I finished Timothy Snyder's masterful study, Bloodlands, last night. Most of it anyway. I'm still picking my way through the conclusion. At any rate, I want to focus today on one of the minor, but gripping, themes running through Bloodlands--power and social invention. Whenever American racism enters our field of discussion, it's fairly common for liberals, like me, to point out that our concept of race is a social construct. I've tried to unpack the logic behind this before, but I think this is the sort of thing said so much, and perhaps sometimes said in such a flip manner, that it's become cliché. I think it's important to say that our modern construct of race isn't just a "social construct," but that it is--itself--a racist construct, and as such has always depended less on ancestry, then the naked exercise of power.
When Frederick Douglass died, his wife Helen wrote:
It is easy to say, as has been carelessly said by some in commenting
upon Mr. Douglass' life and career, that the intellectual power, the
ambition, the talent which he displayed, were inheritances from his
white father; that the colored strain disappeared except as it gave the
hue to his skin ; and that to all intents and purposes Frederick
Douglass was a white man.
That America was full of black people, like Douglass, with white parents did nothing to dissuade. The point was to make Douglass, and his many accomplishments, accord comfortably with the dictates of the day. When Hermann Goring needed to justify the service of "The Jew Nazi" Erhard Milch he asserted, "I decide who is a Jew and who is Aryan." Goring was echoing the words of Austrian anti-Semite Karl Lueger who'd denounced Budapest as "Judapest," then turned around and justified his many friendships with Jews by claiming, "I decide who is a Jew."
Lueger and Goring were right. The "Jew" in Lueger's mind, the "black race" in the American mind, were little more than totems employed to legitimize injustice. Surely Jewish people (much like black people) exist in our world with their own culture and traditions. But these were not the Jews of Goring's imagination
Likewise in Poland:
At Ciepielów, after a pitched battle, three hundred Polish prisoners were taken. Despite all the evidence, the German commander declared that these captured soldiers were partisans, irregular fighters unprotected by the laws of war. The Polish officers and soldiers, wearing full uniform, were astonished. The Germans made them disrobe. Now they looked more like partisans. All of them were gunned down and thrown in a ditch. In the short Polish campaign, there were at least sixty-three such actions. No fewer than three thousand Polish prisoners of war were murdered...
As one general maintained, “Germans are the masters, and Poles are the slaves.” The army leadership knew that Hitler’s goals for the campaign were anything but conventional. As the chief of staff summarized, it was “the intention of the Leader to destroy and exterminate the Polish people.” Soldiers had been prepared to see the Polish civilian population as devious and subhuman. One of them was so convinced of Polish hostility that he interpreted a Pole’s death grimace as the expression of irrational hatred of Germans.
The point here is invention. The reality of Polish soldiers undercut Nazi needs and so they were vanished and refashioned into "partisans." One thinks of Howell Cobb writing during the Civil War, "If slaves seem good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Or Kate Stone, after hearing of a Confederate defeat at the hands of black soldiers, writing "there must be some mistake."
In Cracow, Polish intellectual accomplishment clashed with the Nazi image of the country and so the Nazis sought turned to destruction. "The entire professoriate of the renowned university was sent to concentration camps," writes Snyder. "The statue of Adam Mickiewicz, the great romantic poet, was pulled down from its pedestal on the Market Square."
In post-war Communist Poland, the art of invention continued. The country sought to purge Jews from "public life and positions of political influence." There was just one problem:
....who was a Jew?
In 1968, students with Jewish names or Stalinist parents received disproportionate attention in the press. Polish authorities used anti-Semitism to separate the rest of the population from the students, organizing huge rallies of workers and soldiers. The Polish working class became, in the pronouncements of the country’s leaders, the ethnically Polish working class. But matters were not so simple. The Gomułka regime was happy to use the Jewish label to rid itself of criticism in general. A Jew, by the party definition, was not always someone whose parents were Jewish. Characteristic of the campaign was a certain vagueness about Jews: often a “Zionist” was simply an intellectual or someone unfavorable to the regime.
When I was young man, I studied history at Howard University. Much of my studies were focused on the black diaspora, and thus white racism. I wish I had understood that I was not, in fact, simply studying white racism, but the nature of power itself. I wish I had known that the rules that governed my world echoed out into the larger world. I wish I had known how unoriginal we really are.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.