Jason Wolfe on Dan Diner’s Cataclysms: Genocide and Memory

Das Jahrhundert verstehen von Dan Diner

The chapter from which this translation of Cataclysms gains its English title is also the one rooted in Professor Dan Diner’s expertise as a Holocaust scholar. Chapter Four, “Cataclysms: Genocide and Memory,” focuses on ethnicity, race, and the extreme violence often associated with victimizing the “other.” Diner gives twentieth-century examples before and after the Holocaust, at times differentiating between ethnic cleansing and state-sponsored mass killing. He also includes a reflection on why the Jewish victims of the Holocaust receive such focus in our collective memory over others, something that Diner argues is deeper than a matter of scale. Finally, he issues a caution regarding the comparison of Nazi atrocities to those of the Soviet Union under Stalin due to their qualitative differences. This post gives a brief overview of these points, and includes a discussion of other works relevant to Diner’s framework and argument.

Diner begins this chapter with examples of human displacement originating from ethnic and religious differences in the face of burgeoning states in the first years of the twentieth century. This process is first seen in the Balkans and Anatolia where ethnic Greeks (often Orthodox Christians) and ethnic Turks (often Muslims) witnessed spats of violence and state-sponsored displacement, at times prompting reprisal attacks on minority groups by frustrated displaced peoples and their compatriots. Muslims in the Balkans were expelled or forced to convert to Christianity; likewise, Greeks in Anatolia were ousted or relocated, each situation created logistical problems of mass population migration in the years preceding the First World War. When that greater conflict began in 1914, Orthodox Christians in Turkey, Galician Jews, Romanian Jews, and Kazakhs in Central Asia experienced forced deportations as these minority groups were persecuted in the pursuit of homogeneous nation-states (158). Diner argues that this tension against “others” contributed to the Armenian Genocide in 1915 as the Armenians found themselves trapped within an increasingly homogenized Turkey with “no place of their own” to flee (158-62).* These early examples of ethnic cleansing and genocide connect to Diner’s over-arching argument that the twentieth century was marked by a series of catastrophes enabled by the framework established by the Paris Peace Conference – specifically, the fact that minority groups tended to be persecuted in Central and Eastern Europe after 1919 as the “great powers in Paris” failed to shield them from oppression (164).

Following this trajectory, Diner turns to antisemitism in Central and Eastern Europe. He lays out a compressed analysis of the events leading to the Holocaust, from persecution to killing. In the case of the Holocaust, Diner argues that perspective can give a false sense of continuity. As such, he explains his interpretation of events as a “gliding escalation” from expulsion to eradication as Nazi approaches towards enemies of the state modified due to the outbreak of the war (177). One of the observations that Diner makes was that Nazi expansion was from west to east, but the mass killing moved from east to west, especially as the war came closing in on Germany and the Nazi regime held to its ideological mission to eradicate European Jews (167). That being said, Diner acknowledges fully that the conditions created by the Nazis as early as September 1939 pointed in the direction of annihilation (169). As Nazi military efforts expanded, the method of handling Jews and other state enemies changed. First, there existed a pressure to emigrate, though this method was quickly thwarted by the outbreak of the war, especially the Battle of Britain. The problem with emigration was that it required cooperation from other political entities who were to receive those fleeing Germany. The next solution was ghettoization, which Diner describes as a temporary holding pattern, but to where and for what was not exactly known in 1940 (171). Contemporaneous with these developments were internal programs designed to manage ethnic German populations. Despite some of the physicians and specialists who helped implement these, Diner refutes a correlation between the T4 euthanasia programs and the onset of industrialized genocide (175). He approximates between the summer of 1941 and early 1942 as when the upper echelons of Hitler’s advisors decided on a policy of annihilation and approved the industrialized murder of Jews and others as the “final solution.” This process was institutionally legitimized, in Diner’s estimation, at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 (177).

To reinforce his stance that the Holocaust was a unique catastrophe, Diner, in a comparison of Nazism and Stalinism, argues that there were qualitative differences between Nazi destructiveness and Soviet crimes. He notes that biological racism marked Hitler’s regime compared to Stalin’s “sociocide,” which was more class warfare than racial purging (185). To be sure, socialists were targeted in Germany, but Nazi anti-Bolshevism was tied to fears of the “Jewish intelligentsia,” thus primarily racial rather than social in nature (173).  Both Nazism and Stalinism were utopian programs, but the two examples were qualitatively different when one broadens the scope of comparison. Diner argues that “a comparative counting of victims is complicated by the fact that the Nazi regime lasted twelve years and was destroyed from without, while the Soviet regime lasted more than two generations, until it collapsed from within” (190). One of the other critical differences between the two regimes was the high level of “despotic caprice” associated with Stalin’s rule that Diner finds absent from the Nazi government, which, while cruel, maintained clear directives. Ultimately, for Diner, the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulags are not comparable as parallel subjects (192). One of the poignant factors Diner highlights in his comparison between the two is the difficulty engaging with death and human suffering, all the while resisting the quantification of these tragedies.

