Monday, January 24, 2022

Silence about the Holocaust after 1945

Image: Holocaust memorial at Camp Westerbork, The Netherlands

Each of the great evils of the twentieth century -- the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag -- was shrouded in silence and concealment for decades after information became available to the world. In the case of the Gulag, the Soviet government exercised great effort to keep the facts of the prison camp system quiet, and the Communist parties of Western Europe minimized or obfuscated the facts that were publicly available. (Anne Applebaum documents much of this shameful record of secrecy and obfuscation in Gulag: A History.) A similar story of secrecy and lies can be told about the Holodomor.

Most inexcusable is the silence that greeted the facts of the Final Solution after the end of hostilities in 1945. The evidence of mass killing was everywhere -- extermination camps, burial pits in Poland and Ukraine, first-person observations, the writings of contemporary observers like Vasily Grossman, and the Nuremberg trials. And yet there was little public recognition or discussion of the magnitude of the evil committed by the Nazi extermination plan, and their national collaborators, until the 1960s and 1970s.

Stimulated by discussions beginning in 1988 in Michigan at the first Holocaust Memorial Center in the United States, a group of scholars undertook to write a set of country studies on the reception of the Holocaust across Europe, North America, and Japan. The results are presented in a massive 1996 volume edited by David Wyman, The World Reacts to the Holocaust, which is highly relevant for our project of "confronting evil in history". Most of the countries surveyed in this volume did not confront history honestly; rather, they constructed more comfortable narratives that minimized the involvement of their own citizens in the Holocaust, and sometimes minimized and "normalized" the mass killings of Jews themselves. In his introduction David Wyman writes that during the 1950s "the most difficult and sensitive questions about the Holocaust had barely been raised. These issues included ... questions about the guilt of the German people, complicity and collaboration in the countries under German occupation, the failure of non-Jews to attempt to save their Jewish neighbors, and the very limited rescue efforts on the part of the outside world. Nor were these issues confronted during the 1950s; instead, in that decade the Holocaust all but disappeared from public consciousness in most of the world" (xix).

Here is the table of contents and list of countries studied:

The book demonstrates an important feature of Holocaust history -- the fact that much of the killing, and many of the documents, took place in Eastern Europe, in countries that came under Soviet control during and after the war. The Soviet government was slow to make available to the public records and documents that could provide a reasonably full understanding of the Holocaust in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. Wyman writes, "Until the later 1980s these [Soviet bloc] countries all followed the Soviet Union's approach to the Holocaust: they universalized it and forced it into a Communist ideological mold. The destruction of the Jews was seen as merely a small part of racist fascism's murder of millions of Eastern European civilians" (xxi).

A number of the essays make the point that media events played an important role in Western European and North American countries in bringing awareness of the Holocaust to a broad audience. These include the US television series Holocaust (1978), Marcel Ophuls' two-part French documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), and Claude Lanzmann's French documentary film Shoah (1985).

Here I will provide highlights from three of the country studies, to give a sense of the depth and detail of the essays. There is still much to be learned about the Holocaust and the way that various publics and governments have been willing to face the truth about their pasts honestly.

France, David Weinberg

David Weinberg's article on documents the French government's desire to "sanitize" the history of the Vichy years and the circumstances of the deportation of sixty to seventy thousand Jews from France to Nazi extermination camps. The issue of return of spoliated property -- homes, businesses, other forms of pre-war wealth -- was highly contentious in France in the postwar years. Further, thousands of Jewish children had been separated from their parents, and the task of reuniting families was both logistically and socially difficult. But most significant was the political interest that postwar governments had in concealing or distorting the collaboration that had occurred during the German occupation and the Vichy regime. "For much of the early postwar period the tragic events surrounding French involvement in the Final Solution were masked by governmental concerns with reconstruction and reconciliation.... The result was the gradual emergence of a national myth that viewed the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen during World War II as resisters to Nazism and portrayed the Vichy regime as an aberration whose traitorous deeds resulted from the venality and fanaticism of a crazed few" (18). One result was a resurgence of the far right in France: "Government amnesties brought many collaborators back to France after years in exile, and in the early fifties there was a noticeable increase in neo-fascist and neo-Nazi activity on the part of the extreme Right" (19). Weinberg also documents a resurgence of anti-Semitism in French society and politics in the 1950s. He describes the highly convoluted development of French political culture during the 1960s and 1970s, in which anti-colonialism converged to some degree with anti-Zionist, or anti-Israel, sentiment among activist youth. An important event in shifting French public awareness of the Holocaust and the Vichy years was the capture and trial in 1983 of Klaus Barbie, the chief of the Gestapo in Lyons and the prime mover in the deportation of French Jews. Barbie was also a notorious murderer of captured members of the Resistance (including Marc Bloch). Preparations for trial created a great deal of debate in France, and Barbie was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison, dying in prison in 1991. (Here is a detailed treatment of the Barbie trial; link.) Weinberg closes on a pessimistic note: French leaders as recently as Mitterrand preferred to remain silent about the crimes and collaborations of the Vichy years (35), and there has not yet been a clear and honest reckoning of the war years.

Poland, Michael Steinlauf

Poland's postwar history was determined by the imposition of a Soviet-style Communist regime. Returning Jews were unwelcome in Poland, in large part because of conflict over spoliated properties. Numerous pogroms took place in the first two years following the end of the war, including the shocking pogrom at Kielce that resulted in the murder of at least 42 people (112). (Steinlauf gives some credence to the possibility that the NKVD may have deliberately provoked the violence at Kielce.) Steinlauf describes 1956 as an important turning point in Polish political history, the "Polish road to socialism", resulting in an anti-Stalinist regime that was more pragmatic than its predecessors. But this change of regime also permitted a resurgence of anti-Semitic attitudes in society and within political elites. Largescale emigration from Poland to Israel and other countries took place, reflecting the conviction by the Jewish population that Poland would never be a welcoming home for them. The Communist government -- before and after the change of orientation in 1956 -- continued to ignore the Nazi extermination of Jews in favor of "Poles and citizens of other nationalities". "Under Communism, Auschwitz became a monument to internationalism that commemorated the 'resistance and martyrdom' of 'Poles and citizens of other nationalities,' In consultation with the International Auschwitz Committee, a group of survivors and relatives of victims dominated by veterans of the largely Communist Auschwitz underground, barracks in the original work cam were turned over to twenty countries for use as 'national pavilions.' One of these structures became a 'Jewish pavilion'" (117). Every part of this story represents denial: denial of the Jewish identities of the victims, erasure of the Nazi extermination goals of the camp, and inflation of the number of victims in order to suggest that comparable numbers of "Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and other non-Jews" were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. "Auschwitz could thereby emerge as the central symbol of Polish martyrdom, but within an inclusive internationalist framework" (117). Even the monument at Treblinka, where only Jews were killed and which is specific about the Jewish identities of the victims there, was publicly described in Poland as "800,000 citizens of European nations" (119).

