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Timothy Snyder on “Shoah”: Lanzmann’s Triumph, and Tragedy

Timothy Snyder on “Shoah”: Lanzmann’s Triumph, and Tragedy

Last summer the Yale historian Timothy Snyder drew much attention with his provocative essay detailing the ways Auschwitz is a poor symbol of the Holocaust: Jews died mainly by bullets, not by the gas chambers typified in Auschwitz. And while most Jews sent to Auschwitz were from Western Europe, the majority of those murdered came from the East. His new book, "Bloodlands," is raising even more eyebrows, putting the Holocaust in context of the entire enterprise of deliberate mass killing implemented by both Hitler and Stalin, and not just against Jews.

Having established himself as one of the leading new historians of the European genocide, it’s worth listening to what he has to say about "Shoah," the nine-and-half hour documentary by Claude Lanzmann. The film was re-released in New York a couple of weeks ago for its 25th anniversary and will hit screens across the country beginning in January.

Snyder heralds the film as an out-and-out success: "one of the great works of art of the twentieth century," he writes. It’s main accomplishment, Snyder argues, is to pry open the mouths of perpetrators, victims and bystanders at a time when, even as late as the 1980s, the Holocaust was still not much discussed. But his praise is not without exception. And there’s one major one: Lanzmann failed to portray the moral cowardice of all bystanders, the world over, and including within the United States.

Snyder says that Lanzmann too narrowly defined what it meant to be a "bystander," focusing on the views of uneducated Polish anti-semites. He therefore gave the impression that Holocaust was a root the produce of deep and long-running prejudice–and that nothing could have stopped it. But that misses the point, Snyder says: millions of Allied powers knew what was happening and still chose not to directly intervene.

Bystanders need not be uneducated anti-semites; many are simply, tragically, human. Snyder reminds us that silence in the face of human tragedy puts demands on us all. By extension, I’d argue, what was true in mid-century should have remained so in Cambodia, Serbia and Darfur decades later. Certainly the imminent threat of genocide will taunt us in the future; the challenge will always be to recognize the real thing and find immediate ways to diffuse them. When confronted with knowledge, ignorance is no longer our excuse.

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