On this note, Diner critiques Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (New York: Basic Books, 2000) in a later essay true to the theoretical and philosophical timbre found in Cataclysms. Snyder comes at the issue of mass death in Central and Eastern Europe from a different perspective, in his words, from that of the “human geography of the victim.” This approach aligns with some of the goals found within Diner’s framework of “universal civil wars” and engaging European history from the periphery, so it is surprising to find Diner taking the author to task in the essay “Topography of Interpretation: Reviewing Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands” [Contemporary European History, 21,2 (2012), pp 125-131.] In his attempts to go beyond an ideological comparison of the Cold War, Diner argues that Snyder fails to establish proper background by not delving further back into political and ethnic tensions in Europe. Diner laments Snyder’s willful omission of the Polish-Soviet War, and as such, his failure to explain fully the events leading to the Katyn Forest massacre in 1940 or the Soviet refusal to assist Poles during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. This sin of context is a minor quibble, however, as Diner is more concerned about Snyder’s quantitative analysis regarding death tolls than a qualitative evaluation of the regimes and why each killed so many. This concern brings us back to the thrust of Diner’s argument in the Cataclysms chapter, that the Holocaust was unique due to a combination of factors including a clearly identified victim group based on a biologistic Weltanschauung; and, that function outstripped intent in its application – whereas in Soviet Russia, one sees mass death linked to political expediency, rooted in Stalin’s paranoia. To clarify, Diner never argues that the study of the Holocaust takes precedence over examinations of Stalin’s crimes. In fact, he voices concerns that Soviet actions can “fall from collective memory” due to their nature being class-based rather than biological (186). In Bloodlands, Snyder attempts to remember those events.

Diner’s evaluation of the Holocaust pivots on the existence of what he considers “contradictory perspectives,” arguing that memory and interpretation concerning the Holocaust create a dichotomy between seeing things from the viewpoint of the perpetrators (how) or that of the victims (why) (180 ff.). He states that the two are antithetical (though I am hesitant to agree fully with that claim). Through the process of the gradation of victimization, there has arisen more emphasis on Jews than other groups like Gypsies in cultural memory. Diner roots this focus on the Christian tradition found in the trajectory of European history, a long-standing cultural memory with Jews as the perfect “other” for scapegoating when social or political difficulties arose (183 ff.). It would be useful to compare Diner’s work to Rudy Koshar’s From Monuments to Traces (2000) which also addresses the discussion of memory and the construction of the past about the Holocaust and German history, but with a broader scope from 1870 to 1990. Juxtaposing Cataclysms with Jeffrey Herf’s Divided Memory (1997), which parallels the idea of ideological differences between the West and East in Europe in a similar fashion to Diner, would also be beneficial. On a related note, Herf wrote an extended review of Diner’s work Beyond the Conceivable (2000) for New Republic (2 August 2002). In that essay, he applauded Diner’s Holocaust scholarship overall, and based on the common themes within Cataclysms, I assume Herf would agree with much of Diner’s arguments. These works so far were published at the end of the twentieth century, placing them at a critical time for reflection. More recently, Eastern European voices have been added to this discussion. The collection of essays edited by Małgorzata Pakier and Joanna Wawrzyniak, Memory and Change in Europe: Eastern Perspectives (2016), has offered access to current Polish scholarship about memory and perspective to English-speaking audiences. It would be fruitful to employ these works collectively to articulate a more accurate understanding of the past, for as Diner warns so eloquently when studying the Holocaust, “We may thus suspect that any effort at doing historical justice to the reality of what happened will have trouble escaping a vortex of pre-layered narratives that move in the direction of final causes” (198).

The next, and final, blog post will address Diner’s examination of the post-1945 world and return to the “universal civil war” framework. It will also include some general comments about the work overall.

* The term “genocide” is accepted in the case of the Armenians now, except by the Turkish government which refuses to accept blame for past crimes. This refusal persists even as more evidence has resurfaced indicating the intent of annihilation by state representatives. See Taner Akcam’s recent work which uncovered a critical telegram indicating culpability, copies of which were thought to have long been destroyed.

Jason Wolfe

J.M. Wolfe is an Instructor of History and Coordinator of Dual Enrollment at Louisiana State University.  His research has taken him to Germany, South Africa, and Namibia in addition to special collections in the United States. His manuscript, “God’s Children without a Nation: German Missionaries, Settlers, and Africans in Southwest Africa, 1915-1960” examines what is modern-day Namibia through the lens of German evangelists from the Rhenish Missionary Society, specifically their role in shaping cultural, religious, and political developments in what became a League of Nations mandate. 

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