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Powerful histories of human slaughter remind us of the need for reason

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 1, 2015

Opinion journals like National Review, The New Yorker and the Atlantic recently have given significant attention to a new book by Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, whose 2010 work "Bloodlands" attracted considerable note. In "Bloodlands," Snyder recounted the brutal, bloody, mid-20th century history of the lands between the eastern border of Germany and the Ukraine. About 14 million people were murdered in that area between 1933 and 1945, "mass violence of a sort never before visited upon this region. The victims were chiefly Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and Balts, the people native to these lands," Snyder notes in his newest book. Most of the killers were Soviets and Nazis, but locals readily joined them in the slaughter, expressing the long tradition of anti-Semitism latent in Christianity, and the bitter enmity of ethnic and religious groups, one for another, long characteristic of human communities.

In his latest title, "Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning," Snyder provides more gruesome details of this carnage, and clarifies his understanding of why and how it happened. At root, he says, it was indeed a manifestation of the vengeance humans can so easily generate for any who dare to be different from themselves. We like to believe we are above such primitive impulses, but Snyder reminds us that the line between restraint and surrender to baser instincts is a fragile one that can dissolve quickly under stress, threat and even perceived insult. The human mind has a refined talent for finding justification for compulsions prompted by emotion.

But, Snyder writes, what happened in the "Bloodlands" was exacerbated by anxiety over resources, agricultural lands that had gone barren because of drought and crop failures, overpopulation which brought pressure on scarce yields, and hoarding, often as a function of government policy.

Such behavior is not confined to ancient history, Snyder warns. Historically speaking, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and the mass killing in Rwanda between April and July in 1994 are very near at hand. Though isolated, fortunately, the many random, wanton shootings in schools, theaters and other public places in this country demonstrate the same blindness to the victims' humanity, their right to life. The struggle for dwindling global supplies of water, and the competition for resources and for living room, which may result from global warming, Snyder cautions, can easily unleash the same ruthless violence on a collective scale.

The current immigrant crisis in Europe has been compared to the displacement and movement of mass populations in Europe immediately following World War II. Not only Eastern Europeans but also millions of Germans had no homes and no place to go and were unwanted wherever they went. Desperation stalked these people for years. Today, the similar, sudden appearance of Others, those different from ourselves and desperate for space and support, has given rise to competing reactions, positive and negative. Both Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for compassion in the face of the confusion, closed borders and construction of walls produced by the emergency. By contrast, some of the candidates for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination seem determined to outdo each other in their exclusionary response to immigration into the U.S.

Alaska immigrant attorney Margaret Stock, a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, has called recently for recognition that immigrant minorities in our midst represent a huge benefit to our society, not just by reminding us of our humanity, but more directly by their economic contribution. Rather than displacing potential workers, instead by starting businesses and taking unfilled positions they become contributors, important building blocks in economic development.

From its earliest days, Anchorage has benefited greatly from immigrant minorities. There were many who provided common labor for construction of the Alaska Railroad between 1915 and 1923, for example. Later, Matanuska coal mined mostly by East European workers provided fuel for the Railroad and for Anchorage. Filipinos, Japanese and others felt welcome in the town. A Japanese-American boy evacuated to an internment camp in 1942 reported that he'd never experienced discrimination in Anchorage; he felt it first at the camp.

Snyder's message is appropriate. For humanity, we must redouble the determination to model a positive view of migration and minorities, and to impose the discipline of reason on unrestrained emotion.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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