This pattern of Soviet obfuscation resulted in a national narrative "whose effect was to marginalize, or 'ghettoize,' its subject" (120). Poland's political history between 1956 and 1989 was complex and contentious, and anti-Semitism played a recurring role. 1968 manifested a student movement in Poland, state repression, and a serious official intensification of anti-Semitic actions and policies, in the form of an anti-Zionist campaign. (This is the period when Bauman and Kolakowski were force to leave Poland; link, link.) The period of the Solidarity movement, according to Steinlauf, produced greater honesty and openness about the tragedy of the extermination of the majority of Poland's Jewish population. Steinlauf quotes an especially interesting literary exchange between Czesław Miłosz and the literary critic Jan Błoński, concerning Miłosz's poem about the Warsaw ghetto "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto"; (link): "Błoński explained that Poles had blocked the memory of this part of their history because 'when we consider the past, we want to derive moral advantage from it ... we want to be completely clean. We want to be also -- and only -- victims.' ... Błoński suggested that the only remedy was to see the past fully, without defensiveness, and then to 'acknowledge our own guilt, and ask for forgiveness'" (139).

Steinlauf depicts the period in Poland from 1989 to the mid-1990s as one in which the situation has improved. There is a greater willingness to speak openly about anti-Semitism in Poland -- past and present. Historical memorials have been corrected to more accurately reflect the overwhelming majority of Jews killed in Sobibor and Treblinka (144). And Steinlauf records the decision by the Polish government in 1990 to correct the inscriptions at Auschwitz, replacing reference to "four million people" murdered at Auschwitz with this passage:

Let this place remain for eternity as a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. About one and a half million men, women, children and infants, mainly Jews from different countries of Europe, were murdered here. The world was silent. Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1940-1945. (145)

Steinlauf concludes his article with these hopeful words (in 1996): "Half a century after witnessing the Holocaust, Poles are freely confronting the memory of the experience for the first time. It is far too soon, however, to speculate about the meaning of this confrontation. It will gradually assume a coherent form only in the decades to come" (145). The final qualification is prophetic, since in the past decade Poland has seen nationalist politicians and legislators seeking to -- once again -- silence honest acknowledgement of Polish responsibility during the time of the Holocaust.

Lithuania, Dov Levin

Dov Levin notes that the culpability of Lithuanians in the Final Solution is deep. Even before the German invasion began, murderous pogroms occurred in many communities in Lithuania. "Unlike the pogroms in Russia and Ukraine at the turn of the century, which had been organized mainly by the anti-Semitic and archconservative political vigilantes known as the Black Hundreds, in Lithuania, especially in the smaller towns, Jews were actually murdered by former neighbors, classmates, and customers" (333). Only days before the German invasion a massacre in Kaunas (Slobodka) of 1200 men, women, and children was undertaken by "armed Lithuanians who called themselves partisans". 2000 more Jews were murdered in the same place in the next few days (333). After the arrival of German forces and Einsatzgruppe A, "Lithuanians were soon accepted ... as auxiliaries attached to German units" (333). 90% of Lithuania's Jews perished by the end of the Holocaust in Lithuania, the majority before December 1941.

Following the retreat of the German forces from Lithuania following the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet Union re-established control over Lithuania. It enforced its party line concerning the Holocaust, especially concerning the deaths of Jews, emphasizing "innocent Soviet citizens" rather than Jews as the primary victims. A quantity of documentary evidence was collected by the Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, but the museum was only permitted to operate for four years. Upon closure its valuable materials and documents were stored in a variety of places, including "book depositories of the Lithuanian SSR, where it was inaccessible to scholars and other interested persons" (338). Soviet authorities soon became unwilling to pursue complaints about stolen property, collaborators, and other crimes that had occurred during the German occupation (337). "Although many war criminals were eventually arrested and tried, the authorities generally avoided dwelling on the widespread nature of Lithuanian wartime collaboration with the enemy" (339). Levin observes that conditions for the surviving or returning Jewish community improved in the post-Stalin period, and there was an increase in publication of books and articles about the experience of the Nazi period in the 1960s and 1970s (340). However, diaspora Lithuanian communities began a campaign of obfuscation concerning Lithuanian responsibility for the killings of Jews (342). Within Lithuania the situation was different, according to Levin; "by the end of 1987 and early 1988, articles began to appear in the Lithuanian press ... severely criticizing past sins of both omission and commission in reference to the memory of the Holocaust" (343). After the collapse of Communist rule in Lithuania the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Republic issued a statement in May 1990 signed by President Landsbergis, according to which the Supreme Council "unreservedly condemn[ed] the genocide committed against the Jewish people during the years of the Hitlerite occupation in Lithuania and state[d] with sorrow that among the henchmen who served the occupying power there were also citizens of Lithuania" (345). Levin notes the subsequent emergence of extreme anti-Semitic nationalists in Lithuania. He also highlights several important themes or myths that have taken hold in Lithuania that have the effect of misleading the current generation about the grim realities of the past: idealization of the past concerning Jewish-Lithuanian relations; symmetry between Jewish and Lithuanian behavior during World War II; tendentious exaggeration or distortion of proportions; reciprocity in punishment of war criminals; and euphoria about the present and utopian optimism for the future (347). 


