also fear at how easily people no so unlike ourselves can be pulled into such a cycle of hatred and violence. Having a tragic sense allows us to identify with people on both sides of such a situation without making excuses for either. It also allows us to address both sides of a conflict as human beings, as creatures who share an essential nature with ourselves, rather than seeing one side as good and familiar and the other as wicked and other.


Kate said...

Out of curiousity, Is your title an intentional reference to Unamuno?

Darwin said...

No. I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with him.

Brandon said...

Excellent post. The tragic sense is also, I think, a precondition of our really learning anything important from history -- without it, we find in history what we want to find, and not what we need to know to do better.

Jenny said...

The lack of the tragic sense is also what drives the instinct to assign blame to people who have bad things happen to them.

Kate said...

Unamundo was an early 20th century Spanish philosopher who wrote a book called "The Tragic Sense of Life" (which I had on my bookshelf for ages, though I don't think I ever did more than dip into it from time to time). In any case, he also felt quite strongly that history was best approached from the perspective of 'the anonymous'--considering the experiences of the ordinary man.

Anyway, your title recalled him to my mind. :-)

I do think you are right that moderns often confuse analysis with criticism. Certainly, much of the study of history is the study of tragedies, of tracing out the conditions and circumstances that brought about events while recognizing that much of the sweep of human events has been too large or had too much momentum to be easily swayed on the individual level.

Kate said...

Jenny--yes, absolutely! We've lost the sense that some tragedies can't be directly attributed to malice or even real neglect or irresponsibility. And I think it is because we find this sense of tragedy entirely too frightening in what it intimates about our own inability to control circumstances and protect ourselves and our loved ones. If we can find someone to blame, we can perhaps continue to believe ourselves to be immune, or at least not helpless.

Darwin said...


I think one of the other things that ends up springing out of a lack of tragic sense is that people feel like establishing causality establishes blame.

So, for instance, I recall a while back a online blow up where a lot of people got offended by list of "things rich people do that poor people don't". What offended people was the sense that "poor people would be rich if only they'd do these simple things." It's true that none of these were magic talismans that would have instantly made anyone rich, buy they were generally speaking good habits that would probably help someone in the long run. They were also, it was rightly pointed out, habits that would be very hard to keep up under the pressures involved in being poor.

I think the proper balance is to understand that yes, we contribute to our problems with our actions, but that doesn't necessarily mean there's an easy "Oh, just don't do that" fix. We have free will, we can change, but doing differently can be incredibly hard in certain circumstances.

Darwin said...


I'd never run into him, but he sounds interesting. I'll have to try to look his writing up some time.

Must be a case of intellectual convergence...