Anatomy of a Genocide by Omer Bartov – review

anatomy-of-a-genocide-9781451684537_lg Genocide is generally conceived of as violence by centralised perpetrators, usually states and regimes, towards whole population groups. In the last two decades, however, there has been more emphasis on the typical complexity of perpetrator forces, including the roles of ancillary states, paramilitaries and even civilians. Few, however, have looked unremittingly at genocide from the bottom up, focusing on a particular locality, and local studies have mostly not made large contributions to our general understanding. An obvious exception is Jan Gross’ Neighbors, whose intellectual and political effects are still being felt in Poland almost two decades after publication. Omer Bartov’s new book bears comparison with that striking pioneer: like Gross, Bartov examines a small town in Eastern Europe which changed hands between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Second World War and where elements of the local population played key roles in murdering the Jews. Yet there the similarities end: where Gross’s short volume on Jedwabne (in the north-east of today’s Poland) told a simple and compelling tale of Polish civilians’ do-it-yourself genocide, the key to Bartov’s longer book on Buczacz (now in western Ukraine and called Buchach) is the complexity of perpetration, victimhood and survival. Elements of Gross’s story, above all the mass murder of the local Jews and the participation of some local gentiles, are still central to Bartov’s, but the build-up to, process and aftermath of these events are different and indeed more typical: in Buczacz the Germans were the principal killers. Above all, Bartov gives us a extremely rich account, centering on relations between Jews, Poles and Ruthenians (today regarded as Ukrainians), conflicting Polish and Ukrainian nationalisms, and the policies of successive Soviet and Nazi invaders.

Bartov’s mother came from Buczacz, in what was then known as Galicia, a borderland region which has been part of several different states. He wrote more generally about the elimination of Jewish culture in the area since the world war in his moving Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine (Princeton University Press, 2007), whose aim was ‘of course, not to say that Ukrainians have nothing to mourn but rather to point out that they feel obliged to exclude from that mourning the fate of Jews (and Poles) who were murdered in their midst.’ (67) The Polish inhabitants of Galicia were, as that statement suggested, somewhat parenthetical to that book but in Anatomy of a Genocide they as well as the Ukrainians are very much in the frame, in diverse ways. Bartov tells us that in the first half of the twentieth century Buczacz was a town of several thousand people, around half of them Jews, the remainder Poles and Ruthenians. Although Galicia was a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire from the late eighteenth century until the First World War, Poles had been the dominant Christian group since the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the sixteenth century, and still predominated in Buczacz and neighbouring towns as well as among larger landowners, although the peasants were mainly Ruthenians. Bartov shows how the interwar history was framed first by how the First World War struggle between the Russian and Austrian empires radicalized the local nationalisms: as Ukrainian nationalists took over the town in 1918, ‘People who had been colleagues and acquaintances for many years suddenly “recognized” their essential difference; they no longer shared the same community, moral values, culture or language.’ (67) Yet Bartov judges that at that point, ‘just as it was often inconceivable that Jews could ever become part of either national group in Galicia, it was also still difficult to draw clear distinctions between Poles and Ukrainians.’ (67-68) As Polish forces pushed out the Ukrainian nationalists and were displaced in their turn, before a final Polish conquest, successive waves of violence included Polish military pogroms against the Jews. As Galicia became part of independent Poland, the autonomous regime which the League of Nations envisaged for this multiethnic region never materialised, and the attempts of the Polish state and local Polish notables to Polonise the region stimulated a ‘new, radical, and increasingly violent nationalist organization’ (77) among Ukrainians. Some of the squeezed Jewish population responded with socialist and later communist attachments and many with their own Zionist nationalism, ‘asserting the need to uproot the newly proclaimed nation from the foreign soil it had inhabited for centuries in order to recolonize a mythical and yet already populated ancestral homeland.’ (84)