These are just three of the fascinating country cases included in The World Reacts to the Holocaust. Every essay contains material that will be surprising to the non-specialist. There are common themes, however. Both in the Soviet bloc and in Western Europe there is a residual level of anti-Semitism that expresses itself periodically. In all parts of Europe there have been political and nationalistic reasons for concealing or obfuscating the past -- for the sake of national unity, for the sake of economic progress, for a desire to move on. And yet each case makes it clear that no country can thrive if it is unwilling to honestly examine its past, to reckon with the inexcusable things that its citizens have done in prior decades, and to commit to a process of recognition, acknowledgement, and sorrow for the murders and atrocities committed in its name. Finally, it is important to recall that each of these narratives ends in the early 1990s. Much has happened in European politics that has given new force to right-wing nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism that makes the overall cautious optimism of the volume quite uncertain. It would be highly interesting to see followup articles on these countries to see how things have developed in the twenty-six years since the volume was first published.

(A few examples of poetry relevant to the question of remembrance of the Holocaust are collected in a separate post; link. Powerful and evocative poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russia), Wim Ramaker (Netherlands), Czesław Miłosz (Poland), and Vasily Grossman (Ukraine) are provided there.) 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Poetry in remembrance of the Shoah

Theodor Adorno wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." But there are good reasons not to agree with Adorno. There is a body of powerful, respectful, and penetrating poetry that has been written in reflection upon the Holocaust. And these works are another valid way for non-participants in the evils of the Holocaust to be brought to understand, respect, and reflect upon the suffering that occurred. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, "Babi Yar". Yevtushenko helps the reader to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wim Ramaker's powerful elegy for the thousands of Dutch Jews who departed from Westerbork in The Netherlands to the extermination camps of Poland is equally powerful. And Czesław Miłosz's poem "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto" helps the reader to feel and think about the human loss and suffering that occurred in Warsaw and throughout Poland. Vasily Grossman was not a poet; but some of his passages in "Ukraine Without Jews" and "The Hell of Treblinka" are deeply poetic and expressive of a profound emotion that helps the reader to experience the depth of what has been lost. 

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Kiev, Ukraine 

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
The Philistine
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
spat on,

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
'Beat the Yids. Save Russia!'
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
I know
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They're coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it's the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning grey.
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The 'Internationale,' let it
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!


Westerbork, debarkation point for Dutch Jews
Wim Ramakar
The Netherlands

Who dares to raise his voice here?
Departure point of a whole people:
with known destination left for Auschwitz,
Sobibor, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, Kosel ...

And nobody saved them
To be sure there was much waving when they passed by
A gesture that always touched the deported deeply
but nobody shifted the point to life,
or changed the track

Scores of trains have left from here,
according to schedule
often Tuesdays,
exactly on time, 
because no one was allowed to die too late

Stand for a moment ...
now the point of departure and arrival have almost caught up with 
each other
Here left a whole people:
more than one hundred and two thousand Jewish fellow citizens, 
children, mothers, fathers,
fathers, mothers, children
and also babies and those old of days
were gassed, shot, burned alive,
beaten to death, hanged
while we waved

At last the rails are shifted
of sadness twisted
and at the place where they were readied for their journey
stand telescopes
to amplify their silent whispering in the universe
and to wave again
when they wave.


A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto
Czesław Miłosz
Warsaw, Poland

Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair.

Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
Ants build around white bone.
Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,
Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.
The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.
Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
With one leafless tree.

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.

I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
The uncircumcised.


Ukraine without Jews
Vasily Grossman

When our forces enter the villages of Left-bank Ukraine under a volley of fire and the din of hand grenades, domestic geese rise up into the air. Flapping their enormous white wings, they circle above peasant huts, above lakes covered in water lilies, above fields and gardens.

There is something worrisome and strange in the heavy, arduous flight, and the sharp, alarming and sorrowful cries of these domestic birds. It is as if they are calling the soldiers of the Red Army to witness heartbreaking and frightening images of life, as if they are rejoicing at the arrival of our forces, simultaneously weeping with joy and lamenting, screaming of great losses, and of the tears and blood that have aged and salted the soil of Ukraine.


And it occurred to me that just as Kozary is silent, so too are the Jews in Ukraine silent. In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls.

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. Murdered are elderly artisans, well-known masters of trades: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, housepainters, furriers, bookbinders; murdered are workers: porters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, furnace workers, locksmiths; murdered are wagon drivers, tractor drivers, chauffeurs, cabinet makers; murdered are millers, bakers, pastry chefs, cooks; murdered are doctors, therapists, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists; murdered are experts in bacteriology and biochemistry, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry; murdered are lecturers, department assistants, candidates and doctors of science; murdered are engineers, metallurgists, bridge builders, architects, ship builders; murdered are pavers, agronomists, field-crop growers, land surveyors; murdered are accountants, bookkeepers, store merchants, suppliers, managers, secretaries, night guards; murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women who were faithful to their husbands, and murdered are frivolous women; murdered are beautiful young women, serious students and happy schoolgirls; murdered are girls who were unattractive and foolish; murdered are hunchbacks; murdered are singers; murdered are blind people; murdered are deaf and mute people; murdered are violinists and pianists; murdered are three- year-old and two-year-old children; murdered are eighty-year-old elders who had cataracts in their dimmed eyes, cold transparent fingers and quiet, rustling voices like parchment; murdered are crying newborns who were greedily sucking at their mothers’ breasts until their final moments. All are murdered, many hundreds of thousands, millions of people.

The people have been murdered, trampled in the earth.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Frankl and Shalamov on existence in the camps

Image: Viktor Frankl

Image: Varlam Shalamov, NKVD photo

Viktor Frankl, born in Austria in 1905, had the tragic misfortune to be swept up into the maelstrom of the Final Solution. He was an impactful psychotherapist, both before and after the war, and he invented the field of logotherapy. His experience in Auschwitz and other Nazi camps had a deep impact on his view of the human being's emotional life. He expressed some of his Auschwitz experience -- initially anonymously -- in Man's Search for Meaning.

