“The Good War?” by Eric Kroczek

Discussed in this essay: 

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. By Timothy Snyder (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. By Nicholson Baker (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).

“Why I’m a Pacifist: The Dangerous Myth of the Good War.” By Nicholson Baker (Harper’s Magazine, May 2011, pp. 41-50).


Pity Józef Czapski. A sensitive and highly intelligent man—committed pacifist, intellectual, painter—he nonetheless found himself thrust into two of European history’s most horrific, existentially disorienting intervals. First, as a Polish Army volunteer in the early 1920s, he was tasked with locating a cadre of regimental officers taken captive during the Russian Civil War; he eventually found that they had all been executed by the Bolsheviks, among the first of millions to lose their lives in the name of Soviet Communism. Then, after a nearly two-decade career in Paris as a successful artist and critic, he returned to Poland in 1939 to re-enlist in an armored division after the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of  his homeland. He was taken prisoner by the Red Army and sent to a camp at Kozelsk, Russia, one of three Soviet camps designated to billet some 8,000 reservist officers. These officers were among some 22,000 professionals and intellectuals—the cream of Poland’s burgeoning educated class—rounded up by the Soviets. These men expected that the normal rules of civilized warfare applied: that they would be interned until hostilities ceased and then returned home. Perhaps, some thought, they were to be screened for new roles in Soviet society or a Polish puppet state. At worst, they imagined not making the cut and being sent to the Gulag for an indeterminate period. Indeed, though they were not treated particularly well by their captors, they were at least allowed to organize themselves, hold worship services, and write to their families in the manner prescribed for prisoners of war by the Geneva conventions. Some—though not many—worked secretly as informants, hoping for preferred treatment.  None ever suspected that they were the subjects of an experiment in social decapitation meant to render Poland leaderless and compliant to her new rulers.

The 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia were indeed being screened, through a particularly fine filter (one that winnowed out only Soviet undercover agents, non-Polish nationals, and those with some form of foreign protection or diplomatic immunity) that would leave fewer than 400 of them alive, including Czapski. Under the pretense of repatriation, the men were sent off by the trainload—not back to Poland as they were led to believe, but to isolated places such as the now infamous Katyń Forest, where they were executed wholesale. Those few who remained were sent on to yet other camps, and had no idea of their cohorts’ grisly fate. Meanwhile, the mens’ families, whose identities and addresses had been gleaned from the their letters home, were being rounded up for execution or deportation to camps in Kazakhstan or Siberia.

Some eighteen months later, Hitler would renege on his Non-Aggression Treaty with Stalin (under which their two nations had jointly invaded and occupied Poland) and invade the Soviet Union, thus making the USSR and Poland uneasy allies against the Nazis, along with the United Kingdom and eventually, the United States. And so it befell Józef Czapski once again—this time under the direction of the Polish government, which needed its “imprisoned” officers freed from the Gulag in order to lead the military—to travel to the Soviet capital in search of ghosts.

This is just one of scores of heartbreaking stories to be found in Timothy Snyder’s masterful Bloodlands, a history of the vast Eastern European abattoir, now comprising Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the extreme western region of Russia proper, during the period from roughly 1933-1945, as first the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, ravaged these lands, incurring unprecedented famine and massacre that left some 14 million civilians dead, not including military combat casualties. It is these stories that lend humanity to what could have otherwise been a dull recitation of grim numbers, and Snyder, ever wary of the numbing effects of statistics, strives to particularize and give voice to as many individual victims’ stories as he can.

Nicholson Baker, best known for the meticulous rendering of detail found in his novels, also makes good use of anecdote to give pathos and punch to the dismal facts of his nonfiction work, Human Smoke, a work that stands up quite well as counterpoint and companion to Bloodlands. Both books starkly present the nihilism of an era defined by the genocidal policies of two men, Hitler and Stalin, and the efforts—by turns fickle and futile—of their opposite numbers, Churchill and Roosevelt, to put an end to their depredations and save their intended victims. But whereas Bloodlands was received with broad critical acclaim (and rightly so) for the unprecedented scope of its research, which made use of previously classified documents from the archives of former Warsaw Pact nations, Human Smoke was greeted with skepticism—especially among politically conservative reviewers—as much for its innovative (though soundly researched) pointillist style as its frank condemnation of the Allies’ use of indiscriminate violence against civilian populations (i.e., the carpet bombing of cities) as means of ending the killing. Baker flatly rejects the logic of mass violence used as a means to end mass violence, and he uses a compelling device—the juxtaposition of short scenes and quotations, often taken from contemporary newspaper articles, letters, and diaries—to illustrate the hypocrisy, muddled motives and reasoning, and callousness of key players on both sides of the war.

Baker’s book, though, devotes little attention to the Eastern Front and to Stalin: his policies of domestic repression and mass murder, and the effect of the Soviet Union on Nazi policy once war began on the Eastern Front—or more accurately, the changes in Nazi policy once the war in the East began to go badly. Here, facts uncovered by Snyder’s research complement and reinforce Baker’s book quite effectively, to wit:

a)     The vast majority of the non-combat  slaughter in Europe—of Jews and non-Jews alike—took place in the Bloodlands, where the Western Allies had minimal military reach or influence (or, for that matter, political or economic interest), and so did not intervene in the killing there, even after September 1939;

b)     In any case, much of this killing was perpetrated during the period 1931-39, before the war even started—perpetrated by Joseph Stalin, no less, our wartime ally against the Nazis;[1]

c)      The onset of the war exacerbated the killing, causing the Final Solution to metastasize from its original conception as primarily a program of intimidation and mass deportation of the Jews, to a far more virulent campaign of mass extermination.[2]

