Omer Bartov, interviewed by Guido Franzinetti

"Free Ebrei", VIII, 2, settembre 2019

Omer Bartov

From Shoah to Nakbah?

interviewed by Guido Franzinetti


Prof. Guido Franzinetti (University of Piemonte Orientale, Italy) interviews prof. Omer Bartov (Brown University), one of the most important micro-historian of Antisemitism during the Second World War.

OMER BARTOV was born in Israel in 1954 and studied at Tel Aviv University and St. Antony's College, Oxford. He teaches European History at Brown University. His books include Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) [Italian translation: L' esercito di Hitler: soldati, nazisti e guerra nel Terzo Reich (Milano : Swan edizioni,1996); The Eastern Front, 1941–1945: German Troops and the Barbarization of Warfare (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001; Italian translation Fronte orientale: Le truppe tedesche e l'imbarbarimento della guerra (1941-1945) (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2003); Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); and Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

QUESTION #1: Professor Bartov, you belong to generation of Israeli-born historians (sabras). Some members of your cohort chose to study Mandatory Palestine, some the War of Independence, and some European history, and especially the Second World War. Why did you choose to study the Wehrmacht?

RESPONSE: I chose to study the Wehrmacht in the late 1970s because I was frustrated with the common argument at the time that the fighting units of the German army had no involvement in war crimes and were not motivated by Nazi ideology. It was conventionally thought that the soldiers fought out of a sense of patriotism but not Nazism, and that the crimes of the regime were conducted “behind their backs” by the SS, Gestapo, and other Nazi organizations. Having been a soldier myself and having read numerous apologetic accounts by German generals and other veterans, I wanted to research this issue. My sense was that soldiers are motivated by more than loyalty to their fellow soldiers and that men who go to fight in foreign countries cannot be motivated by simple “healthy” patriotism alone. My own experience told me that soldiers need to believe in a higher cause and as young men internalize the values of their society and educational institutions. Not surprisingly, I discovered that young German soldiers had internalized Nazi values, were subjected to a great deal of indoctrination, and were involved in massive crimes on the Eastern Front. It took Germans well into the late 1990s to begin accepting this historical truth, two decades or more after several colleagues and I began publishing on this issue.

However, I have since turned to other questions and am currently in fact engaged in studying Israel-Palestine.

QUESTION #2: You describe quite clearly your motivations in moving on to the study of Eastern Europe in your introductions to Erased (2007) and Anatomy of a Genocide (2018).

In the early 1990s, you found German research focussed primarily (or exclusively) on perpetrators; Israeli research focussed on victims. As you wrote, “It was only in the late 1980s, when I came to the United States, that I felt liberated from these [previously described] constraints to study the genocide of the Jews” (Erased, p. xi). You carried out your first trip to Eastern Europe in 1997.

So the key (innovative) aspect of your Galician research is the decision to escape from an exclusively perpetrator- or victim-centred perspective. This seems to have been determined by a variety of factors: personal/family; moving to teach in the USA; confronting German research. It is probably not too easy to sort out the role of each of these factors. I would simply like to some factors to which you do not refer explicitly: (i) The end of the Communist systems in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the influx of Soviet Jews in Israel in the 1990s); (ii) The Yugoslav Wars of Dissolution; (iii) Generational change in Israeli historiography. I have the impressions general shifts in Western historiography did not play a significant role in motivating your research.

In short, to what extent was your choice motivated by individual factors (as it certainly was, in part) and to what extent was it motivated by external factors?

RESPONSE: This is a big question and I will try to respond to it as briefly as I can.

First, in the case of my last book, it is difficult to distinguish between personal and professional reasons, because they are mixed together on a variety of levels.

The main question I had in the early 1990s, which triggered the process of writing Anatomy, was about the encounter between perpetrators and victims. This was a professional question in the sense that it raised the issue of motivation in genocide, but also an individual one in that it was concerned with the individual’s psychology in perpetrating genocide. In other words, I was moving away from the kind of mechanistic interpretation of genocide represented by the functionalist school, and from the top-down perspective of the intentionalist school.

In order to understand this, I decided to undertake a local study. This meant focusing on a limited number of people, a tiny segment for a continent-wide event. It meant getting to know them as well as I could, which involved both them and me as the historian. It was with that in mind that I also interviewed my mother, as a person who had lived in the town of Buczacz before the war. Obviously, this was a very personal aspect of the work. But it was personal not only in the case that I was interviewing my mother, but also in that it was a conversation with another person about a history I was writing about, and which that other person had personally experienced (in my mother’s case, only the prewar period).