Varlam Shalamov was born in 1907 in Vologda, Russia. He supported the Russian Revolution, but sided with Trotsky rather than Stalin. He became a victim of Stalin's purges and spent 1937-1951 as a political prisoner -- a zek -- in various Kolyma slave-labor camps, the harshest part of the Gulag. After his release in 1951, and following another two years in Kolyma as a non-prisoner medical assistant, he began writing a series of stories capturing the experience of the slave labor camps of Kolyma. These writings were initially circulated as samizdat, then published abroad in translation in 1966, and finally published in Russian in 1978. Many of those stories are collected in Kolyma Stories, and they provide stark, unadorned still-life images of moments of cruelty and almost unendurable hardship in the camps in the far north, from the point of view of a long-serving zek

Frankl's account of life in Auschwitz is detailed and grueling. He describes arrival at Auschwitz, labor, food, starvation, the cold, beatings by the guards, and severe physical suffering. Laconically he reports that of the 1500 prisoners in the train that brought him to Auschwitz, 90% were immediately consigned to the gas chambers. And he speaks honestly about the dehumanization created by existence in a death camp.

On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles--whatever one may choose to call them--we know: the best of us did not return. (19)

But this is not Frankl's last word on dehumanization. He returns to the question late in the memoir, and finds that this descent into a brutish, dehumanized fight for existence was not universal. Rather, Frankl finds room for optimism about the capacity that human beings have for courage and for maintaining their ability to choose their responses to suffering.

It is worthwhile comparing Frankl's descriptions with "lessons learned" by Shalamov in his years of forced labor in the prison camps of the Gulag. In his introduction to Kolyma Stories Donald Rayfield quotes a fragmentary text from 1961 in which Shalamov describes "what I saw and understood in the camps". With these 45 terse observations Shalamov provides his most explicit statement about what the experience of Kolyma was for him.

1 The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

3 I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

15 I realized that one can live on anger.

16 I realized that one can live on indifference.

17 I understood why people do not live on hope—there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will—what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.

31 I am convinced that the camps—all of them—are a negative school; you can’t even spend an hour in one without being depraved. The camps never gave, and never could give, anyone anything positive. The camps act by depraving everyone, prisoners and free-contract workers alike.

44 I understood that moving from the condition of a prisoner to the condition of a free man is very difficult, almost impossible without a long period of amortization. (Kolyma Stories, introduction)

There are many similarities in the lives of prisoners in Auschwitz and Kolyma. Both Frankl and Shalamov focus on the extinction of ordinary human emotions of kindness and friendship under the conditions of an extermination camp or forced-labor camp. Both describe the condition of an almost absolute empire of arbitrary and capricious power wielded by the guards. And both highlight the crucial centrality of the basics of human needs: food, shelter, a warm place to sleep. Here is an observation from Frankl that is reminiscent of the experience of Shalamov as well. After describing the prisoners who ladled soup to the starving prisoners Frankl recalls that most of them "favored their friends" with a potato or a ladle from the bottom of the pot. But occasionally there would be a soup provider who did not look at the prisoners and gave everyone the same. Frankl writes of the ones who showed favoritism, whom his readers might want to condemn:

But it is not for me to pass judgment on those prisoners who put their own people above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same. (58)

Shalamov too talks about food and its centrality in the life of the starving prisoner:

Supper was over. Glebov took his time licking his bowl clean, then carefully raked the bread crumbs off the table into his left hand, which he lifted to his mouth so as to lick every crumb off his palm. Without swallowing them, he could feel the saliva in his mouth greedily covering the tiny lump of bread in a thick layer. Glebov could not have said whether it tasted good. Taste was something different, too weak compared with the passionate, oblivious feeling that food gave him. Glebov took his time before swallowing; the bread melted in his mouth and it melted quickly. ("At Night")

And he refers to the crippling cold of life in Kolyma:

But there was no letup in the cold, and Potashnikov realized that he could not stand it anymore. Breakfast gave him the ability to endure an hour’s work at most, and then he was overcome by tiredness and the cold got to his very bones: an idiomatic expression that was literally true. All you could do, so as not to freeze to death by lunchtime, was to wave your pickax or spade about and hop from one leg to the other. The hot lunch, the notorious dumpling soup and two spoonfuls of porridge, did little to restore your strength, but it did warm you up. Once again, you had the strength to work for an hour, after which Potashnikov was overcome by a desire, if not to get warm, then just to lie down on the sharp edges of the frozen stones and die. But the day still came to an end and after supper, with a drink of water and a mouthful of bread, which all the workmen took back to the barracks, never eating it with the refectory soup, Potashnikov would immediately lie down to sleep. ("Carpenters")

Shalamov's observations about camp life are bleak. Few human emotions survive the Gulag; only anger, passivity, and opportunism survive. Frankl's memoir leaves a different impression. He makes an observation about his inner life in the camp that it is entirely foreign to Shalamov:

The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. (49)


This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past. When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. (50)

Shalamov's stories make us think that the Kolyma extinguished all humanity. But Frankl's assessment of life in Auschwitz is different; the possibility of remaining human persists.

Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances? We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. (74)

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity -- even under the most difficult circumstances -- to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. (76)

These ideas about agency and choice play an important role in Frankl's theories about logotherapy and "man's search for meaning". As Frankl puts it in the companion essay, "Logotherapy in a Nutshell", "Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life" (108). And Frankl plainly believes that his observations in Auschwitz and his own personal experiences confirm that human beings can seek meaning in their lives under even the worst imaginable circumstances. Frankl acknowledges that only a minority of prisoners "kept their full inner liberty" (76); but the possibility exists for all of us.

