I have been pondering the fate of Someone Else’s War—I believe it will be part of a trilogy—and so not posting further chapters while I sort out my thoughts. Instead, I decided to read a book I have wanted to, if you can apply “long wanted to read” about Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I told my husband this and he replied, “Maybe it’s time we got a TV?”
Bloodlands is a history of political mass killing, often but far from always along ethnic lines, in what we now call Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine, between 1933-1945. Like any book on a comparable subject, Bloodlands is very tough to read if you have any human feelings at all. It is also a superb work of revisionist history, revising the historical record to take into account what we now know about the killings in Eastern Europe with the collapse of Communism. Finally, the language is extremely accessible.
But there is another reason Bloodlands is an important book that should be far more widely read in American than it is. Bloodlands shows what happens when entire nations go bonkers—as America is doing now, and I write this without once pretending that America is in anything close to the situation of Germany in 1932 or Russia or the Soviet Union in 1924, when Lenin died. The parallels are very far from exact.
America has gone bonkers before, although we usually do it overseas. The last time we really went full-scale, all-out bonkers on our own soil was our Civil War, and the savagery and cruelty of that conflict is something Americans have never really come to grips with. Revised estimates of its toll, from the traditional 620,000 deaths, range from 650,000 to 850,000; 750,000 is now an accepted central figure, out of a pre-war population of 31.4 million. The revised estimate may still be too low: Francis Amisa Walker, superintendent of the 1870 census, estimated male deaths as not lower than 850,000. In modern American terms, those 750,000 deaths approximately equate to 7 million male deaths in 4 years; in the terms of Soviet Russia in 1932, about 2.4 million deaths. (Table “Before WWII.”) This dwarfs the approximately 700,000 Soviets, particularly Poles and Ukrainians, shot during the Great Terror of 1937-38 and is more than 70% of the 3.3 million Soviets, mostly Ukrainians, starved in the Collectivization campaign of the Soviet Union of 1932-33. (Figures are Snyder, in “Numbers and Terms.”)
Moreover, the numbers citied for the American Civil War do not include the appalling suffering of African-Americans after the Civil War, suffering that was a direct consequence of slavery. It should also be remembered that Communism, including Stalinism, was a demented attempt to create a workable future for Russia because its Tsarist past was largely garbage. The cause of the American Civil War was the South’s insistence that some human beings be allowed to own other human beings. Yet our understanding of our Civil War is sanitized nearly beyond recognition: we have never really come to terms with the war in the West, the appalling suffering of newly-freed slaves and the near-immediate campaign of Southern whites to reimpose conditions on African-Americans that might best be described as serfdom. Some states still have the Confederate stars and bars, a banner of treason in an evil cause, as part of their state flag and “heritage.” Without mentioning three hundred years of Indian wars, or the horrendous destruction we let loose upon Southeast Asia, we have turned America’s episodes of madness into entertainment and psychobabble.
While there has been some serious historical examination of American insanity, that examination is not part of our canon—more Americans have probably seen and heard of John Wayne’s The Green Berets than have read Loren Baritz’ Backfire. Instead, America’s madness—and the huge number of bodies it, like any other nation, stacks when it goes mad—is nothing more than a cause of non-binding self-flagellation for most of the Americans inclined to attempt to understand these parts of our history, a source of unearned moral superiority. Most American opposition to our disastrous war in Iraq was not about Americans reasserting their citizenship and their right to demand that the Senate, and the Senate alone, could declare and commit the nation to war. The Anti-Iraq War movement was about people feeling good about themselves, nothing more elevated. (My husband was a conservative who lost his job for his kind of adult, serious opposition.)
The result is that not only does America not realize that it is living within sight of an abyss, with tens of millions of people out of work and tens of millions more with no realistic hope for a stable, satisfying career that allows them to live in dignity and comfort while contributing to their own society, American politics are not equal to America’s situation. The right is stuck with its own viciousness, the left a disorganized coalition of activists in search of unearned moral superiority as much as social and economic justice.
I find the greatest flaw in Snyder’s book, which is necessarily limited in time and geographic scope, is that it does not address the coarsening of societies through mass violence. The enormous scope of Russian losses during the First World War that led to the Revolution and the horrendous Civil War that followed coarsened Russians, who had a lower cultural level than Germans—themselves coarsened by World War One and their own nascent civil war that followed. You subject people to enough violence and what was once unthinkable becomes ordinary; people become coarsened and their souls intincted by violence. Some shut down; others, while remaining functional, even superbly competent, are also quite insane. Stalin himself was as insane as any senior (and perhaps not-so-senior) Soviet of his era, but he was considerably more intelligent than most of his comrades. Above all, Stalin understood how to use their common madness better than his peers and near-peers. When your nation’s past has produced nothing but garbage for quite a long time, insanity can look quite rational. Unsere letzte Hoffnung: Hitler.
The United States tolerates far more violence than we like to think, and this violence is not just gun violence. It is our rising suicide rate, our incredible tolerance of homelessness, of prostitution and pornography—all of which vomit out mountains of corpses; the use of nuisance ordinances to evict women attempting to prosecute domestic violence; the military’s tolerance of rape and predilection for retaining rapists and discharging their victims; the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year from preventable causes due to lack of basic medical care. It is the on-going attempts to deny women contraception and access to abortion in order to force them to bear children, and the only adequate term for forced pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood is slavery. And all of this violence has its defenders: those who make money off the porn and the prostitution and the warping of medicine from a profession into a consumer good, from housing as a basic right to a speculative investment by big institutions, to those who prefer women to be a safety valve for absolutely justified male rage and anger and hurt and humiliation—all of which are shared by American women—as well as those who just think that women are there for their sexual usage. There is also the violence of our immigration system: those who come to American, with or without legal documents, seeking a better life, have their hopes and dreams and aspirations used to expand the pool of desperate workers and depress American wages.
In 1986, the group David + David released their Boomtown album with these lyrics from the song “Heroes”:
Fifteen long years on a losing streak
And a lot of bodies unburied
And there comes a time
When you cannot turn the other cheek
The date on that was pretty good, because by 1971 it was clear that America had serious problems: except for 1973 and 1975, the US has run trade deficits every single year since 1971. Our politics have yet to equal our problems, in no small part because Americans do not demand serious politics. Indeed, we are a fundamentally unserious people. We prefer the right-wing politics of national exceptionalism and the left-wing politics of passive-aggressive temper tantrums and ideological purity. We have escaped serious violence until now because of many factors, one of which is that with all their human flaws and failings, Americans are very often the people or the descendants of people who came here to escape the cruelties of their ethnic and national pasts. But eventually time will run out for America: the Devil makes work for idle hands and above all, idle brains. Tens of millions of Americans are being told they are useless and worthless to their society. Eventually, they will take action against that. We are already seeing sparks of action in Europe. America and Europe today do not have to go mad in ways that parallel the madness of other countries, or even their own past, to do horrendous damage when and if they go mad again.
America desperately needs a politics of standards. We don’t need ideology. Ideology—the ideology of free-market capitalism, and a leftist ideology seemingly more interested in doctrinal squabbles than creating a coherent, humane alternative to capitalism—got us here. Besides, ideals have a habit of being transformed into altars upon which sacrifices are offered. Instead, America needs a politics of standards, a single humane standard by which every American can be judged and measured and treated, a standard to which we hold our government, a standard by which all of us have the right to live.
As for Bloodlands, which is a glimpse, no more, certainly not a mirror, of where America’s—and Europe’s—failed politics can lead us, it is a terrific book, an important new way of looking at and a better understanding of the greatest concentrated violence of the 20th Century.