Snyder observes that Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 even provided cover for Stalin, diverting attention from the Ukraine, where forced collectivization of agriculture killed  at least 3.3 million, and also from the persecution of the kulaks, 1.7 million of whom were sent to the Gulag. During the period 1936-1938, the so-called Soviet “show trials”—in which some 55,000 persons were “purged,” falsely tried and executed as saboteurs, traitors, political heretics, and other “enemies of the state”—lent cover both to the much wider Soviet persecutions of kulaks and undesirable foreign nationals (in particular ethnic Poles)[3]; these covert purges, which were kept quiet so as not to tarnish the USSR’s image as an ethnically diverse and tolerant state, claimed some 625,000 additional lives and resulted in hundreds of thousands more deportations to the Gulag. The show trials also unintentionally returned Hitler’s favor by helping to divert world attention from the oppression of the Jews in Germany, which was quickly ratcheting up in intensity.

Baker’s book ends in December 1941, shortly after the U.S. entered the war, just as the Final Solution was being implemented in its most malignant form. However, Baker has written an essay, published in Harper’s this month, which serves as a kind of coda to Human Smoke. In this essay, which is, formally, a classic apologia rather than collage, he further explores and justifies the roots of his pacifism, again using World War II and the Holocaust to illustrate his point, but moving ahead in time to the period 1942-1945. He begins by reiterating his idea, first posited in Human Smoke, that the United States and Britain could have vastly improved the lot of European Jews during 1933-1941 simply by raising immigration quotas to allow more Jews to emigrate to Palestine, England, and America; they did not.[4] He presents evidence of Hitler’s use of the German Jews as hostages: the Nazis’ control over the lives of millions of Jews was supposed to guarantee that Germany would not be attacked by the United States.[5] According to this logic, once the Americans entered the war, the Germans had no reason to keep the Jews alive—their bargaining value was nil, they were dead weight—“useless eaters,” in Nazi parlance. At this point, says Baker, the best option, from the point of view of the Jews’ survival, was not continued bombing by the Allies, but a cease-fire to allow Jews time to escape.

Snyder presents a different, but not necessarily contradictory, theory about the reason for the change in the Final Solution’s aims: The Nazi effort to conquer the Soviet Union and its vast land mass before the onset of winter had failed. Now, there was simply no good place to relocate the Jews. Furthermore, the Wehrmacht was beginning to suffer as its supply lines lengthened and food and other resources became scarce, in part because of Allied bombing and embargoes in the West. Jews in the Bloodlands (as well as Soviet POWs, who were starved by the millions) became expendable—again, “useless eaters.”

None of this killing was in any way ameliorated by the Allies and their efforts. Whether because of  Baker’s theory, that the entry of the U.S. into the war lessened the value of the Jews as hostages,[6] or because of Snyder’s reasoning—or both—the Allied war effort simply was not much concerned with ending the slaughter of the Jews (or the Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, for that matter) at least not until very late in the war, when it was too late. And even then, their main concern was with limiting Stalin’s land grab in central Europe, not with meddling in Eastern Europe’s “internal affairs.”

And this relates to one of Snyder’s key assertions (one which I believe Baker would wholeheartedly support): That whether the Nazis or the Soviets killed more people in the Bloodlands of eastern Europe is a moot question; that to the tens of millions who died there, it scarcely mattered which side was the agent of their death. It was, in effect, the synergy between the two totalitarian states in conflict, and their theoretically opposite yet eerily similar failed Utopian ideals, that killed them, and two tyrants’ dreams of controlling the same territory and extirpating all resistance from those who stood in the way of those ideals. It didn’t matter, either, whether the victims were Jews, or Ukrainian or Belarusian peasants, or the liberal-minded Polish citizen-soldiers of Józef Czapski’s fruitless quest, these innocent people were doomed to extermination by one of two ideologies of conquest and violence. And there was little chance that yet more violence, whatever its justification, would be their salvation.

[1]Prior to the outbreak of war, the Soviet Union was a far more lethal regime than Nazi Germany. For example, Snyder points out that in the years 1937-38, some 380,000 executions took place in the Soviet Union, versus 270 in Germany, a ratio of 700:1. Confinement to a camp was also far less likely (and in Germany, mostly confined to political prisoners and “asocials,” rather than Jews, at this time); the concentration camp internment ratio was something like 25:1 in favor of Germany.

[2]Madagascar and Palestine were among many places being considered for relocation even by Zionist Jews and the prewar Polish government prior to the Final Solution. According to Snyder, Hitler’s idea involved pushing out or killing the majority of the Slavs in the Bloodlands and Russia, then relocating the Jews, possibly to Siberia, perhaps using the existing Soviet system of camps.

[3]Snyder notes that during the period 1933-1938, Stalin killed one thousand times more Jews than Hitler did, not because of their status as Jews, but because they were also members of these other undesirable groups—kulaks, Polish nationals, suspected spies, and political enemies.

[4]Human Smoke contains numerous examples of the fate of those German Jews who were able to get into England: they were interned in concentration camps for the duration of the war, much as Japanese-Americans  in the U.S. after Pearl Harbor.

[5]This wasn’t a very good supposition on Hitler’s part, given FDR’s apparent lack of concern for the welfare of European Jews, as demonstrated by his refusal to expand immigration quotas.

[6]I have some doubts about this hypothesis, mostly because, as Baker himself admits in his essay, the American war effort, from her entry into the war through Spring 1944, was far more focused on defeating the Japanese than the Nazis.

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