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When historians fall out

Richard J Evans squares up to Timothy Snyder.

In this week's London Review of Books, the first four letters are devoted to discussing Richard J Evans's damning review of the American historian Timothy Snyder's recent book, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. In one of the missives, the distinguished historian of Poland, Norman Davies, writes that Evans's review had treated Snyder as "an egregious interloper fit only to be chased from the parish", while in another letter a leading historian of the eastern European Jewry, Anthony Polonsky, argues that "Evans attacks Snyder for overemphasising the sufferings of the Poles at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler, but Snyder's figures for Polish casualties are lower than those usually cited, and they reflect the most recent research."

In his review of Snyder's book published in the 4 November issue of the LRB, Evans berated Snyder for his focus on the geographical area (Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Western Russia) that gives the book its title, Bloodlands: "By focusing exclusively on what he calls the 'bloodlands', Snyder also demeans, trivialises or ignores the suffering of the many other Europeans who were unfortunate enough to fall into Nazi hands." Evans went on in his review to list Snyder's apparent omissions from his account of Nazi and Soviet mass extermination, and accused him of writing with a geographical and historical myopia: "The fundamental reason... for the book's failure to give an adequate account of the genesis of the Final Solution, is that Snyder isn't seriously interested in explaining anything. What he really wants to do is to tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about."

In another of the letters in this week's LRB, Charles Coutinho points out that the particularly caustic criticism given by Evans in his review, may in part be due to a similarly disparaging critique of Evans's most recent book, The Third Reich at War, written by Snyder and published in the New York Review of Books in December 2009. Evans admits as much in his response to the letters (published alongside them), though is far from being apologetic:

Charles Coutinho does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder's book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and Eastern European history. At the time I wondered what made a supposedly serious historian fall into such egregious error. After reading his book, I now know: it's Snyder, not me, who has an incorrigible desire to drive out fellow historians he sees as "interlopers" from what he considers to be his own "parish".

This debate will no doubt continue, with further salvos of letters from eminent historians addressed to eminent journals to be published in the future. The only thing that seems certain in this academic maelstrom is that, even if the historical veracity or value of Snyder's Bloodlands is questionable, the historiographical impact of its publication is not.

Read David Herman's New Statesman review of Bloodlands here.

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