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A No-Win Scenario for Consistent Lifers?


History has a way of challenging your beliefs. Past human experience, with all its complexity, ambiguity, hard cases, and agonizing choices, can cast doubt on previous certainties about justice or right and wrong. Advocates of the consistent life ethic might find their beliefs challenged in this way by the extremely dark chapter of human experience recounted in Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010), by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. The history covered in this book raises disturbing questions about how to fight aggression and injustice. Both consistent lifers who adhere to pacifism and those who adhere to just war theory might find that these questions defy any easy answer.

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Snyder's book follows the history of the region of Eastern Europe consisting of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia -- which he dubs the "Bloodlands" -- from roughly 1932 to 1953. During those years, the inhabitants of the Bloodlands suffered the brunt of both Stalin and Hitler's crimes, such as the massive Ukrainian famine of 1933 that was at least partly caused by Stalinist policies; the death at German hands of Soviet POWs during the Second World War; and, above all, the mass murder of almost six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust. What all these and many other atrocities have in common, as described by Snyder, is that the victims were not combatants in war but civilians or POWs. All told, Snyder reckons that a staggering 14 million people were killed in the Bloodlands in this way during 1933-1945. The result of Snyder's research is a sickening catalogue of evils.

Much of the book deals with events during the Second World War, and the account of this period raises the most disturbing questions for consistent lifers and others concerned with avoiding violence and pursuing peace. Nazi Germany's attempted conquest of Europe is viewed by pacifists and just war advocates alike as a great evil. Where pacifists and just war theorists likely part company is on the proper response to the aggressor: a pacifist might argue that nonviolent resistance should have been attempted, while a just war theorist might argue that the use of military force was a legitimate response. Although it does not directly address this debate, Bloodlands, taken together with other accounts on the period, throws both views into doubt.

Nonviolent resistance was successfully used against the Nazi regime, perhaps most notably in German-occupied Denmark during 1940-45 and in Germany during the Rosenstrasse protests of 1943. The Danes used methods such as strikes, sabotage of property, and symbolic acts of defiance to impede the production of German arms and the transportation of German soldiers; to maintain some domestic autonomy; and to foster Danish national pride. Moreover, in 1943 the Danish resistance pulled off the astounding feat of smuggling almost all of Denmark's Jewish population to neutral Sweden, out of the Nazis' reach. [1] In the Rosenstrasse protests of 1943, hundreds of German women in Berlin gathered at the building on Rosenstrasse 2-4, where their Jewish husbands were imprisoned, to demand the men's release. These protests eventually expanded to a thousand people and forced the release of 1,700 Jews. Fear of similar protests might have played a role in the Nazis' decision later that year to release French Jews married to Gentiles. [2]

The heroism of the Danish resistance and the Rosenstrasse protesters should not be underrated, and their achievements show that in some cases nonviolence can succeed even against an opponent as brutal as the Nazis. Nevertheless, would such resistance have succeeded in protecting the lives and freedom of the Bloodlands' inhabitants? This seems unlikely. Although they acted on behalf of Jews, the primary actors in both these nonviolent resistance movements were Danes and Germans, who were viewed favorably in Nazi ideology as fellow "Aryans." The Nazis were likely less willing to employ extreme violence against such opponents. This was not the case in the Bloodlands, whose inhabitants were often either the hated Jews or Slavic peoples who were viewed by the Nazis as "sub-humans."

The Nazi approach to the Bloodlands' people, in both theory and practice, is made vividly clear by Snyder. The intended policy toward the millions of Jews in the Bloodlands was clear by the end of 1941, at the latest: total extermination. [3] The policy toward Slavs was only marginally better. The Nazis' "Hunger Plan" envisioned that the inhabitants of the Soviet Union would produce food for the German occupiers but be left with little for themselves, with millions of deaths from starvation being the result. Over the long term, the Slavs of the European portion of the USSR would die off, be deported to Asia, or serve as slaves for future generations of German colonists. [4] Although these barbaric plans were never fully realized in practice, Snyder recounts how close the Germans came. Millions of Jews died by bullets or gas; millions of Soviet POWs and civilians were starved to death; hundreds of thousands of Slavs were killed in reprisals; and millions were enslaved. [5] In such an environment, could a sufficient number of people have survived and remained committed to a nonviolent resistance movement?

This question is never directly addressed by Snyder, but his work offers reasons to doubt the prospects for nonviolent resistance. One disturbing fact mentioned in Bloodlands is that if Soviet guerrilla fighters prevented Belarusian peasants from giving food to the German occupiers, the Germans would often kill the peasants in retaliation. [6] In this case, the failure to give material support to the occupiers was the result of coercion by the guerrillas, but what if the peasants opted to deny food or other supplies to the Germans as an act of voluntary nonviolent resistance? Would the German response have been any less savage? One cannot know for certain, but I am skeptical. If such acts of nonviolent non-cooperation with the Nazis carried a death sentence, not many would be likely to engage in them (although in fairness Snyder also notes that German control over Soviet farms and food supplies was never complete, so perhaps some evasion was possible). [7] Fleeing to the woods or swamps to join the violent resistance of guerrilla bands might actually have been safer in such a situation.

