Book Review: Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands

A masterful study of the role of Eastern Europe in the most destructive period in human history

Timothy Snyder at the IWM in Vienna | Photo: Christian Wind

It Tolls for Thee

“By making death itself anonymous,” wrote Hannah Arendt in 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, “[mass killing] robbed death of its meaning… Death merely set a seal on the fact that [someone] had never existed.”

For Arendt, the industrial nature of Soviet and Nazi mass murder brought European society to an apex in inhumanity. The banality of understanding Stalinist and Nazi slaughter in purely numerical terms is perhaps best summed up by the famed remark of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, “one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”

The way in which the sheer numbers transform the memory of the dead is one of the central concerns of Timothy Snyder in his brilliant 2010 book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. This new work of history aims, and succeeds, to fill a vital gap in the expansive historiography of a crucial period that includes the Ukrainian Famine, the Great Terror, World War II, and the Holocaust. While these topics are typically explored either in general treatments or in the annals of national histories (German, Russian, Polish, Jewish etc.), Snyder asserts that the origins and essence of these tragic events require a geographical approach.

Some 14 million people were murdered between 1932-45, in the lands between Berlin and Moscow – Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and western Russia. To focus on any one victim group, be it the Jews, the Poles or any other, would fall short of explaining what happened in Europe during these 13 years.

For Snyder, it is important that Europe was most deadly where the two totalitarian regimes, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, interacted. In this area, which Snyder dubs the “bloodlands”, local populations suffered for 13 years in a manner and frequency incomparable to those in any other region. Snyder separates the period into three phases: 1932-38, when the Soviets did most of the killing as the Nazis consolidated power; 1939-41, when the Nazis and the Soviets were allies, working together and killing roughly the same numbers; and 1941-45, when the Nazis turned on the Soviets and proceeded to butcher the majority of their victims. In places such as Poland, where the two regimes co-occupied and cooperated, and Soviet Belarus, where they fought a long and bitter battle for land and control of the population, “the Germans and the Soviets goaded each other into escalations that cost more lives than the policies of either state by itself would have.”

It was the political economy of both regimes’ policies, and the relationships between ideology, economics and reality, which often led to the atrocities committed in the bloodlands. The Ukrainian Famine, for instance, was the end result of Stalin’s class war against a contrived enemy, the kulak, a sort of prosperous peasant. After mass deportations and collectivisation, Stalin knew millions of Ukrainians would starve in the winter and spring of 1932-33. It may not have been Stalin’s intent from the outset, but the shifting realities on the ground led to a policy that led inexorably to that devastating result.

The Nazi Repatriation Map for Eastern Europe | Photo: U.S. National Archives

So too was the Holocaust. The Final Solution did not initially mean the wholesale physical extermination of the Jewish people, but simply their removal from the lands of the Reich; until 1941, most in the German high command conceived it as a massive deportation operation. As part of Generalplan Ost, the Jews (as well as many other Slavic national groups) were to be resettled in the farthest parts of the conquered Soviet Union, far away from the Reich and the fertile agrarian lands of Ukraine, which the Germans envisioned as a sort of Garden of Eden. Only when the Soviet Union refused to fall did a post-war deportation programme become one of wartime extermination.

This is not to say that Stalin and Hitler were not culpable for their murderous policies, only that the decisions to implement them were the result of a pragmatic ideological retreat of sorts: Stalin from Marxist internationalism to “socialism in one country”, with all its Russian nationalist tendencies, and Hitler from his initial plan to subjugate or kill all Slavs, to exterminating only the Jews, with a self-reassuring measure of thoroughness.

Bloodlands repositions the historical memory of World War II on human suffering where it was at its most extreme, tragic and relentless. Whereas most Westerners – Americans, British, French – have a memory of military victory and defeat, air battles, D-Day, liberation, etc., Snyder points out that no American or British soldier ever set foot in Eastern Europe, nor ever liberated an extermination camp. Western direct experience and thus collective memory of the conflict is largely ignorant of its most dreadful elements. To understand the evolution of the war, one must understand the events in the bloodlands.

Consolidating decades of research and historiography, Snyder provides needed reassessment of some commonly misunderstood events – for one, the extent to which hunger was used as a weapon by both Nazis and Soviets.

Whether the 3.4 million Ukrainians starved at the hand of the Soviets in 1932-33, the over 1.5 million Soviet prisoners of war were intentionally starved by the Nazis in 1941-42 (the largest Nazi victim group up to that point). In the starvation siege of Leningrad, where 1 million perished, starvation was a weapon as the firing squads or gas chambers.

Moreover, as the Great Terror is commonly remembered for its show trials and purges of party and military, Snyder makes clear that the majority of those killed were normal Soviet citizens, in an effort to both continue the “de-kulakisation” policy of the Famine and to subdue national minorities by quelling any residual nationalist sentiment, real or imagined. It was the Poles who suffered most during this period.

The execution of Polish partisans by Nazi soldiers in 1941 | Photo: U.S. National Archives

Underplayed in most Allied histories for an easy “Soviets good/Nazis bad” dichotomy are the almost two years (19 Aug. 1939-22 June 1941) in which the Soviets and the National Socialists conducted the war together. As Snyder asserts, there was a surprising degree of agreement between the regimes over who should be killed in the bloodlands. In both Poland and Ukraine, the intelligentsia was viewed by the populations as purveyors and guarantors of both national culture and politics, and thus targeted by both the Nazi and the Soviets for either deportation or, mostly, death. The book contains a surprising number of well-researched individual histories, and it is telling that the deaths of at least two pairs of siblings have been documented, in which one was executed by the Germans, the other by the Soviets.

In spite of the complex demography, historiography and political analysis – the countless hours of coordinative research – that went into crafting this study, Snyder weaves the tales of victims into the larger narrative. In doing this, Bloodlands achieves academic clout and human validity, surely the highest standard for narrative history. Thus, this extraordinarily well-researched text never becomes dry, the barrage of statistics never banal, but nor does it devolve into bathos or sentimentality. The inclusion of these stories thus serves a purpose beyond accessibility; Snyder makes it clear that he does not want the reader to become indifferent because of the numbers, to fall into the trap of seeing them as Stalin’s statistics instead of the tragedy of each life lost.

This is a sweeping, masterful achievement, a valuable and readable piece of original history that will surely influence the way we understand the World War II and both the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

It is also a memorial, as “each of the living bore a name.”


Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
by Timothy Snyder
Basic Books (English 2010; German 2011)
pp. 554

For Oliver Rathkolb’s review of Bloodlands, also in the May 2012 TVR, see here.

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