This also made me understand that I would have to learn about the relations between people in that town before the was, indeed, from the “beginning,” in order to grasp what it was in the relationships between groups and individuals that determined the nature of the genocide when it occurred, since the Germans, when they arrived, used these interethnic relations and conflicts to their advantage.

Here the larger context in which I had begun researching the book was also important, namely, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda which occurred shortly after the fall of the USSR in the early and mid-1990s. These were very personal and intimate genocides, whereas the Holocaust had always been presented as mechanical and detached. Focusing on an event in one town personalized this genocide and demonstrated that it too had deeply intimate aspects, whereby neighbours killed (or at times saved) neighbours.

Yet another personal aspect was that in reconstructing these events I had to listed t the “voices” of the people involved, partly through interviews and more often through reading or listening to their testimonies. These were often very personal, moving, and quite devastating stories. It was hard not to be involved in some manner, such as to think about my own children in the context of hearing a witness relate what happened to them as children at the time.

In the case of personal interviews, another element crept in. People with whom I talked were thankful that I, a historian, would be writing their story, and the story of their families and town, into history. That put a large burden of responsibility on me, since many were old and indeed most passed away before I completed my book. Yet it also taught me that the reluctance of professional historians to use personal testimonies because they were so to speak subjective was misplaced and unjust. People testified because they wanted history to record what happened, and what they said could not be found in archives, which were mostly filled with documents by the perpetrators.

And so this taught me the value of first person history, an issue I remain interested in now as I begin thinking of writing my own first person history, about the relationship between members of my own generation – the first generation of people born into the state of Israel – and the land of Israel-Palestine.

QUESTION #3 Your recent article (“The Return of the Displaced: Ironies of the Jewish-Palestinian Nexus, 1939–49,”, Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society, n.s. 24, no. 3 [Spring/Summer 2019], pp. 26–50) raises a series of issues, and perhaps a shift in the orientation of your research.

You argue that in the 1948/49 war “the powerful psychological-ideological engine behind the Jewish expulsion of the Palestinians was the perceived justification [which] granted the displaced [the right] to displace others, the right of the uprooted to uproot, the ruthless urge of the forgotten and abandoned to create for themselves a space under the sun, at any price…It had become—as even many of the young men and women who had supported a binational state until then now asserted—a war of existence. It was also to a certain extent a war of revenge for acts committed by others, elsewhere, at other times; displaced vengeance, we might say, but one with long-term consequences and an inevitable boomerang effect.” (“The Return of the Displaced”, p. 40).

How did you come to reach such conclusions? Was it primarily a reflection of your work on Buczacz? Or were other factors also at work? Finally, in which direction will you now pursue your research?

RESPONSE: My recent article, “The Return of the Displaced,” heralds a new direction in my research and interests. At the same time, it is also derived from my understanding of important links between interethnic relations, nationalism, ethnic violence, and genocide in Eastern Europe, on the one hand, and the realization of Zionism in Palestine-Israel, on the other.

As I explain in the article, there have been two separate perspectives and historiographies related to the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century. One, which my last book, Anatomy of a Genocide, also addressed, focused on the growing animosity toward Jewish communities in Europe; the rise of political antisemitism; the largely successful endeavour by Nazi Germany, aided by a vast number of non-German political leaders and collaborators, to exterminate European Jewry; the response of different Jewish communities to the genocide, and, finally, the aftermath of the Holocaust in terms of rebuilding the lives of the survivors, retribution against the perpetrators, and the politics of memory in different parts of Europe and elsewhere.

The second and rapidly growing body of scholarship has been about the implementation of the Zionist idea in Palestine, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the Arab-Israeli, and especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since this conflict is still unresolved, this is a particularly partisan debate, because it carries direct political ramifications. There have been many, often diverging interpretations of Zionism which, in turn, have often reflected the general circumstances of the period in which they were proposed. Zionism has been described as the resurrection of the Jewish people, the only “answer” to the Diaspora and subsequently to the Holocaust, and as the instrument of “normalizing” Jewish exilic existence by bringing “back” the Jews to their own land or, as the saying went, of bringing a people without a land into a land without people. Conversely, hostile interpretations of Zionism have presented it as a colonial, or rather settler-colonial project by European Jews, who used very similar rhetoric and tools in taking over Palestine to those employed by many other European colonial settlers in the past.