If the Nazi occupation of the Bloodlands presents problems for pacifists, however, it also presents problems for just war theorists. Nazi crimes, while ample, are only part of Bloodlands: the remainder recounts Stalinist crimes, including many during World War II. The descriptions of these crimes raise serious questions about the justice of the war against Nazi Germany. To qualify as a "just war," a war effort must not only be waged in a just cause -- which stopping the Nazis certainly was -- and as a last resort -- which the Soviet war effort against the Nazis might well have been -- but must also adhere to other standards. For example, the war effort must distinguish between combatants and civilians and not target the latter. The Soviet war effort did not meet this just war standard (also, although this topic was beyond Snyder's scope, the Anglo-American war effort in Western Europe and in the Pacific theater violated the principle of civilian immunity as well).

During the course of the war, the Soviets exacted revenge of various kinds on enemies real and perceived. Ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union -- Balkars, Chechens, Finns, Ingush, Kalmyks, Tatars, and others, along with a large number of ethnic Germans -- who were believed to be disloyal were deported from their homes to Central Asia and Siberia. [8] In the case of the Chechens, Ingush, and Tatars, tens of thousands died during and after the deportation. Those Chechens and Ingush who could not or would not move were simply killed on the spot, in massacres similar to the Nazis' crimes. [9] Meanwhile, as the Soviet Army advanced westward through Eastern Europe, German civilians were sometimes killed and German women suffered rape by Soviet soldiers on a massive scale. [10]

Another standard sometimes championed by just war theorists that was violated by the Soviet war effort was that of "right intention." One way of characterizing this standard is that it requires a participant in a war to be genuinely pursuing the just cause of the war and not some other, unjustifiable cause. The fact that the Soviets established a tyrannical rule of their own in the Eastern European countries liberated from Nazi rule indicates that right intention was lacking. A particularly striking incident covered by Snyder is the behavior of the Soviets toward the Polish resistance during the latter's 1944 uprising in Warsaw against the Germans. Despite the Soviets encouraging an uprising and promising assistance to the Poles, the Soviet Army outside Warsaw did not intervene on behalf of the resistance, which was eventually crushed by the Germans. This failure to intervene could be attributed to military necessity -- German resistance was formidable -- but the Soviets not only refrained from intervening but blocked the other Allied forces from providing aid to the resistance. [11] One interpretation of these actions, which Snyder endorses, is that the Soviet regime was deliberately leading the Polish resistance into a futile revolt in order to decimate the resistance and remove potential opponents to the pro-Soviet Polish government the Soviets would later install. To betray a supposed ally to the enemy in order to conquer that ally later is the epitome of "wrong intention."

Granted, Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, while repressive, never reached the genocidal scale of Nazi rule. Moreover, the number of people killed and brutalized by the deportations of minorities and the crimes against German civilians was smaller than the number killed by Nazi policies of mass murder. These arguments might be persuasive according to a utilitarian ethical code that is concerned only with results, but just war theory is not such a code. From a just war perspective, justice in a conflict is not simply a matter of calculating who created a higher body count. According to just war principles, civilians should not be targeted in war and a war should be waged with right intention; the Soviet war effort violated this principle.

The conflict recounted in Bloodlands leaves the consistent-life reader with a problem, then. Nonviolence seems unlikely to have prevailed against Nazi Germany, at least in Eastern Europe, yet the violence that was used by the Soviets and the other Allies to defeat Germany cannot be considered wholly justified, either. What should either a pacifist or just-war-endorsing consistent lifer make of such a situation, in which neither nonviolence nor violence seems to offer an adequate response to extreme injustice? Does one abandon principle and embrace a utilitarian ethic? Does one accept the injustice, with all the suffering and loss of life involved? Does some other option exist?

Hard cases, as the saying goes, make bad law, and the Second World War -- one of the hardest of cases -- should not necessarily determine general principles about how to handle conflict. Consistent lifers committed to either the pacifist or just war perspective need not lose confidence. Both philosophies can provide useful critiques of contemporary conflicts. Nevertheless, hard cases should be faced and considered. This is what Bloodlands and other accounts of this terrifying period in human history force us to do. The questions raised by Bloodlands are disturbing, but well worth pondering.


[1] Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), pp. 207-231.

[2] Ibid., pp. 236-238.

[3] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), pp. 187-189, 197-199, 213-215.

[4] Ibid., pp. 159-163, 166-175.

[5] Ibid., pp. 244, 411.

[6] Ibid., p. 238.

[7] Ibid., p. 168.

[8] Ibid., pp. 207, 330.

[9] Naimark, Norman M., Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Mass., USA: Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 96-98, 102-103.

[10] Snyder, Bloodlands, pp. 316-319.

[11] Ibid., pp. 305-307.


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