Omer Bartov: Eastern Europe as the Site of Genocide - New Perspectives on the HoThis lecture argues that the exclusion of Eastern Europe from major studies of the Holocaust has distorted our understanding of the event, made it difficult to grasp its impact on European history, and prevented scholars from contextualizing the mass murder of the Jews within twentieth-century genocide more generally.
I begin with the bifurcated nature of the scholarship on the Holocaust. Monographs on the Holocaust focus mainly on Germany and Western Europe, and works on Eastern European are rarely integrated into this literature. Most of the Jews were murdered in and came from Eastern Europe, but there is still little understanding of their relationship to their society and its impact on the genocide, it repercussions, and its memory.
I then move on to the opening of Pandora's Box following the fall of communism. While this event facilitated the opening of archives, the re-emergence of nationalism added a new dimension to the study of racial genocide and antisemitism. This was illustrated in the debate over Jan Gross's book
Neighbourson the murder of the Jewish population of Jedwabne by their own Polish neighbours. The book had a major effect on Polish self-perception and understanding of Polish-Jewish relations.
This leads me to examine the nature of communal massacres and the extent to which they illustrate both the specificity of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and the similarities to other genocides as in Bosnia and Rwanda. Hence I argue that a 'view from below" of genocide in historically ethnically mixed communities provides new insights lacking from studies of the Holocaust from perspective of top German perpetrators. Such a view also sheds new light on the 'economy of genocide," namely the material aspects of the Holocaust that complement the ideological and socio-cultural motivations of the perpetrators and often determine the memory of the event.
Finally, I appeal to the importance of testimony as historical evidence and criticize the tendency to perceive official documentation - primarily Nazi - as more reliable than the accounts by survivors. I argue that such historiography necessarily distorts our understanding by privilege the perspective of the perpetrator. Since the mass of testimonies derives for Eastern Europe, a focus on that region serves to create a better balance between the perspective of the perpetrators, the victims, and the bystanders. I conclude by calling attention to the need to recognize Eastern Europe as a
lieu de mémoireand ask why it was that Pierre Nora's important study of this phenomenon left out both the Holocaust as its sites of memory.
Omer Bartovis a Professor of European history at Brown University in the US. He is one of the leading scholars of genocide and the author of seven books. His most recent book,
Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, was published earlier this year by Princeton.
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