Friday, April 14, 2017

Quick Hitter on Sean Spicer

Holocaust Studies were a focus of mine some decades ago, even before I had even heard of this other David Wyman. I don't entirely know why, and I doubt the rambling comments I might make on that would be of interest.  My take on Sean Spicer bumbling and stepping on his own dick might be a little different than others, then.

I have longstanding objections to the generally accepted narrative, the knee-jerk response which every person who "gets it" is supposed to recite when they hear the word Holocaust.  These include:

1. Failure to appreciate distinctions among work camps, death camps, forced-labor factories, and executions outside the concentration camp system.  It gets messy and complicated, which is why journalists, liberal-arts majors (I am one), and other superficial students of history* avoid thinking about it. Jews were killed in large numbers outside the death camps. People other than Jews were killed in large numbers. Roma. Slavs. Jehovah's Witnesses. Confessing Church.  Disabled. Homosexuals - not as many as is claimed today, but some, sure.

2. Stalin killed more Jews than Hitler. Maybe 30% more. It is in one sense not unfair to regard the Nazi extermination policy as something qualitatively different from Stalin's more general everyone-who-might-be-unreliable policy, and the manic intensity of execution by Nazis late in the war was dramatic deserving of special attention.  But in the end, numbers matter. Stalin executed Jews over many years, and each one of them had a family, and friends, and a profession, and a place in the world. The fact that we feel differently about it because of the greater theatrics around the Nazi Final Solution doesn't get around the grim, basic facts of more widows; more orphans; more trauma; more fear and despair.

People read point #2 and think "Oh yeah, I knew that, sure. Worth mentioning."  They don't realise how controversial this has been and how great has been the effort to keep this out of their consciousness.  Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.  Look over here instead.  Shiny! Shiny! Yale historian Timothy Snyder's book Bloodlands came under criticism because it dared treat all atrocity, execution, and trauma in the lands between Hitler and Stalin 1933-1945  as similar. How dare he!  Everyone knows that Hitler was the ultimate evil and the events under Stalin were just rather excessive and sort of unfortunate!  Snyder is not remotely conservative, BTW.  His critics were not Jews incensed by having specialness taken away from them except insofar as they are liberals who retain disguised sympathy for communism. (Note:  I overgeneralise here. But not a lot.)

So.  So. Spicer's comments were not inaccurate, but when he talks about "Holocaust Center," like it was some sort of museum he betrays instantly that he doesn't talk about the Holocaust in the same manner that the right people do. It made me shudder, worried that he was going to go to some Holocaust Denial place.  But he didn't.  He got the base fact of enormous execution of Jews by Nazis right, unprompted.  I still think he's a jerk, because reading the tone of the national conversation is uh, his job, right? But other than clumsiness, what is he getting wrong here?  You can say he doesn't get the seriousness of extermination by the gas Zyklon B, so his "didn't use chemical weapons" statement is hollow.  (It wasn't hollow when Chris Matthews said it, apparently). I don't reject the point, but don't believe it rises to the magnitude of the objections I raised above - which most of Spicer's critics screw up repeatedly.

I submit that as much as Spicer's comments were objectionable,the energy directed against him is back to our old friend in the liberal playbook - social rather than intellectual acceptability.

*This includes, unfortunately, some professional historians.


Tony Lawless said...

Curious who you think are the best historians of the Holocaust. What do you think of Raul Hilberg, for example? I want to do a summer reading program on this and on Stalinism, so I would appreciate some suggestions. Do you think Stalin killed Jews as Jews or as dissident communists or what?

Christopher B said...

His speech was clumsy but everybody understood exactly what he meant. The Nazis had every opportunity to use chemical weapons up to the very end of the war, and yet chose not to (Imagine the Battle of the Bulge with gas attacks). They weren't shy about bombing civilian areas when it suited them, such as Rotterdam and the London Blitz, but still held back from using poison gas in those situations. I don't want to sound pro-Nazi but point out Spicer was right in many more ways than the one somewhat pedantic counterpoint where he's getting beat up.

I think the general theme of point #1 winds up applying to many historical facts from that era. Keeping with the theme of bombing, it's equally inconvenient for some points of view that the first firestorms were in Dresden, caused by conventional HE and incendiaries, and that LeMay was laying waste to huge swaths of Japanese cities and civilians before Hiroshima.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Tony Lawless - I don't know which are best. Snyder's book is excellent, but please take me seriously when I say do not read it alone. It is traumatic to even read about that level of evil and suffering, and processing it with someone as you go is necessary. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago is better and more thorough than One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich but it is very long, so the latter book is an excellent substitute. I liked Anne Applebaum's Gulag. My Holocaust knowledge has been more cumulative than due to any one or two books, I think. Sorry I am not clearer.

As for Stalin's intent, he shared the disdain for Jews that everyone in Eastern Europe had, perhaps more, especially at the end. I don't know that they were a special target originally, except that to dictators, anyone who is different and might not be ultimately loyal to you and you alone is suspect. Many of the early communists were urban and Jewish, but communist factions have a way of hating each other quickly. At the end of Stalin's life there was the Doctor's Plot, in which he believed Jews, especially doctors, were plotting against Soviet leaders, especially him. Many were purged.