Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
September 1, 1939, the day Hitler's army invaded Poland, is one of the most infamous dates of the 20th century. But how many of us recall September 17, 1939, when Soviet forces charged into Poland from the west? Germany and Russia, acting together on terms laid out in a secret pact, tried to destroy an entire country - and nearly succeeded. The sinister partnership would not last. Two years later, Hitler turned on Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, which would spell doom for the Wehrmacht. In the West, we think of the heroics of D-Day, but it was the Soviet Army that ultimately broke the Nazi war machine; the British and Americans merely finished it off. Stalin ends up in the history books as a saviour, along with Churchill and Roosevelt, in the struggle against Hitler.
Even now, it is far easier to think of Stalin as an opponent of Hitler than as a partner. We like to tell ourselves that the virtuous side won the war, but what happened in the east confounds such notions. Even before a shot was fired, Stalin had the blood of a nearly four million Soviet citizens on his hands. Between them, the Soviets and Germans killed nearly 200,000 Poles - targeting doctors, lawyers, scientists, professors, and religious figures. They all died in a region that the historian Timothy Snyder, in his striking and important new book, calls the "bloodlands".
It was a place of shifting allegiances, an ethnic and linguistic patchwork. The zone extended east from central Poland into western Russia, and from the Baltic States in the north to the Black Sea in the south. It was a place where German, Slavic, Baltic and Jewish cultures collided and mingled.
This was the terrain of Europe's killing fields, "where the power and malice of the Nazi and Soviet regimes overlapped and interacted". Here is where the Holocaust unfolded with a grim relentlessness. The scale of battles - at Kursk, for example, where some 7,000 German and Soviet tanks clashed - dwarfed any of those fought on the Western front. The death toll, civilian and military, exceeded 20 million. Some of the regions of the bloodlands were doubly or triply occupied. It was a theatre of immense, pervasive suffering, which almost defies comprehension.
Though Snyder deals with the Second World War, his is not a military history. (He treats combat only peripherally.) His subject is "political mass murder" and the 14 million mostly civilian victims - women, children, the elderly - who were variously shot, starved, and gassed by the Germans and the Soviets between 1932 and 1945. The crimes of Stalin and Hitler are sometimes studied apart; Snyder, consolidating and amplifying the work of Holocaust scholars such as Raul Hilberg and Saul Friedlander, and Robert Conquest, the pioneering historian of the Stalin era, puts German and Soviet totalitarianism in a comparative framework.
Without conflating National Socialism and Soviet Communism, Snyder illuminates the terrible similarities between them. The peoples of the bloodlands - Jews, Belarusians, Ukranians, Poles, and Balts - had the misfortune of getting in the way of Hitler and Stalin's plans to modernise their respective societies. Each had a vision of rapid economic transformation. Stalin's forced collectivisation of Ukranian farms, and the resulting famine, killed over three million peasants in 1932-33. When they would not submit, he starved them. Hitler looked to Poland and Russia as a vast colony for Germans; Slavs and Jews would be deported and enslaved to make way for a pure German homeland. When his plans to subjugate the Soviet Union failed, he turned his attention to destroying the Jews.
"Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny," writes Snyder. "They brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realisation proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory."
Snyder draws on a vast body of material, and numerous Polish, Russian, and Ukranian sources. He has put his own unique stamp on one of the most studied periods of European history, making it fresh - and terrifying. A procession of ghastly figures darkens Snyder's pages. At the height of Stalin's Great Terror, a team of only 12 Soviet secret police kills 20,761 people outside of Moscow in 1937 and 1938, burying them in pits. "On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire," Snyder tells us. And few readers are likely to be acquainted with the plight of Belarusians between 1941 and 1944. As the Germans rampaged through Belarus, they waged a war, in effect, against civilians. The death toll was staggering. Of 350,000 people killed in the anti-partisan campaign, some 90 per cent were unarmed. The Germans also killed half a million Belarusian Jews. "By the end of the of the war," Snyder notes, "half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country."
Snyder, however, never reduces the victims to mere statistics. We hear them in series of quotations that dot his text. Given a bit of food, a starving girl in the Ukraine exclaims: "Now that I have eaten such wonderful things I can die happy!" In a synagogue in western Ukraine, several Jews scrape notes onto the wall before being shot in late 1942. "We are so sorry that you are not with us," a daughter writes to her mother. "I cannot forgive myself this. We thank you, Mama, for all of your devotion. We kiss you over and over." Now and again, a voice of one of the perpetrators breaks through, to horrific effect. "During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it," a German policeman writes to his wife about his first experience shooting Jews. "Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water."
But Bloodlands is chiefly a book about the victims and Snyder writes with a boldness that will make some people uncomfortable. He questions the usefulness of the word genocide, and prefers the term "mass killing". By putting what Stalin did in the context of Hitler's Final Solution, Snyder has been charged with somehow diminishing the uniqueness of the Holocaust. He does no such thing; nor does he suggest, as other as have done, that Stalin was "worse" than Hitler. Snyder does not engage in a facile search for equivalents; his arguments are carefully restricted in scope. What he shows is how Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union created a mutually reinforcing dynamic that resulted in the deaths of 14 million people in Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Belarus.
Snyder forces us to reexamine some the most basic assumptions about the period. For one, Stalin, not Hitler, was a pioneer of ethnic mass murder - his specific target was the Soviet Polish minority, and this during a time of peace. (Poles, for instance, constituted 0.4 per cent of the general population, but, Snyder notes, were fully one eighth of the 681,692 victims of the Great Terror).
He also points out the manifold irony of Hitler's crusade for racial "purity". In 1939, Jews represented 0.25 per cent of Germany's population. (There were more Jews in Warsaw, for example, than in all of Germany). By invading Poland - with Stalin's consent - Germany conquered the classical lands of European Jewry and a large population of Slavs. Thus Hitler found himself ruling a large multi-ethnic state, which he soon set about destroying. "Thanks to Stalin," Snyder argues, "Hitler was able, in occupied Poland, to undertake his first policies of mass killing."
Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 accelerated the pace of the killing. Hitler had expected to defeat Stalin quickly; when that did not happen, he launched a campaign of mass murder. Hitler, too, used food as a weapon - the Germans starved nearly a million Leningraders, and over three million Soviet prisoners of war.
The Holocaust forms the centrepiece of Snyder's account. It's power to shock remains undimmed. The murder of the Jews started with mass shootings in Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine, where at Babi-Yar German SS units machine-gunned some 33,000 Jews in two days and threw them in a ravine. The Holocaust then travelled west, to Poland, where the death factories - Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec, were built. Though Stalin eventually drove the Germans from Poland, Snyder insists that we remember that he, too, was responsible for the charnel house that was mid-20th-century Europe. "This is a moment we have scarcely begun to understand, let alone master," Snyder writes of the era covered in his book. Bloodlands is a vital contribution to that understanding.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The Review.
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