Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Causes of the Holocaust


Not long ago I was discussing before a theatre audience in Philadelphia a performance of ‘Our Class’, Tadeusz Słobodziański's remarkable theatrical reinterpretation of Jan Gross's pioneering book Neighbors. It helped so very much that the discussion took place after rather than before the performance! It is a great honour to find my book at the centre of this discussion by colleagues, but it would be great vanity on my part to expect that every reader of this exchange will have first read my book. And yet without some general sense of the argument and substance of Bloodlands, I can hardly explain why the four responses are so different each from the other, what underlying concerns unite them, and how they might be answered. The book is a study of all German and Soviet mass killing policies in the lands between the Black and Baltic Seas from south to north and from Smolensk to Poznan from east to west. It begins from the observation that fourteen million non-combatants were deliberately killed in this zone between 1933 and 1945, when both Stalin and Hitler were in power. The figure is very high in its own right, and represents the vast majority of Soviet and German killing. The territory can be defined in terms of the number of murdered, or as the place where the Holocaust was perpetrated, or as the zone touched by both German and Soviet power: all three definitions generate the same map of the bloodlands.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      The Causes of the Holocaust
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      The Causes of the Holocaust
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      The Causes of the Holocaust
      Available formats
Hide All

1 These terms appear chiefly in Chapters 4 and 5 – it has mattered more than I might have hoped in reviews that the theoretical and explanatory arguments were in the middle of the book. The entire theoretical argument, using precisely the terms above, is however abstracted on pp. 415–7.

2 Another meso-level approach, highly successful, has been the regional study. See for example Gerlach, Christian, Kalkulierte Morde: Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Weißrußland 1941 bis 1944 (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1999); Lower, Wendy, Nazi Empire-building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Dieckmann, Christoph, Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2011).

3 Even my major account of a Soviet killing policy targeting Poles is one that was all but ignored by Polish historiography: the ethnic killings of the Polish national operation in the USSR in 1937–8. It is worth mentioning that the pioneering work here was done by Russians: Gurianov, A. Ie., ed., Repressii protiv poliakov i pol'skikh grazhdan (Moscow: Zven'ia, 1997).

4 The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

5 Of particular note since the publication of Bloodlands are Engelking, Barbara, Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień: Losy Żydów szukających ratunku na wsi polskiej 1942–1945 (Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum nad Zagładą Żydów, 2011) and Grabowski, Jan, Judenjagd: Polowanie na Żydów 1942–1945 (Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum nad Zagładą Żydów, 2011).

6 Gombrowicz, Witold, Trans-Atlantyk (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1996), 114 and passim.

7 In another discussion of this book I devote an entire article to the question of collaboration: see ‘Collaboration in the Bloodlands’, Journal of Genocide Research, 13, 3 (2011), 313–52.

8 The commentator was Andrei Palchevskii, on the television programme Глибинне Буріння, taped 22 October 2011. The entire poem is: ‘Не бывать тебе в живых, Со снегу не встать. Двадцать восемь штыковых, Огнестрельных пять. Горькую обновушку Другу шила я. Любит, любит кровушку Русская земля.’

9 Baberowski presses the dialectical point harder in his German-language review in Die Zeit, 26 July 2011, where he refers to German policy as, in some measure, an answer (Antwort) to Soviet policy.

10 For my views about the contemporary far Right and Holocaust memory consult articles on Ukraine, Austria, Norway and Lithuania in the New York Review of Books blog and the editorial about the United States in the New York Times (17 Oct. 2010).

11 Readers who do not know east European languages can verify this simply by watching the videos of book talks about Bloodlands in the US and Canada. Predictably I take a beating for putatively overemphasising, for example, the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust, or for putatively understating the number of Ukrainians killed in the famine of 1932–3. The opposition to the book has, in general, come from ethnic nationalists of all varieties, a kind of nationalist international. Kühne cites Efraim Zuroff, which is a curious choice, since the two things that Zuroff is admirably forthright about in his review are (1) that he is defending the metahistorical nationalist position that there are nations of perpetrators and nations of victims and (2) that he does not like my book. That a reviewer who is forthright about his nationalist premises should conclude negatively is no surprise. Zuroff does claim, counterintuitively, that nationalists of other national orientations like my book, but gives no evidence or cases. This move, which Helvétius would have called ‘interested error’, is routine. Zuroff's text typifies the reflexive nationalist response, regardless of national orientation: no fault is found with the historical scholarship of the book, but the claim is made – always without examples – that history thus presented must somehow be helping the politics of someone else's national narrative. Of course, the putative beneficiaries then take exactly the same position! They too cannot pinpoint what is wrong with the book, but feel sure that it must be helping someone else. And so on. The structure of this nationalist response is absolutely identical, regardless of the nationality in question.

Unlike Kühne, I'd propose to read such texts critically, and to make sure that generic nationalist terms of engagement are not confused with scholarly critique or, least of all, political events in the real world. Insofar as this suggests an issue of theoretical interest, it is this: transnational scholarship constitutes a general problem for the nationalist position that history is the zero-sum politics of competitive ethnic victimhood. But it is a shame, even in a footnote, to expend so many words on this matter, since that risks overshadowing what is truly interesting in the reception of the book: the remarkable toleration of and generosity towards new interpretations in Europe, North America, and Israel alike. The nationalist reaction has been the same everywhere, but it has also been marginal everywhere.

12 See for example Mazower, Mark, ‘Violence and the State in the Twentieth Century’, American Historical Review, 107, 4 (2002), 1147–67.

13 I take Mazower's point about references. In the bibliography, which is quite long as it is, I mentioned chiefly recent works that bear directly on the particular German and Soviet policies of mass killing. Naturally, this does not exhaust the historical literature from which I have learned.

14 The arguments to come are extensively footnoted in Bloodlands.

15 Including western and southern European examples would require addition categories such as ‘puppet state’ and ‘German direct rule’, but the argument would be the same.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Contemporary European History
  • ISSN: 0960-7773
  • EISSN: 1469-2171
  • URL: /core/journals/contemporary-european-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed