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Narrating Multiple Agencies and the Emergent Nature of Mass Violence

In Southeast Europe during World War II

Yehonatan Alsheh and Raz Segal

This paper explores new ways to study the persecution and annihilation of Jews during World War II by foregrounding the emergent nature of mass violence and addressing the narratological challenges it presents. Shifting the lens from Poland and the Soviet Union to southeast Europe, this paper argues that mass violence against Jewish populations unfolded according to visions and plans of nation and state building, which also targeted other groups for exclusion, deportation, and mass murder. This violence often took place independently of and sometimes in contrast to the designs and policies of Nazi Germany. Related episodes of mass violence emerged in particular circumstances, at times surging to assume genocidal dimensions, at other times deescalating, depending on national interests and the course of warfare.

Narrating the events and processes subsumed by the term “the Holocaust,” then, requires analytical attention to multiple “agencies”—of perpetrators seeking to realize grand political goals and of almost all people in societies under attack driven by a range of factors, including local account-settling and petty opportunism. The paper posits that such narration challenges descriptions of “antisemitism” as a unified and primary, not to mention exclusive, motivation for the persecution of Jews or for the alleged indifference to it by their neighbors. Rather, we will show how several and often contradictory interests pushed people to assume different (and changing) positions as violence emerged. Our analysis will lay bare specific links, interactions, and chains of equivalent meanings (i.e., Jew-Communist-Czech-foreigner-enemy) that made anti-Jewish action and violence appealing to various people—state officials, soldiers, occupiers, neighbors—at certain junctures. We trace the potentials, possibilities, constraining and conditioning elements, and reversals in multi-dimensional dynamics. The account we offer thus highlights a messy picture that provides neither clear-cut coherence nor the kind of self-righteous comforts that governments and most citizens crave.