Without accepting its rich multiethnic past Ukraine will not build a confident and secure future
Omer Bartov is John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History and Professor of German Studies at the Department of History, Brown University.
He was born in Israel and educated at Tel Aviv University and St. Antony's College, Oxford. His early research concerned the Nazi indoctrination of the Wehrmacht and the crimes it committed in World War II, analyzed in his books, The Eastern Front, 1941-1945, and Hitler's Army. He then turned to the links between total war and genocide, discussed in his books Murder in Our Midst, Mirrors of Destruction, and Germany's War and the Holocaust. Bartov's interest in representation also led to his study, The "Jew" in Cinema, which examines the recycling of antisemitic stereotypes in film. His last monograph, Erased, investigates interethnic relations in the borderlands of Eastern Europe. As a framework for this research, he led a multi-year collaborative project at the Watson Institute, culminating in the co-edited volume, Shatterzone of Empires. Bartov's new book, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, was published by Simon and Schuster in January 2018.
1. Could you touch upon 2-3 key points in your book and its importance for Ukraine? (your new book on Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz and previous one called Erased)?
My book Erased (2007) touched on two important aspects of the history of Ukraine: First, that West Ukraine, previously known as eastern Galicia, was the site of centuries-old interethnic communities, where Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews lived side-by-side and created both their own distinct cultures as well as a common society distinguished by its diversity and interdependence. Second, that post-WWII and post-independence West Ukraine erased that common history from its collective memory and projects of commemoration and even more dramatically has avoided mention of the manner in which Jews and Poles were murdered during World War II, often in collaboration with the German perpetrators or through independent actions. The book was meant to raise awareness of this politics of memory in Ukraine but was generally greeted with either hostility or indifference by the academic and intellectual community there.
My book Anatomy of a Genocide (2018) was meant to carefully trace the dynamics of interethnic relations in the typical eastern Galician town of Buczacz, identify the elements that led to a deterioration of those reactions -- especially the rise of nationalism -- and reconstruct how a community of interethnic coexistence became a community of genocide. All of this is crucial, to my mind, for Ukrainian readers, who generally have little idea of what happened in their own towns. Unlike Erased, Anatomy "populates" the region with its prewar inhabitants and provides a rich tapestry of both common life and extraordinary communal violence dating back to WWI and the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918-19.
2. What is your view on the institutionalization of historical revisionism aimed at political rehabilitation and heroization of the OUN and the UPA?
I've expressed my views on this phenomenon since the mid-2000s. Those who do not face up to the past are not only bound to repeat the same mistakes but will never be able to build a healthy new society, as we can see from events in Ukraine since its independence.
3. What is your opinion on de-communization in Ukraine? Has it been a failure or success?
These so-called memory laws, which are, of course, in many ways equivalent and response to similar laws in Poland, are a formalization of trends of erasure and selective memory noted above. Ukraine, to be sure, is hardly unique in this respect, and other post-communist societies have shown the same predilection. Israel's "Nakba law" is also an attempt to erase an embarrassing past. One should only look to Germany to realize that it is better to confront the past than to sweep it under the carpet.
4. What memory politics should a new Ukrainian government pursue?
I think that "politics of memory" is dependent first and foremost on knowledge. One cannot forget what one does not remember. The new government in Ukraine should focus first on the curriculum in schools, teaching young Ukrainians about their rich and multiethnic past. It should avoid trying to cover up the "dark spots" and should provide a more critical perspective on the heroic narratives and individuals of Ukrainian nationalism. This will be difficult, which is why it is best to begin with education.
5. What lessons can Ukraine learn from its past to build a better future? What mistakes should it avoid?
I think the mistakes and lessons are noted above. Generally, coming to terms with the past is the best way to ensure a better future; covering it up and distorting it perpetuates the dynamics that led to strife and violence.