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April 27, 2020 3:42 am

New York Times World War II-Era Diary Project Gets History Wrong

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avatar by Ira Stoll


The New York Times logo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times devoted the front of a recent Sunday arts section and four full broadsheet pages inside to World War-II-era Dutch diaries.

The Times aims to link the project to the coronavirus crisis, contending, “Their words, filled with the anxiety born of illness, isolation and uncertainty, register with particular power today in another unsettled time.”

The Times project, also timed vaguely to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day, does register with particular power, though not in precisely the way the Times intended. By whittling 2,000 diaries down to a few newspaper pages, the Times demonstrates its editorial priorities, putting its own unmistakably opinionated, tendentious, and misleading spin on the events of the Holocaust era.

Here is how the Times‘ Dutch diary project handles the question of communism:

Jan Christiaan Marius Kruisinga’s diary features accounts of events in 1941, when the occupiers first began rounding up and deporting Jews. Members of the Dutch Communist party, which was illegal at the time, called for a protest strike in response. On Feb. 25, trams in Amsterdam stopped working. Dockworkers walked off the job. Many shops closed in solidarity. Kruisinga, a notary and poet from Den Helder, wrote 3,600 pages in his multivolume diary. … Some 300,000 workers joined the strike in Amsterdam, where there was marching in the streets. The next day, workers in Haarlem, Hilversum, Utrecht, and other cities joined in. Clashes with retaliating German forces in various places left nine dead and 24 wounded.

Depicting the communists as heroic anti-Nazi activists defending the Jews is misleading. It ignores the 1939 Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact that gave the Nazis time to build their war machine and begin their war against the Jews while the Soviet Union and its loyalists stood idly by. And it ignores that the Soviet Communists turned viciously against the Jews, banning the teaching of Hebrew, preventing Jews from escaping the Soviet Union, funding anti-Israel terrorism, and, in 1952, executing 13 Jewish writers after a show trial.

Soviet communist antisemitism has been a strange repeated blind spot for The New York Times. A year ago, the Times published a front-page news article claiming inaccurately that during the decades between the Nazis and the Trump administration “antisemitism was mostly consigned to the political fringes.” As I wrote then, “The Soviet Union was founded on a communist ideology that opposed all religion, but it took a particularly nasty and cruel dislike to Judaism and Jews. The superpower spent much of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s brutally restricting the freedom of its Jews to emigrate to America or Israel. Hebrew was banned.”

In 2018, the Times acknowledged Soviet antisemitism, but blamed it on Israel. In fact, I wrote then:

Stalin allied with Hitler and Nazi Germany in 1939 in the Hitler-Stalin pact until 1941. Joshua Rubenstein tells some of the story in his introduction to the 2001 book Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which was published by Yale University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Rubenstein notes that two leaders of the Bund, a Jewish socialist group, Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter, were arrested by Stalin’s secret police in 1939 and again in 1941; the Soviet Communists murdered Alter in 1943, and Erlich died in Soviet confinement in 1942. Rubenstein further notes that as early as the late 1920s, under Stalin “Hebrew was prohibited,” by the late 1930s, “Yiddish books were removed from libraries.”

Now, the Times or its defenders may claim that the Communist party of the Netherlands was somehow independent of Moscow’s control, but that’s not the case. The book Communism in History and Theory: the European experience, by Donald F. Busky, reports, “As with other communist parties of the era, the CPN changed political lines drastically according to Comintern dictates and the Soviet Union’s foreign policy interests. In 1935 they were for the Popular Front with the Socialists. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 saw them swing around to defeatism. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 saw them swing back to antifascism and active participation in the underground resistance to the German occupation.” A master’s thesis by Tijn Sinke of the University of Utrecht, “Dutch Communism in Transition,” reports that the Dutch Communist party leader Paul de Groot “wrote in June 1940 that the Dutch population should not support the war effort, but maintain its neutrality towards Germany. He asked the workers to take up a ‘correct’ position towards the German occupier, an expression for which the CPN would by criticized by social democrats and other resistance fighters during the entire war.”

The Times gives the last word in the long project to a kind of anti-war exhortation. As the Times puts it, “Anton Frans Koenraads, a 39-year-old teacher in Delft, the hometown of Johannes Vermeer, wrote about how the war in the Netherlands ended on May 5, 1945.” The final sentence the Times quotes from his diary is “I’ve had the painful privilege of having experienced an ‘all-out war.’ That is behind us now. With all the strength that’s in us, let’s go for ‘all-out peace.’”

Pursuit of peace rather than war as the big takeaway lesson of World War II is certainly one way to look at it. I have a different view, which is that the decision of the Allies to enter and fight the war was a significant reason the Nazis and the Axis Powers were defeated. Had the Allied leaders, in the face of Axis aggression, decided to go for “all-out peace,” the outcome might have been different, and much worse for the Jews and for the cause of freedom.

Similarly, it seems naïve to imagine, at least in pre-messianic times, that war will be entirely “behind us.” So, military preparedness, both by Israel and the United States, is crucial, and peace through strength is the best approach. The Dutch haven’t been much of a military power anytime recently, so their strategic advice may be worth discounting. In the US, the lessons of World War II were widely recognized and articulated by, among others, John F. Kennedy in his book Why England Slept and Roberta Wohlstetter in her book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Or, memorably, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in a 2018 speech in Munich, “The leaders who met in Munich chose to appease Hitler’s regime rather than confront it. Those leaders were noble men. They thought they were fulfilling their highest responsibility to keep the peace. But the price of their action would soon become apparent.”

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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