MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Now, how we think about the Nazi Holocaust and what we may be getting wrong about it. Is the death factory at Auschwitz really a fitting icon of the mass murder of Europe's Jews? In a moment, we'll hear from a Yale historian who has written that it really isn't.
Another reason for raising that question is a TV documentary series by National Geographic that starts on Sunday night. It's called "Hitler's Hidden Holocaust." Sunday's program is about the Einsatzgruppen, the special forces of the German S.S. Before the Jews of Western Europe were transported to camps to labor and die, the Einsatzgruppen roamed through Poland, Ukraine and Belarus, murdering Jews and partisans. They killed an estimated 1.5 million people.
Dr. PETER BLACK (Chief Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum): The shooting operations were very much in-your-face killings. They were not by remote control the way gas chamber killing operations were.
SIEGEL: That's historian Peter Black of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He's in the documentary.
Dr. BLACK: In terms of record keeping, the Einsatzgruppen had instructions to keep statistics on the number of people that they shot, not only the number of Jews but also the number of communists and insurgents, as they called them, or agitators or resistors that they shot.
SIEGEL: We asked historian Timothy Snyder of Yale University to take a look at the National Geographic program. Professor Snyder wrote an essay in the July 16th issue of The New York Review of Books called "Holocaust: The Ignored Reality." And he joins us from New York. Welcome.
Dr. TIMOTHY SNYDER (Department of History, Yale University): Thank you. Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: Would you say that the Einsatzgruppen are part of the ignored reality that you were writing about?
Dr. SNYDER: Very much so. When we think about the Holocaust, we tend to think about the three parts of it in reverse order. We think first about Auschwitz where about a million, maybe a bit less than a million people were killed. And then if we think on, we might think about Poland and Treblinka and the death facilities there, where more people died actually than at Auschwitz by carbon monoxide poisoning.
And then if we think on, or if we know anything about it, we might think about the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen, and the Jews who were murdered by gunfire; by the Einsatzgruppen, by the German police, by the German army actually, as well with the help of local civilians who took up arms in local militias.
The further east you go, in general, the less Americans and less West Europeans think about it. And so the Einsatzgruppen who were active the further east are indeed part of the Holocaust that we know the least about.
SIEGEL: You wrote in the New York Review of Books essay the very reasons that we know something about Auschwitz warp our understanding of the Holocaust. How is that? What are those reasons?
Dr. SNYDER: Well, it's as though once we know about Auschwitz there couldn't be anything worse. And that's a very understandable perspective. Sadly, we know about Auschwitz because Auschwitz was a labor camp as well as a death facility, which actually makes it unusual. There were three facilities: Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, which were just death facilities, which did nothing but produce death. And more people were actually killed there than at Auschwitz.
Because there was no labor component to those camps, there were effectively no survivors. There were very few, but effectively, there were none. And so there was no one to tell the tale.
The other part of it is that the further east you go - and Auschwitz was further west than these other facilities and further west than the killing fields of the Soviet Union - the more these historical realities disappear behind the Iron Curtain. Because we have to remember, the Holocaust ends basically at the moment when the Cold War is about to begin. And so Eastern Europe thereafter fades into Soviet domination and becomes a part of the world that is hard for the West to learn something about.
SIEGEL: And at one time, the Soviets didn't even want to talk about the notion that Jews had been killed in the Holocaust. They just referred to them as Russians or Soviet citizens.
Dr. SNYDER: That's an incredibly important point. Stalin, during the war, was happy to draw attention to the events of the Holocaust in order to raise money for the Soviet war effort, and even went so far as to send a couple of Soviet Jews on a kind of barnstorming tour of the United States in that effort.
However, after the war, the myth that Stalin sought to create was one of a patriotic war in which the most important nation, the Soviet Union, were the Russians who suffered the most and died the most. And indeed, they suffered and died in horrible numbers, numbers which are incomprehensible from a Western point of view.
Yet, that said, Ukrainians, Belarusians and especially Jews died in even greater numbers.
Dr. SNYDER: And Stalin was very keen to deny the special character of German policy toward the Jews because that would have displaced the Soviet people, and, in particular, the Russian people from the story of suffering and victory that he wanted to tell.
SIEGEL: From what you've seen of the National Geographic series, is it a corrective? Is it good work?
Dr. SNYDER: It performs the very important service of forcing our eyes to the East, to realizing that the Holocaust begins not when Auschwitz begins to take transports from Hungary or from Western Europe, which is very, very late in the war. By the time Auschwitz is really operational, about 70 percent of Jews who were going to be killed are already dead.
And many of those Jews are the Jews of the Soviet Union, the ones who were targeted by the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen are killing Jews from the very beginning of the war in the East, so June of 1941. And by the end of 1941, the Einsatzgruppen, together with the police and the military and local helpers, have already shot more than a million people. So as many or more people then died at Auschwitz over the entire course of the war.
The National Geographic program draws attention to that, and that's very important. It's a first kind of corrective that we need. It has the problem that it attends only to the Einsatzgruppen themselves. And so one is left with a question: how could 2,000 people shoot millions of Soviet citizens, which is an unanswerable question put that way.
The next thing that one has to see is that the Einsatzgruppen were not acting alone. They weren't super villains. They didn't have the power to kill that many people themselves. In fact, the German Army and the German police were involved in very considerable measure. And it's important to see that, to see that the entire German war effort in the East had a kind of criminal character, and that it wasn't just limited to a couple of thousand people who were assigned these special tasks.
SIEGEL: Timothy Snyder, thank you very much for talking with us.
Dr. SNYDER: Very glad to do it.
SIEGEL: Professor Timothy Snyder's essay in the July 16th issue of the New York Review of Books is titled "Holocaust: The Ignored Reality." His forthcoming book on the subject is called "Bloodlands." We were also talking about the National Geographic documentary series that begins on Sunday. It's called "Hitler's Hidden Holocaust."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.