Both Frankl and Shalamov faced long odds against survival from their experiences. Both survived. But their subsequent lives were very different. Even the photographs of the two men seem to suggest very different orientations towards life: Frankl almost always with a gentle smile, and Shalamov with a serious glare. Shalamov's life was shattered. His physical health was ruined by Kolyma, his family disintegrated, and he lived in hard circumstances through the end of his life. He wrote poetry and stories, but it is hard to see from available biographical information that he took happiness and satisfaction from his life after his release. Frankl, on the other hand, seems to have survived as a remarkably whole human being. He describes in the final pages of the memoir the personal difficulties faced by survivors, but he seems to have transcended the horrors that he experienced in Auschwitz and other camps. He too had suffered physically from the great hardships, cold, and hunger of the years in Nazi death camps. His first wife Tilly, about whom he wrote movingly in the memoir, had died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and he also lost his father, mother, and brother in Nazi extermination camps. He had lost a great deal -- family, friends, health -- and had suffered great trauma. And yet he had a highly productive career following the end of the war and liberation of the camps, and he seems to have had a satisfying and happy life. 

One can ask an obvious question: did Frankl's ideas about the importance of finding meaning in one's life actually contribute to his own ability to go beyond the "depersonalization" experienced by survivors? 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Bandera, Shukhevych, and memory debates about the Ukrainian nationalist movement

When in 2007 Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko designated Roman Shukhevych as a Hero of Ukraine, he brought new heat into the debate in Ukraine and in the international community about the role played by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) during the Nazi invasion and occupation of Ukraine from 1941 forward. Yushchenko also honored radical OUN leaders Iaroslav Stets’ko in 2007 and Stepan Bandera in 2010 for their roles in Ukrainian nationalist activism. Shukhevych is a flashpoint because he was both a leader of the OUN and, from 1941 to 1943, an officer in German military units (battalion Nachtigall and Schutzmannschaft battalion 201). His activities during this period provide additional evidence for the view that the OUN actively collaborated with Nazi military, and participated in mass murder against Jews and other atrocities. Per Anders Rudling provides a detailed account of Shukhevych's history in "The Cult of Roman Shukhevych in Ukraine: Myth Making with Complications" (link).

The effort to rehabilitate Ukrainian nationalism was a terrible mistake, because the record of OUN(B) is a shameful one. It involves wholehearted collaboration with the Nazi regime in Ukraine and Belarus, participation in mass killings of Ukrainian Jews, and a murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Volhynia and Galicia (link). And the ideology from which the OUN emerged in the 1930s is well documented: it embraced extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. Rudling describes the OUN in these terms: "Iushchenko’s ambition of building national myths around the OUN was controversial. Founded in 1929, the OUN was the largest and most important Ukrainian far-right organization. Explicitly totalitarian, the movement embraced the Führerprinzip, a cult of political violence, racism, and an aggressive anti-Semitism" (31).

Rudling makes it clear that existing historical research cannot support the "innocent" interpretation of Shukhevych's collaboration with the Nazi military (38 ff.). "Current research points to the intimate link between the ‘anti-partisan warfare’ of the German forces and their local auxiliaries, and mass violence against the local population in occupied Belarus" (39). And as the prospects of German defeat at Stalingrad became more certain in 1943, "the men of the Schutzmannschaft Battalion 201, who had crossed over from Belarus to Volhynia came to constitute the hard core of the OUN(b) security service, the Sluzhba Bezpeki, or SB" (42-43). This trained force became the heart of the newly organized Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary UPA, which almost immediately turned to a program of violent ethnic cleansing against Poles in Volhynia (as well as small groups of Jews sheltering in the forests). Rudling notes that "The most detailed studies of the OUN-UPA mass murders of Poles estimates the OUN and UPA’s Polish victims to range between 70,000 and 100,000, their Jewish victims in the thousands" (44).

President Yushchenko took the step of glorifying the OUN and its leaders. But the effort depended on historical "research" that could serve to sanitize the behavior of this organization during the Nazi occupation. Rudling singles out Volodymyr V’iatrovych as the "most influential promoter of Banderite heritage in Ukraine" (51). V’iatrovych was the "driving force" of TsDVR (The Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement), and was later appointed by Yushchenko as director of HDA SBU (Central Archives of the Ukrainian Security Services) in 2008 (51) -- positions that gave V’iatrovych credibility in intervening in the "history" debates.

Rudling concludes his essay with a very reasonable appeal:

Much as both sides in the controversy squabbled over caricatures which are a legacy of Soviet and nationalist propaganda, the designation of Shukhevych as a national hero is best understood as continuing this tradition. Ironically, the controversy took place at a time when recent scholarship raised very serious question about the suitability of the OUN and UPA as symbols of an aspiring democracy. Rather than more myth making, Ukrainian society may arguably be better served by critical inquiry and critical engagement with the difficult episodes of it recent past. (65)

Let's turn now to the ideology that gave rise to the OUN in the 1930s and found deadly expression in the 1940s. Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe provides a detailed and damning account of the "fascist kernel" of Ukrainian nationalism in his monograph, The Fascist Kernel of Ukrainian Genocidal Nationalism (link). This piece is worth reading by anyone who wants to understand the ideology and dynamics of Ukrainian nationalism in the past, and possibly in the present. R-L documents the close ideological relationships that existed between Ukrainian nationalism, Italian fascism, and German national socialism. He describes the thinking of Mykola Stsibors’kyi:

The prominent OUN member Mykola Stsibors’kyi invented in two documents—a treatise from 1935 and a draft of a constitution from 1939—a political system called natsiokratiia or the “dictatorship of the nation.” Stsibors’kyi’s writings were especially interesting because they explained in detail how the OUN would rule its state and also briefly how the OUN would create it. Stsibors’kyi’s attitude to fascism was typical of the Ukrainian nationalists. On the one hand, he rejected the idea of sympathizing with fascism, and, on the other, he invented a political system that is best described as a Ukrainian form of fascism.... For Stsibors’kyi, fascism was the highest stage of political progress: “Fascism came and tore out from democracy’s hands the handicapped ideal of the nation and raised it to an unprecedented level placing in its vital achievements its ardent splendor and pathos of youthful creativity.” (14)

R-L describes the political goals, ruthlessness, and actions of Stepan Bandera, leader of the radical branch of OUN (designated as OUN-B):

In 1931, Bandera became the director of the propaganda apparatus of the homeland executive. In 1932, he became the deputy leader of the national executive, and in 1933 its leader, a position that he retained until his arrest on 15 June 1934. During this period, the OUN killed more and more Ukrainians who were accused of treason, and performed several assassinations of Polish and Russian politicians. Bandera was a devoted revolutionary and fanatical ultranationalist; he became the symbol of his generation. During the two trials against the OUN in Warsaw and Lviv in 1935 and 1936, the younger generation celebrated him as their Providnyk. After escaping from prison in early September 1939, Bandera became the leader of the young OUN faction, whose members were known as Banderites, and who attempted to establish a Ukrainian state and make Bandera the leader of this state. (20)

OUN nationalist ideology was premised on racism ("Ukraine for the Ukrainians") and anti-Semitism.

