Death By (Gun)Fire: The Historical Realities of The Holocaust

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“What we expect of the Holocaust is only a shadow of the reality,” said Timothy Snyder in his timely address, a mere fortnight after International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Hosted by the Waterloo Center for German Studies, in cooperation with the Faculty of Arts, the Department of History, the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies, and the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, the first of the University of Waterloo 2017 Grimm speaker series was all too appropriate in today’s context, which is again one of “brutal political and ideological turmoil.”

The Yale history professor’s talk — The Holocaust as History and Warning — opened with a story of young Jewish woman in Poland who, having fled from Warsaw, a land alternately occupied by Soviet and German forces, escaped persecution.

Far removed from Germany, and indeed all symbols so frequently associated with the time, this woman’s story accounts for the origins of the Holocaust, having begun with mass shootings, likes of which claimed half of all Jewish lives lost during the war. Albeit perhaps unexpected, Snyder explained this story was one “typical” of the period.

Citing its origins, Snyder described genocides as “most strongly associated with a collapse of order” and “periods of political chaos.” In this manner, 1930’s Germany was a unique situation, what Snyder called an “ideological party state”, which “in following its ideology, destroyed its neighbor states.”

“This leads to a worldview of … Adolf Hitler,” he continued, in whose eyes “races [were] like subspecies,” characterized by a constant state of conflict.

“Our view of Hitler as a racist is right,” Snyder explained, “not in the way that the Jewish were either inferior or superior”, but that the group created systems which prevented what he perceived to be a “natural state” of racial struggle. By this view, “all ideas of solidarity [were] Jewish” and the “only way for the planet to be restored to its ‘natural state’ of struggle [was] to get rid of the Jews.”

The methods by which this systemic elimination occurred are widely acknowledged and deplored in popular media. One which does not perhaps receive a great deal of notoriety, Snyder suggested, is the manner in which Germany collapsed surrounding states,  decimating their political structures and depriving the Jews of their citizenship — their sole protection in such times of persecution.

“Sovereignty was safety for the Jews,” Snyder explained. As such, many fled to Germany— which would otherwise seem the epicenter of the Holocaust — because “being second-class citizens is safer than not being citizens at all.”

“Without a civil code,” he divulged, “things are possible that were not possible before.”

In the “profound legal uncertainty” which followed thereafter, the European Jewish were left unprotected against the horrors which were allowed to take place in lawless nations.

Next Snyder moved on to Auschwitz, an area which is “central in our imaginations, for understandable reasons,” as he stated. However, despite the well-known atrocities which took place in work and concentration camps such as these, survival rates here were much better than in collapsed states. Without degrading the suffering of one group over another, Snyder pointed to a comparison of survival rates in each area — 1 in 2 at Auschwitz as contrasted against 1 in 20 in “destroyed states”, such as Poland.

“Concentration camps were labs for statelessness,” Snyder noted of the phenomenon, whereas in collapsed states, atrocities such as those experienced in Auschwitz took place nationwide.

As he wrapped up the talk, Snyder warned of getting caught up in sentiment. “We like to focus on people, memories, images,” Snyder said, but he argued that we should instead focus on institutions. “But if we get to the point of chaos … that rescue must take place on the personal level,” he said. “It’s lost.”

Although seemingly distant, Snyder warned that “Hitler’s theory has resonance in times of scarcity”, when survival is society’s top priority. “This might not be true of us, but thanks to global warming, it could be.”

Therefore, Snyder said, “We must act before it gets to the point of memory and identity.” In following through with the common sentiment of “never again,” prevention is not only necessary but vital.

“History doesn’t repeat — but it does instruct.”

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