Bartov’s closely drawn twentieth century story is led, then, by growing polarisation caused by competing nationalist movements. In a characteristic break-out passage of considerable force, he emphasises the double-edged consequences: ‘The three decades that followed the destruction and erasure of pre-1914 Galician society belonged to the nationalists and ideologues, fanatics and zealots of a new breed, more willing to shed blood than to seek compromise, more determined to assert their hegemony than to preserve coesixtence: impatient men with guns and bombs, often led by the half-educated and thirsting for a fight. But things did not start that way; before nationalism began to hate, it was also about education and enlightenment, material improvement, collective responsibility, and group identity. (25) This passage concludes, ‘The path toward violence was neither foreseen nor inevitable’, but he later suggests that ‘religion and nationalism were being fused together to produce an ideological and psychological climate ripe for widespread violence once the constraints on social order were removed or altered.’ (120) This would happen with the new world war: ‘in the grand scheme of things, the interethnic squabbles in Galicia and the hopes of Ukrainian nationalists for German help in establishing an independent state counted for little. The Reich was about to invade Poland and hand over its eastern territories, including their ethnic minorities, to the Soviets; beyond that interim phase, Hitler had far greater plans to create a German “living space” in the East, and a Ukrainian state certainly had no place there.’ (126) Hitler and Stalin would take advantage of ‘fraternal violence on a scale and of a nature that even this region had never experienced before’ to facilitate ‘their policies of deportation and genocide. But for the people on the ground this ethnic struggle took on a life of its own, related to but also independent of the larger war, shaping their conduct toward their neighbors, and determining their memories of those years long after the fighting died down and the map had been irreversibly changed.’ (126-27)

The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939 was the first trigger for change, empowering some previously suppressed Ukrainians to attack Poles: ‘The intimacy of friendships that served as a barrier to stereotypes was now transformed into an intimacy of violence that strove to eradicate personal qaulms by inflicting gratuitous pain.’ (133) Poles whose testimonies Bartov outlines in detail also saw Jews as allied to the Soviets. The new regime brutally deported over 300,000 citizens from occupied Poland to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1940-41: an estimated 60 per cent were Poles, 22 per cent Jews, 10 per cent Ukrainians and 8 per cent Belarusians. All three main groups ‘saw themselves as the main victims of the Sovet and German occupations, and each perceived the persecution of the other two groups as at least partly justified. … Each group’s conviction in the uniqueness of its own victimhood thus went hand in hand with a desire to punish those associated with its suffering; this was, in essence, the same kind of reasoning employed so successfully by the Nazis, who consistently presented themselves as victims of those they murdered.’ (153) This ‘competition for victimhood’, Bartov concludes, ‘continues to this day’ and makes its mark in distorted figures and accounts of violence.

German occupation in 1941 had predictable consequences for Buczacz’s Jews. In a Jedwabne-like moment, Ukrainian bands killed Jews and Poles as the Germans invaded, but ‘as the Germans monopolized the violence, they also systematized the killing.’ (168) As everywhere, the vast majority of local Jews, and many others brought to Buczacz from elsewhere in Galicia, were murdered, many of them in large visible operations. Bartov clearly portrays the conflicts among the agonized Jews around the roles of the Judenrat (Jewish council) and Jewish police: ‘The Germans accomplished the rapid destruction of the Jewish population by creating a local apparatus of Ukrainians and Jews who helped them organize and perpetrate mass murder and by swiftly decapitating the community so as to minimize organized resistance.’ (179) Ukrainian militia, turned into policemen by the Germans, played a key role in the massacres: many knew their victims personally. The German Security Police engaged every element of the German population in the extermination project: ‘Beyond the extraordinary bloodletting this undertaking entailed, perhaps its most scandalous aspect was the astonishing ease with which it was accomplished and the extent to which the killers, along with their spouses and children, lovrs and colleagues, friends and parents, appear to have enjoyed their brief murderous sojourn in the region.’ (185) In small, isolated German communities, ‘joint complicity in mass murder nourished a grotesquely merry intimacy.’ (197) In a precise, detailed, photographically illustrated but morally charged narrative, drawing on many perpetrator accounts, Bartov emphasizes the ‘normalization of murder’ in the German experience of genocide. In a reprise of the ‘ordinary men’ theme of Holocaust scholarship, he notes: ‘The most striking feature of the men who murdered the Jewish community of Buczacz was the seemingly unbridgeable discrepancy between their mundane prewar and postward lives and the astonishing brutality, callousness and disdain for humanity they displayed during the occupation.’ (230)