The Ukrainian national poet and writer Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) portrayed Jews in his poem “Haidamaky” as the agents of Polish landowners and the brigands who killed Jews as national heroes.113 This was not an exception, but rather a common understanding of the relationship between Jews and Ukrainians, which was familiar to most members of the UVO, OUN, and UPA. (25)

Racist antisemitism appeared in Ukrainian nationalist discourses in the late 1920s and began to dominate in the second half of the 1930s. In the article “Jews, Zionism and Ukraine,” first published in 1929 in the OUN paper Rozbudova Natsiї, Iurii Mylianych discussed how to “solve the Jewish problem” in Ukraine while insisting that it “must be solved.” Mylianych calculated that “more than 2 million Jews who are an alien and many of them even a hostile element of the Ukrainian national organism live in the Ukrainian territories,” stating that it “is impossible to calculate all those damages and obstructions that the Jews caused to our liberation struggle.” (26)

And this explicit racism had deadly consequences, because it laid the basis for coordinated and deliberate actions against other groups (principally Poles and Jews):

This kind of racism extensively impacted the ideology and policies of the OUN and later the UPA, whose members and soldiers read Mikhnovskyi’s and Rudnytskyi’s writings and adapted their content to their own needs. It also significantly influenced the mass violence conducted by Ukrainian nationalists before, during, and after the Second World War. OUN member Mykola Sukhovers’kyi, who lived in Chernivtsi, recalled in his memoirs that the student fraternity Zaporozhe forbade its members to marry “an alien girl—a non-Ukrainian” after reading Mikhnovs’kyi’s Decalogue. (24)

On 22 June 1941, after several months of careful preparations, the OUN-B began the “Ukrainian National Revolution.” Mass violence against Jews, Poles, Russians, Soviets, and Ukrainian political enemies was a central aim of the revolution, along with the plan to establish a Ukrainian state. During this uprising, the OUN-B, and especially its militia, organized pogroms together with Germans, during which they incited ordinary Ukrainians to murder Jews. The OUN-B militia also supported the Einsatzkommandos during the first mass shootings. Alexander Kruglov estimated that in July 1941, between 38,000 and 39,000 Jews were killed in pogroms and mass shootings in western Ukraine. (40)

Rossoliński-Liebe notes that a good deal of the mythologizing and rehabilitating of Bandera and the OUN that has occurred over the past twenty years has originated (or at least been amplified) by diaspora communities of Ukrainians displaced to North America after World War II. In Defending History he documents this source of political myth-making in Canada in an article called "Celebrating Fascism and War Criminality in Edmonton" (link). The article presents R-L's view of Bandera's deep culpability and then documents the efforts by diaspora communities to recast history in a more favorable light:

The community of the banderites (mainly, but not exclusively consisting of former members of the OUN-B) had the strongest ideological roots. They acted radically and gained increasing numbers of members who became enthusiastic about the OUN-B’s plan to liberate Ukraine from the Soviets and to clear its territory of ›enemies‹. The banderites established influential centers in Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. In the United Kingdom they took over the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain. In Canada, on December 25, 1949, they founded the LVU (League for the Liberation of Ukraine – Liga Vyzvolennia Ukraїny). The League established some 20 community centres for its more than 50 branches in Canada. The most important medium that the banderites used to spread their ideas and to influence the mindset of Canadian Ukrainians was the newspaper Ukrainian Echo, published in Toronto. (4)

The deeper meaning and main purpose behind the organizational activities of the banderites was to prepare their children for an eventual battle for an independent Ukrainian state. This battle would be the continuation of the fascist Ukrainian revolution of the summer of 1941 and the struggles of the UPA between 1943 and 1953. For this purpose, in 1962 a monument to the heroes of Ukraine was erected at a newly opened recreation camp in Ellenville located in upstate New York. The monument consisted of a giant spear with the Ukrainian trident on it and the busts of Symon Petliura and Ievhen Konovalets’, as well as Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera, on either side of the spear. Ukrainian children of the diaspora congregated in front of the monument to recite poems glorifying the Ukrainian heroes or to perform folkloric dances. (5)

The myth-making and propagandistic purposes of these activities are evident; this is an effort to tell a "just-so" story about the OUN that removes the anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, fascism, and totalitarianism, and highlights the national liberation struggle. The piece is a microanalysis of myth-making in process.

The debate over Stepan Bandera is an extensive one in Ukraine and central Europe. Rossoliński-Liebe's biography Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist: Fascism, Genocide, and Cult has itself stimulated a great deal of discussion, and some of that debate is captured in a special issue of the Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, De-Mythologizing Bandera: Towards a Scholarly History of the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement (2015 1:2; link). The editor, Oleksandr Zaitsev, makes a number of important points in his introduction to the volume. "Who was Stepan Bandera: an uncompromising revolutionary, a freedom fighter, or a fascist and an ideologue of 'genocidal nationalism'? Not only historians, but also ordinary Ukrainians diverge radically in their answers to this question. As opinion polls demonstrate, of all historical figures about whom respondents are asked, Bandera divides Ukrainians most of all (the figures who most unite Ukrainians in negative attitudes are Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin)" (42). Zaitsev notes that R-L makes a sustained case for the "dark" interpretation of Bandera -- as racist, fascist, and organizer of mass killings of civilians (412); but he also notes that R-L's account is solidly grounded in historical evidence. His primary critical point is whether "fascist" is the right category for describing the authoritarian, racist nationalism advocated by Bandera and the OUN.

