The phenomenon of neighbors killing neighbors, as it happened in the first weeks after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarosa, on June 22, 1941, have long puzzled political scientists.
Their research indicated that between 25,000 and 50,000 Jews in an area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea were murdered by their Lithuanian, Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Romanian neighbors, sometimes in extraordinary brutal fashion. This took place before the Germans arrived into those hundreds of small towns, and sometimes while the Germans were present.
Those findings are part of a research project conducted by a new generation of scholars. They postulate that the Holocaust was not what as many thought, "a specifically modern form of violence, impersonal and bureaucratic in nature, therefore showed the 'dark side' of modernity."
One of those scholars is Jeffrey Kopstein, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, and director for European, Russian, and Eurasian studies. An internationally recognized expert on intercommunal violence, Kopstein was the scheduled speaker to deliver the George Tayloe Ross Lecture, as part of the Reves International Affairs Lecture Series at the College of William & Mary College in Virginia.
"The killings during the Holocaust was far more 'intimate,' carried out by people who frequently knew each other, lived near each other, whose children played together, or at least had a conversation before one killed the other," Kopstein said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette. "This shows that the Holocaust, in at last some respect, was just as savage and primitive as other forms of violence we find in Africa or Yugoslavia. Its 'modernity' has been overstated."
His research data indicate that violence carried out against Jewish civilians occurred in about 10 percent of places where Jews lived in larger numbers. It happened in about 300 out of 3,000 cities and villages.
"My study offers an explanation for why some towns became toxic and others did not," Kopstein said. "On the one hand, pogroms occurred in a minority of locations, which tells us that even when circumstances are permissive, it's extraordinarily difficult to get ordinary people to engage in inter-communal violence. It also tells us that it takes very little to prevent or stop these sorts of atrocities. Even the bare minimum of solidarity between groups is usually enough to prevent it."
Kopstein explained that his studies persuaded him that inter-communal violence have less to do with racism, extremist nationalism, and religious hatreds than he thought before he started his research project.
Testimonies of Jewish survivors of pogroms, and even reports of the German mobile killing units, attested to it that it was difficult to start inter-communal violence. The Germans frequently complained that they could not induce locals to kill their neighbors.
"Thus, it's important at all times to foster basic forms of inter-communal cooperation in all multicultural societies, not because pogroms happen all the time, but because when all conditions seem ripe for pogroms to break out, there should be just enough "we" feeling among all people living in a city, town, or village to forestall it," Kopstein said.
He believes that anti-Semitism is comparable with other forms of hatred. "I am deeply committed to comparison; it's how we understand things, it's how we put important social issues into perspective. Comparison does not mean saying anti-Semitism is exactly the same as, other forms of hatred, but it's only by comparison that we know how it is different."
Kopstein's studies also indicate that old "hate" issues reaper in new forms, morphing from a focus on religion, to ethnicity, to nationalism, to hazy and nutty suspicions about control over wealth or foreign policy.
"The discredited anti-Semitism of the right in Europe in some instances morphed into a bias of the left. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to criticize any Israeli government's policy. Indeed some of the biggest critics are Israelis themselves. What doesn't strike me as fair is to question the right of the Jews to have a state of their own. " Kopstein said.
In his lecture, Kopstein explored what are the conditions that provide the bare minimum of solidarity that may prevent inter-communal violence.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.