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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Unnatural selection of crimes

National memory debate distorted 
by extrusive approach 
to 20th century crimes and criminals

Graph: Years in action (1900-1999)

University of Alberta’s John Paul Himka recently invoked Oxana Shevel’s tripartite framework for dividing up the various sides in the debate over national memory, as follows:

"a) those who focus on Soviet crimes and downplay the crimes of the “national socialists and the nationalists”;*

b) those who focus on the crimes of the “national socialists and nationalists” and downplay the crimes of the Soviets; and

c) those who attempt to treat all such crimes evenhandedly, using the same criteria and practices of investigation and interpretation. "

Himka claims that he represents the c) position (one he claims to share with historiography’s latest darling Timothy Snyder). 

Even a cursory review of the titles of the 22 papers Himka has posted on suggest they all fall into the b) category. (The dozen papers I have actually read through are far from being evenhanded.)
Let’s first take a look at the framework reportedly proposed by Shevel at the 2011 convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities. Don't take my word for it: judge for yourself.

Upon quick review, Shevel’s approach (as described by Himka) appears somewhat reasonable. Presented in such a way, the third way seems the most rational -- even elegant -- and one to which any sober-minded historic investigator would subscribe to.

But the Shevel-Himka approach* is fundamentally flawed in grouping all the crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine into two groups, namely crimes committed by: 

a)   Soviets, and 
b)   Nazis and nationalists. 

(Unfortunately, Himka does not specify the time period covered by the proposed framework, so let’s assume Shevel meant the years the Soviet, Nazis and Ukrainian nationalists were active in the last century. See Graph above.)

The flaws lie in oversimplification and arbitrary assignment of allegiances: Why are the crimes of the national socialists and nationalists grouped into one category? Why not separate the crimes into multiple separate categories according to perpetrators, and talk about the crimes committed by:

a) Soviets
b) Nazis, and
c) Nationalists

That’s because there was overlap between categories b) and c), a Himka might say. But was there not overlap between a) and b) as well? What about a) and c)? In other words, why aren’t the following categories valid?

d) Crimes perpetrated by the Soviets and Nazis
e) Crimes perpetrated by the Soviets and nationalists

While the latter category seems improbable, it certainly deserves investigation, for the purity of the scientific approach. The former category, however, deserves greater scrutiny, given what we now know about the causes, effects and details of the 1939-1941 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and accompanying agreements that allowed Hitler to get started in the first place. Talk about something that's been downplayed!

What about the crimes Hitler and Stalin committed together? Does John Demjanjuk fall into this category? He was sent to war by Stalin and ended it, supposedly, doing Hitler's dirty work.

In terms of investigating the “who is downplaying what” component, it gets even more complicated. But there are those in who focus, for example, on nationalist crimes and downplay Soviet and Nazi crimes – a category omitted in the Shevel-Himka framework – particularly when it comes to events that transpired between Ukrainians and Poles in Volyn during the Second World War. 

Oh yeah, then there is the issue of Polish crimes omitted from the proposed framework. So what about Soviet-Polish crimes? Polish-Nazi crimes? Polish-Ukrainian nationalist crimes?

The other important piece of information omitted from the Shevel-Himka framework is the identification of victims. Presumably they are referring to crimes against humanity in general terms, but the wording of the suggested framework betrays a bias towards a focus on the Holodomor and Holocaust only, i.e. they’re talking about Soviet crimes against Ukrainians, and the Nazi crimes against Jews.

What about Soviet crimes against Jews? What about Jewish involvement in Soviet crimes? (Delve into that topic and earn yourself the unshakable labels of “anti-Semite,” “fascist,” “Nazi,” which, thanks to the sustained efforts of the likes of Himka, our family is stuck with. And he’s kvetching about getting nasty emails!)

Himka claims he is for “complicated, messy, honest history” and that “ever since the time of the scientific revolution, it has been a principle of science and scholarship that arguments, not authorities, are required to settle disputes.” It seems to me that if you’re going to be scientific about history then all the “complicated” and “messy” permutations deserve investigation and argumentation. Honestly.

* Himka capitalizes the word “Soviets” yet writes “national socialist” in lower case.
** I’m taking Himka’s word that Shevel said what she said at the 2011 Association for the Studies of Nationalities convention, but adding the “Himka-“ qualifier just in case the proffessor got it wrong (mistakes do happen).

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