In "Bandera's Tempting Shadow" André Härtel's view of R-L's main contribution is substantive and sensible: the depth and credibility of R-L's case for the facts of Nazi collaboration, murderous ethnic cleansing, and willing collaboration in the mass killings of Jews. "The central contribution of the book is however the deep study, evidence, and coherent interpretation Rossoliński-Liebe provides on the mass atrocities committed by members of the OUN-B, the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), and other Ukrainian radical nationalist and paramilitary formations during the Second World War" (423). And this is key: the OUN-B (and Bandera) cannot be rehabilitated, because the organization and the leader did in fact commit unforgivable atrocities.

Notwithstanding the OUN’s prior quest for national liberation, neither its most important ideologists nor Bandera himself ever left any doubt that a future Ukrainian state should be a totalitarian dictatorship based on fascist principles. For those aims, ethnic cleansing and genocide were seen as legitimate means by the “Providnyk” and the rest of the OUN/UPA leadership. (426)

Härtel also raises the question of the relevance of the "memory debate" for contemporary politics in Ukraine:

Almost inevitably, Rossoliński-Liebe’s book is also a valuable contribution to debates among political scientists interested in post-Maidan Ukraine, in the increasingly heterogeneous development of the post-Soviet space, and in the still highly interconnected politics of memory and identity formation of the region. For example, it raises the question of the degree to which contemporary Ukrainian voters are still attracted by radical right-wing ideologies and parties such as the Svoboda Party, or how Ukrainian nationalist debates were affected by the experience of independence in 1991, by the transformation of the modern Ukrainian state ever since, and finally by the war against Russian-supported separatism since 2014. (427)

Given the virulence and spread of extremist populist nationalisms in other parts of Europe, this is a critical question: can Ukraine choose a liberal democratic path, or will populist nationalists play the cards of racism and nationalism that were potent in the 1930s and the 2010s? And, as Härtel observes, the legacy of Bandera and the OUN is deeply divisive between eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine today -- further complicating the task of creating a cohesive Ukrainian polity.

The final contribution to the issue is a long essay by Yuri Radchenko, "From Staryi Uhryniv to Munich". Radchenko has many criticisms of R-L's book, often having to do with sources R-L did not consult. (In his introduction Zaitsev addresses this point and takes much of the air out of it, noting correctly that no study can consult all the relevant sources.) Radchenko also takes issue with several points in R-L's indictment of OUN in the period 1941-43. He doesn't like R-L's use of the concepts of fascism, genocidal nationalism, or national-conservatism, because he finds them under-specified; he is unclear how important "biological racism" was to OUN doctrines (434); he thinks the Second Great Congress in Krakow March 1941 (435) was more nuanced on the question of the relationship of OUN to the Nazis; he takes issue with R-L's account of OUN's actions in Galicia and Volhynia (438); and so on for a number of relatively small points. Most substantive of Radchenko's criticisms is his point that R-L focuses on OUN in western Ukraine, whereas

Rossoliński-Liebe writes little about the OUN-M’s actions in central Ukraine (pp. 242–45) or about the Banderites’ service in the ranks of the Ukrainian auxiliary policy (pp. 256–60), and he does not touch at all on the topic of the participation of members of “expedition groups” in the creation of police and self-government organs in east and south Ukraine. In some cities of east Ukraine Banderites were so well entrenched in police and self-government organs that they remained in place there until the end of the German occupation. True, it was necessary for them to conceal their party affiliation (this applies to the Banderites from autumn 1941, and the Melnykites from winter 1941–42). (438)

This point about the regional focus of R-L's work seems accurate, and it would indeed be very interesting to know more about the actions of OUN-B units and personnel in eastern Ukraine (closer to Soviet control and the Red Army).

Least convincing of Radchenko's criticisms is his suggestion that R-L's claims about OUN-UPA involvement in mass killings of Jews are uncertain (438). Radchenko seems to concede the point himself, and yet he casts doubt on R-L's evidence for the claim. Here is Radchenko's own statement: "There is no doubt that the Banderite UPA took part in such actions, and that in 1944 it killed 'its own' Jewish doctors because the Security Service (SB) suspected them of sympathizing with the Soviet regime. It is significant that for the Ukrainian rebels who initiated the struggle against the Germans, Jews remained ideological enemies" (438). Why then does Radchenko suggest that R-L's case is unproven? Evidently because survivors of these massacres were unable to accurately identify their attackers; were they "Banderites" or just "Ukrainians"?

These academic contributions to the "memory debate" are very important if we believe that telling the truth about the past is crucial for a people. Myth-making and lies are not intellectually or morally acceptable means for creating a collective identity. But here is a final point: Ukraine is not unified in its national memory. The regional divisions within Ukraine are evident in this electoral map from the 2004 Presidential Election.

Generally speaking, the population of western Ukraine is more oriented towards the European Union, while eastern and southern parts of Ukraine are more inclined toward Russia. The Holodomor affected the two regions differently, leaving longterm differences in memories and blame. Yushchenko was elected on the basis of overwhelming support from western Ukraine, while Yanukovych received overwhelming support from eastern and southern Ukraine. And it would appear that western Ukraine is more susceptible to the myths of a rehabilitated nationalist political identity (OUN without the racism and anti-Semitism) than is eastern Ukraine -- this is presumably why Yushchenko took the steps of honoring Bandera and Shukhevych in the first place. People in eastern Ukraine, by contrast, have been influenced by Soviet and Russian myths of their own about the "fascist pro-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists" since 1941, and the successor to the Ukrainian Communist Party remains strong in these regions. The issues of Ukrainian nationalism, then, divide the country deeply. Mykola Borovyk focuses on these differences of memory across Ukraine -- across region and across generation -- in his contribution to The Burden of the Past: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine, "(In)different Memory: World War II in the Memory of the Last War's Generation in Ukraine".

