Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder.
1933 wasn’t only the year in which Hitler came to power in Germany. It was also the year in which millions of people starved to death in Ukraine, as a consequence of the politically motivated starvation campaign that was being orchestrated by Stalin and his inner circle. Twelve years later one of them committed suicide on the verge of defeat, while the other stood as triumphant victor. During this relatively short period there had been a contest for power between the two dictators in Berlin and Moscow. A contest for power that had mainly taken place in the region in between these two capitals. A contest for power, the scale and consequences of which, led to this area in Eastern Europe rightly being called “the Bloodlands”.
This is the argument laid forward by American historian Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, which was first published in 2010. Snyder is an expert on Central- and Eastern-European history and professor at Yale University, though he received his higher education at Oxford. The book focuses on a number of specific countries – a defined geographic area consisting of the Baltic countries, the greater part of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of the border regions of western Russia. Inside this area 14 million people lost their lives between 1933 and 1945, as a result of the political violence carried out by the German Nazi regime and the Soviet Communist regime respectively. All of these 14 million were civilians or prisoners of war – not fighting soldiers – and had all in different ways been drawn into the maelstrom of murder and starvation that was sometimes driven by the Soviet Union, sometimes by Nazi Germany, and sometimes by both at the same time.
Snyder splits these twelve years into three different phases, based on which side was behind the majority of the killings at what time. During the first of the phases (1933-1938) it was Stalin’s politics that reaped the most victims, especially because of the great famine that hit Ukraine 1932-33. This occurred partly as a result of the disastrous collectivisation of the Ukrainian agricultural sector, but mostly because of the confiscation and exportation of what little grain there was. In a conscious political stroke Stalin thus sentenced 3.3 million people to slow death of starvation, with the aim of both quelling resistance in the dependant Soviet republic and gain foreign currency to finance his planned industrialisation of the Soviet Union.
The next wave of violence in the Soviet Union came with the so-called Great Purge of 1937-1938, under which around 700 000 people were denounced as enemies of the state and shot. Many became victims of the persecutions of the kulaks, wealthy Russian farmers, even though the majority were in fact Ukrainian and Russian citizens of Polish descent – “once a Pole, always a kulak”, as the Soviet authorities’ cynical rule of thumb read. The reason for this was a palpable fear within the regime of Polish fifth columnists. Thus, there were large, ideologically motivated persecutions of ethnic minorities inside the Communistic sphere of influence long before something similar was being carried out in Germany to the same extent. During this first phase, in comparison, the Nazi regime “only” murdered around 10 000 people.
The second phase (1939-41) started with the creation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and mainly concerned the Communist and the Nazi regimes’ subjugation of their respective halves of Poland. At this point, the number of people being murdered by German and Soviet forces (police forces as well as military) were relatively even, with about 100 000 victims on each side, most of whom were either Polish military officers, politicians or intellectuals.
The scales tipped over during the third and final phase (1941-45), in which the Germans almost exclusively were behind the political violence. Operation Barbarossa had originally been planned as the beginning of the Generalplan Ost, the collective term for the Nazi regime’s various plans for the future of Eastern Europe, according to which Lebensraumfor German settlers was to be created through a politically orchestrated mass starvation among the Slavic population. As the initial German military successes turned into a slow retreat, this plan had to be abandoned, but not before 4.2 million citizens of the Soviet Union (the majority prisoners of war) had already perished. At the same time the brutal warfare against partisans behind the frontline, especially in Belarus and during the two Warsaw uprisings, led to casualties of about 700 000.
Snyder also stresses the failed invasion as one of the crucial factors behind the Holocaust. The final solution, according to him, ought to be understood precisely as final, last in a long succession of proposed solutions to “the Jewish question”, which had all proved impossible to implement. As it became more and more clear to the Nazi regime that it wouldn’t be possible to deport the European Jewry beyond the Eastern front, as Generalplan Osthad originally prescribed, they decided to annihilate it behind the same front. As a result, 5.4 million Jews were either shot or gassed to death in that part of Europe where most of them had been living: the Bloodlands between Germany and the Soviet Union.
People and numbers
Bloodlandsis both a well-written and an important book. Well-written since the author succeeds in turning such a hotly debated and fact-laden topic into a captivating narrative, and does this without abandoning the empirical meticulousness which is a characteristic of Snyder’s revisionist perspective. Important because it may contribute to contemporary Europeans being made aware of other numbers of victims than the ones of their home country – numbers which, in nationalistic history writing, can grow to unreasonably high (and dangerous) levels:
‘What begins as competitive martyrology can end with martyrological imperialism. The wars for Yugoslavia of the 1990s began, in part, because Serbs believed that far larger numbers of their fellows had been killed in the Second World War than was the case. When history is removed, numbers go upward and memories go inward, to all of our peril.’
Overall, the book’s greatest strengths are precisely its broad, transnational perspective, which lifts the focus from the individual nation states and instead tries to encompass the bigger picture. Such diverse historical events as the famine in Ukraine, the mass executions in Katyn Forest, the partisan warfare in Belarus and the industrial murdering in Treblinka are all being described indiscriminately and without any one overshadowing the other. Furthermore, Snyder manages not only to describe them all but also to show that they were essentially part of the same continuous historical process, and he does this simply by pointing to what all of these events had in common: that they all occurred in a geographical area that came to be caught in between two ideologies based on authoritarianism and instrumental violence.
What these ideologies, Nazism and Communism (in its Stalinist variant), had in common – and that they didhave things in common, that they canand shouldbe compared historically in one of Snyder’s most important points – is that they deprived their victims of the right to be considered human. In Snyder’s words:
‘The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision. It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.’
That this statement is true – that people were turned into numbers – is something that can be seen even in this review: 700 000 here, 5.4 million there, and so on. Snyder never loses sight of these individuals, despite all the high figures, ideological terms and decisions made by dictators. The greatest merit of the book is precisely this: that the 14 million people whose blood gave the Bloodlands their name are being saved from oblivion, and, in the process, are maybe given back something of the humanity of which they were deprived. Because 1942 wasn’t only the year in which Hitler intensified the war against the partisans in Belarus, while these were at the same time being supported by Stalin. It was also the year in which the twelve-year-old Jewish Belarusian girl Junita Vishniatskaia wrote the following lines to her father: “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive. Farewell forever. I kiss you, I kiss you.”
Written By Måns Ahlstedt Åberg
Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder, London: Vintage, 2011