Bartov has long advocated historians’ listening to the victims, and in his chapter ‘The Daily Life of a Genocide’ he movingly explores, with the help of rare survivor accounts, how the Jews of Buczacz tried to hide from their tormentors and negotiate the mixture of rescue and betrayal in the responses of the gentile population. ‘The most striking feature’ of these accounts, he says, is ‘the ambivalence of goodness: even those who took in Jews could at any point instruct them to leave or summon the authorities: even those who initially hoped to enrich themselves from the Jews they sheltered could be moved at a certain point to risk their own and their family’s lives without any thought of profit.’ (247) ‘Evil was less ambivalent’, he continues, but for those locals, mainly Ukrainians, who benefited, ‘the blessings of genocide were short-lived’. (266) As German rule was increasingly threatened by the Red Army’s advance, the Polish underground escalated anti-Ukrainian operations, and the radical Ukrainian nationalists attempted to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the lands of a future independent Ukraine of Poles. 30-40,000 Poles and 5,000 Ukrainians were massacred in Eastern Galicia in 1943-45, and overall (including the earlier period) possibly 100,000 Poles and 15-20,000 Ukrainians died. After Ukrainian nationalists resisted the return of Soviet rule, over 200,000 family members of insurgents were deported to the interior of the USSR, with local Poles among those carrying out these deportations and the remaining villagers benefiting from the deportees’ property. The Polish-Ukrainian conflict only ended as a result of Stalin’s border and population policies, forced on Polish Communist leaders, which led to 560,000 Poles being removed from Eastern Galicia as it became part of Soviet Ukraine (the majority of the 750,000 Poles deported from the western regions of the newly expanded USSR) and 500,000 Ukrainians deported from the reconstituted Poland. ‘Ironically, then,’ Bartov notes, ‘the old dream of Ukrainian nationalists was about to be realized by their most hated enemy: an ehtnically pure Western Ukraine created by Soviet population policies.’ (274) He concludes this exemplary study: ‘All three ethnic groups living in Buczacz and its district underwent extreme suffering, although their agony peaked at different times and often at the hands of different perpetrators, just as their propensity to collaborate with the occupiers depended on different factors and changing circumstances. And yet, at the same time and long after, each group sought to present itself as the main victim, both of the occupying power and of its neighbors.’ (289)

Bartov’s book is the anatomy of an unparallelled period of extensive, multi-authored and diversely targeted destructive violence in Buczacz and its region. The combined actions of the local nationalists and the invaders destroyed the mixed Buczacz and Galician society which existed up to 1939 as well as the Jewish and Polish communities. The question which remains for this reviewer is, how is it the anatomy of ‘a genocide’? Bartov wears the concept lightly, and also refers to ‘genocide, ethnic cleansing and population policies’, implying that only part of the extraordinary violence which he describes – whether this is only the mass murder of the Jews or also includes some killings of Poles and Ukrainians is unclear – amounted to ‘genocide’. Yet genocide has been defined not simply as mass murder but as the targeted destruction of national groups, which must surely include the attempt to forcibly remove them from a given territory. In my interpretation what Bartov shows is that genocidal aims became increasingly common to almost all the political actors, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists as well as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who organized violence to destroy ‘enemy’ populations. There are important differences between the ad hoc, intermittent, ancillary murder and terror of the locally-based militia (who mostly tried to destroy others only ‘in part’ as the Genocide Convention puts it) and the more systematic campaigns of the imperial invaders, and also between the Nazis’ extensive mass murders and the Soviets’ mass deportations. But they were all designed to eliminate unwanted elements and homogenise the population in one way or another; in this region in the 1940s, war was generally genocidal. In this sense, considering genocide as outcome as well as policy and action, there were both ‘a’ genocide in Buczacz and Galicia and specific genocides of Jews, Poles and (in some places and at some times) Ukrainians. Moreover, the destruction of the previous mixed society was completed by the victory of Stalin’s brutal programme to reorganise states and populations in an expanded Soviet empire over the more murderous programme of the Nazi Reich. It was this that prevented any return of the displaced peoples and consolidated the forgetting of the many victims which this fine book, thankfully, does much to overcome.

Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. By Omer Bartov. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. 399 pages. $30.00 (cloth). This is a draft review – the final edited version is in Antisemitism Studies.

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