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Strange defeat

One of the consequential puzzles of the Second World War was the sudden, catastrophic collapse of the French army following German invasion in 1940. This is the subject of Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat, written in 1940, and it is an event of major historical importance and mystery. The mystery is this: France was a powerful military force, it had declared war against Germany following the Nazi invasion of Poland, it had ample warning that Germany would wage war against it soon following the invasion of Poland, and it had invested heavily in defensive materiel against an anticipated German attack. And yet when the attack came in May 1940, France was surprised, French armies were quickly defeated, and France capitulated after only six weeks of fighting.

Most people who have written on Bloch's account have focused on the high-level hypotheses to be found in the book: incompetence in the French high command, political dysfunction within the French elite, and a predilection for "Hitler rather than Blum" among the elites. However, upon rereading, it is evident that Bloch has other ideas about the failure of the French military besides these large conflicts within French politics and society. As a staff officer with responsibilities for the organization of logistics, Bloch had ample opportunity to observe the behavior and decision-making of line officers and staff officers. And he focuses a great deal of attention on issues having to do with the mindset and expectations of French military men: what they understand about the battle situation, how they anticipate future needs, and how they communicate with other important actors.

The 'thinking oneself into the other fellow's shoes' is always a very difficult form of mental gymnastics, and it is not confined to men who occupy a special position in the military hierarchy. But it would be foolish to deny that staff officers as a whole have been a good deal to blame in this matter of sympathetic understanding. Their failure, when they did fail, was, however, due--I feel pretty sure--not so much to contempt as to lack of imagination and a tendency to take refuge from the urgency of fact in abstractions. (34)

So cognitive and mental framework shortcomings rise to the very top in Bloch's analysis of French army failures in the conduct of the war:

What drove our armies to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of different mistakes. One glaring characteristic is, however, common to all of them. Our leaders, or those who acted for them, were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war. In other words, the German triumph was, essentially, a triumph of intellect -- and it is that which makes it so peculiarly serious. (36)

These limitations of imagination and worldview issues were worsened by what Bloch identifies as a crippling organizational deficiency in the French army -- the strict separation between line officers and staff officers. This led to a very large separation in their worldviews, expectations, and ways of thinking about military matters between line and staff officers. Neither group knew what the other group was thinking or presupposing about the complex conditions of war in which they operated.

One simple and obvious remedy for this state of affairs would have been to establish a system which would have made it possible for small groups of officers to serve, turn and turn about, in the front line and at H.Q. But senior generals dislike having the personnel of their staffs changed too often. It should be remembered that in 1915 and 1916 their opposition to any reform along these lines led to an almost complete divorce between the outlook of the regimental and the staff officer. (35)

Associated with these cognitive framework failures was the French military's failure to adjust to the new "tempo of war" created by German tactics. Bloch recognized through his own experience that the German strategy relied on a tempo of action that outpaced the ability of the French high command and army to react effectively. "From the beginning to the end of the war, the metronome at headquarters was always set at too slow a beat" (43).

This "tempo" problem was not restricted only to the high command:

But it would not be fair to confine these criticisms to the High Command. Generally speaking, the combatant troops were no more successful than the staff in adjusting their movements or their tactical appreciations to the speed at which the Germans moved. (47)

This too can be unpacked into an organizational point: the line officers throughout the chain of command had too little training and readiness for initiative and adaptation; and when plans went wrong, chaos ensued. "They [the Germans] relied on action and on improvisation. We, on the other hand, believed in doing nothing and in behaving as we always had behaved" (49). Bloch is explicit in recognizing that initiative and improvisation could have substantially improved the French position:

That is why the Germans, true to their doctrine of speed, tended more and more to move their shock elements along the main arteries. It was, therefore, absolutely unnecessary to cover our front with a line extending for hundreds of kilometres, almost impossible to man, and terribly easy to pierce. On the other hand, the invader might have been badly mauled by a few islands of resistance well sited along the main roads, adequately camouflaged, sufficiently mobile, and armed with a few machine-guns and anti-tank artillery, or even with the humble 75! (50-51)

And the battlefield consequences of the French military's organizational discouragement of initiative and adaptation were severe:

But I am very much afraid that where this sort of self-government and mutual understanding did not exist, contacts between units and their senior formations, or, on the same level, between one unit and another, left a good deal to be desired. I have more than once heard regimental officers complain that they were left too long without orders, and it is very certain--as I have already shown by citing notorious examples--that the staff was imperfectly informed about what was happening on their section of the front. (66)

Bloch's account has many other strands of organizational observation concerning features of the French army that led to poor performance -- about "discipline of troops", about the intelligence organization, and about the poor liaison relationships that had been developed between French and British army staff.

There is an important lesson to draw here: Bloch's account is usually read as an indictment of French politics and society in the 1930s, but not as a detailed military and organizational study of failure. And yet, it is clear that Bloch has provided a great deal of content that contributes to exactly this kind of micro-level analysis of military dysfunction. Bloch, it turns out, was an astute organizational observer.

There is an interesting parallel between the collapse in 1940 and the comparably dramatic collapse of French armies in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian war (link). In both wars there was an obstinate rigidity in the French general staff that impeded adaptiveness to the changing and unexpected circumstances of the war that quickly engulfed them. Michael Howard's excellent history, The Franco-Prussian War provides extensive details about the sources of military failure in 1870.

It is worth observing that the defeat of France was not the only "strange defeat" that occurred between 1939 and 1941. Poland's very weak defense against Hitler's invasion in 1939, Stalin's unconvincing effort to invade Finland in 1939, and the stunning successes of Hitler's Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 all represent military catastrophes that were on their face unlikely. In the Barbarossa case, much of the explanation falls on Stalin directly: his murderous purges of the Red Army officer corps in 1937, his mulish refusal to accept intelligence about a likely German invasion in summer 1941, his disastrous interference in strategy, placement of armies, and his unconditional orders that made maneuver impossible all combined to produce catastrophe in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Russia itself in the first six months of the invasion. This suggests that perhaps explaining successful largescale military undertakings is harder than explaining failure and defeat. There are many ways to fail in a large, complex and highly coordinated activity like an invasion, and only a few ways to succeed.