In other words, while the historiography of Jews in Europe was one of tragedy and destruction, the one on Zionism was of triumph and renaissance. Yet precisely that triumph contained the seeds of conflict and delegitimization, including the argument that the Zionist settlement and then rule over Palestine-Israel had implemented against the Palestinians ideas and techniques of oppression similar to those used against Jews in Europe. Yet what I found missing from these two bodies of literature was an understanding of the links between the two regions, political developments, ideologies, and individuals involved. This becomes especially clear when we think of the most crucial period both in the history of European Jewry and in that of Zionism, namely the decade of 1939-1945, from the outbreak of World War II, which facilitated the Holocaust, to the establishment of the state of Israel and its victory in what is known by the Zionists as the War of Independence and by the Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

My focus was on displacement of populations precisely because that is the most blatant, yet also the most ignored element of the link between the Holocaust and the Nakba. My study of Buczacz had shown that on the local and individual level, as on the higher, collective and national level, the introduction of nationalism to multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies had caused a rhetoric, later translated into political and military action, of removing, often by the use of extreme violence, populations no longer deemed as belonging to a certain territory claimed by another group. The rhetoric of removing or transferring ethnic/national groups from their actual personal homes to territories designated as their national/ethnic home, was already seen before, most clearly in the vast population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. In World War II and its aftermath many populations were displaced, often violently, such as Poles, Ukrainians, and Germans. The Jews, however, were targeted for total extermination.  And yet, from the perspective of the Zionists, and not a few antisemites, the problem with the Jews was that they were indeed not in their own proper home, namely, that once they moved to their national home in Palestine, or Eretz Israel, this problem of being unwanted outsiders, invaders, usurpers, parasites, and so forth, would be resolved.

For the Zionists, the Holocaust provided the final proof of this logic, an argument accepted by many non-Jews and states and which, indeed, provided the rationale for establishing a Jewish state. But the reality on the ground in Palestine was in fact very similar to that from which the Jews had come from, often as displaced people who had been subjected to endless brutality and violence during the war. The same struggle over who belongs to the place and who does not, who is the invader and who is the indigenous population, was resumed in Palestine. And the technique of solving this conundrum, namely, from the Zionist point of view, of finally creating a Jewish nation state that would have a majority Jewish population, as dictated by the ideas of territorial ethnic nationalism that Zionism had adopted especially from East-Central European nationalism, was to remove the population that stood in the way of this goal.

This was, however, more than a mere idea of ideology, it was a tactic and strategy implemented by men and women who had often just experienced such violent displacement themselves or were deeply aware of the fate of their people – often relatives and friends – during the Holocaust. Hence the personal infused the political and made for the relentlessness of removing the Palestinians in what became massive ethnic cleansing of the vast majority of the Arab population of the areas that came under Jewish control in the former territory of Mandatory Palestine. This attitude concerned not only the combatants and the politicians, but also those who quickly moved into the home of the expelled Palestinians or watched the destruction of those homes and inhabited the new settlements built over their ruins. The displaced European Jews, in other words, had no sympathy for the Palestinians they themselves displaced and whose land and property they took over.

Finally, what has interested me in writing this article, which is the also a distillation of some ideas for a book, is the idea of home. Jews often were told and increasingly felt that they had no home in the Diaspora. The Zionists among them argued that they would feel home only in Eretz Israel. But in claiming the Land of Israel as their home, they denied that it could be the home of the Arabs who already inhabited it. Yet the Palestinians never accepted that Zionist-Israeli logic. Hence the state of Israel finds itself in a situation where two peoples, two national movements, are claiming the same land as their home, both as a national historical land and as a very personal, intimate home. Consequently, they remain homeless in the deepest sense of the word, either living on contested land or being refugees from it. As the Israeli author David Grossman said recently, neither Jews nor Palestinians would ever be able to feel at home in their land unless they learn to live with each other. In my own way, in teaching and writing about this topic, I hope to contribute to this understanding among both groups. In this sense, one might say, there is an urgent political aspect to my current scholarly engagement.

Casella di testo


Omer Bartov: from Shoah to Nakbah?, interviewed by Guido Franzinetti, "Free Ebrei. Rivista online di identità ebraica contemporanea", VIII, 2, settembre 2019

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