Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The age of victimhood


I recently read Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands, a synoptic account of the Nazi and Soviet terror in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Overall, the book disappointed me somewhat. I was expecting something more profoundly original than it actually was. Most of what he had to say would be familiar to anyone who has read the separate histories of the Nazi terror and the Soviet terror. Where comparisons were made, they ofter reminded me of the dadaist antijoke that exists in many forms — all of them fairly arbitrary — going something like “How is the Pope like an orange? Answer: They’re both round, except for the Pope.”

Again and again I felt like Snyder was trying to say, “Look at how similar the Stalinist and Hitler genocides were… They were both racially motivated, except for Stalin. They were both devoted to extracting economic value from the bodies of enemies of the state, except for Hitler.” And so on. At other points he seems committed to pointing out how completely different the two were… except that then he has to admit that they weren’t all that different, and in many respects you can’t even separate them in time and space, or in motivation, as they clearly learned from each other, and in some cases intentionally or unintentionally collaborated.

But one remark impressed me: He pointed out that both Stalin and Hitler obsessively portrayed themselves as victims of their victims. Claiming the mantle of victimhood has become so pervasive as a political strategy — both in domestic affairs within western democracies and in international relations — that it’s hard to remember that it was once considered disgraceful, the last refuge of the pusillanimous. At least, that’s my impression. It would be interesting to see an academic treatise on the history of the victimhood stance.

Hitler famously accused the Jews of dragging an unwilling Germany into war. Stalin accused the starving Ukrainians of anti-Soviet propaganda by blatantly starving. The Germans dressed up prisoners as Polish soldiers (and shot them) to show that the obvious German aggression was really a response to an attack. Of course, the need to play at “just war” has been with us since the advent of Christendom. It’s hard to imagine Alexander the Great caring much about showing that Thracian soldiers had crossed the border first and hurled the first spear. But it’s also hard to imagine Bismarck feeling the need to dress up corpses in French uniforms.

And it wasn’t just the great tyrants. One of the most chilling passages that Snyder quotes comes from a German officer writing to his wife about the difficulties he had slaughtering Jewish children, who “flew in great arcs, and we shot them to pieces in the air”. But then he thought of his own children, and that perversely steeled his nerves: “I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse.”

If there is any application of this principle to contemporary events in any lands that formerly rhymed with Calamine, I can’t imagine what it might be. I remember, when we were living in Canada, reading an article in the newspaper about a recommendation by a panel of Quebec historians that the teaching of Quebec history in schools should be rethought to be more positive, less emphasis on the quebecois as perennial losers. I thought that was a great move, and would bode well for Quebec and for Canada as a whole if it were adopted. In the long term. There’s power in being a victim, until there isn’t, until the moment when it suddenly tips over into being pathetic.

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