Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
A cogent look at Hitler and Stalin -- as mega-killers and mutual enablers
By Mark Wegierski
Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale. His doctorate is from Oxford, and he has familiarity with at least ten languages, including English, German, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Russian, and French. The fact that he can read most languages of the area under study itself greatly strengthens his historical work.
The work is strengthened by the appendix, "Numbers and Terms" (pp. 409-414), and an "Abstract" (pp. 415-417). There are acknowledgments (pp. 419-421), an extensive bibliography
Prof. Snyder begins with a Preface called "Europe" (pp. vii-xix). Here he delineates the historical concept of "the bloodlands".
This study brings the Nazi and Soviet regimes together, and Jewish and European history together, and the national histories together. It describes the victims, and the perpetrators. It discusses the ideologies and the plans, and the systems and the societies. This is a history of the people killed by the policies of distant leaders. The victims' homelands lay between Berlin and Moscow; they became the bloodlands after the rise of Hitler and Stalin. (p. xix)
There is then the Introduction – "Hitler and Stalin" (pp. 1-20). Snyder notes that both regimes were dedicated to violent, radical transformation. Stalin needed "collectivization" to create a modern industrial state, while for Hitler "…[t]he German agricultural question would be resolved not within Germany but abroad: by taking fertile land from Polish and Soviet peasants – who would be starved, assimilated, deported, or enslaved." (p. 19). Both dictators were focussed on Ukraine – where "…during the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed… than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world." (p. 20)
Snyder begins with "The Soviet Famines" (Chapter One) (pp. 21-58). His style of writing, as in the rest of the book, is careful, meticulous, and somewhat deadpan, even as he recounts terrible, real-life horrors. He intersperses personal accounts of the deaths and suffering with the ideological justifications. Snyder notes that, in the conceptions of the Stalin and the Soviet leadership:
…[a] peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner. (p. 41)
Snyder also notes the craven acceptance in most Western countries of the Soviet version of events, especially that "…the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in November 1933." (p. 57)
In his account of the famine, Snyder deals honestly but sensitively with the issue of cannibalism – into which some of the most desperate people had been pushed.
However, he suggests a total of 3.5 million casualties of the famine. The casualties of what is called the Holodomor have often been estimated at about 10 million.
Chapter 2, "Class Terror" (pp. 59-86) looks mainly at the interaction of the early Nazi regime and Stalin's Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, there was the Great Terror that took two main forms: firstly, the show-trials and purges of the party, armed forces, and even the secret police, and, secondly, the assault on the kulaks. The so-called kulaks had already been subjected to Soviet terror in the early 1930s. Now, Stalin wanted "the direct physical liquidation of the entire counter-revolution… once and for all." (p. 81) As a result of the "kulak operation", Snyder estimates, 378,326 people were shot, and 389,070 sent to the Gulag (p. 83).
Because of Stalin's undertaking of the "Popular Front" strategy abroad, the criticism of the show-trials (which was the only generally known part of the Great Terror) was very muted in most Western countries.
Chapter 3, "National Terror" (pp. 89-118), looks mainly at the savage "Polish operation" directed against the Polish minority in the Soviet Union.
"Of the 143,810 people arrested under accusation of espionage for Poland, 111,091 were executed…ethnic Poles suffered more than any other group within the Soviet Union during the Great Terror." (pp. 103-104).
It should be noted the only alternative to being shot was a sentence of at least ten years in the Gulag. The mass-killing of Poles inside the Soviet Union would make an opening to Hitler's Germany seem like a natural progression.
"The organs of destruction of each country would be concentrated on the territory of a third. Hitler, like Stalin, would choose Poles as the target of his first major national shooting campaign." (p. 114).
Chapter 4 (pp. 119-154) looks at "Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe" – the time of German-Soviet alliance marked mainly by the endeavour to annihilate the Polish intelligentsia (pp. 153-154) – a goal explicitly identified by Hitler himself, as well as by the Soviet leadership. It was also the time when "the Warsaw ghetto and other ghettos became improvised labor camps and holding pens…" (p. 145).
Chapter 5 (pp. 155-186) – "The Economics of Apocalypse" -- examines the critical question of why Hitler chose to break his alliance with Stalin, with the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Snyder examines this decision in light of Nazi notions of a "land empire" and the "Generalplan Ost":
Depending upon the demographic estimates, between thirty-one to forty-five million people, mostly Slavs, were to disappear… After the corrupt Soviet cities were razed, German farmers would establish utopian farming communities that would produce a bounty of food for Europe. (p. 160)
The German leadership also more specifically formulated the so-called "Hunger Plan" where it was anticipated that "…about thirty million people would starve to death in the winter of 1941-1942." (p. 163)
As the early successes of Operation Barbarossa yielded vast numbers of Soviet prisoners-of-war, the Germans devised the prisoner-of-war camps where most of the prisoners-of-war (three million, according to Snyder) were cruelly starved to death.
All this slaughter was pointing to the way to the "Final Solution" (Chapter 6) (pp. 187-223). Snyder examines the ideological ratiocination that led Hitler to definitively decide that immediate mass-murder was to be the form that the "Final Solution" would take. Mass-shootings of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union began in July 1941, and were rapidly accelerated thereafter. The sick irony was that, in December 1941, when it was to some extent realized that the war would be very difficult to win, this suggested to many Germans that their only real success (in their highly warped worldview) would be the annihilation of the Jews under their control.
Chapter 7, "Holocaust and Revenge" (pp. 225-252), focusses on Belarus as "the center of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union" (p. 225) Amidst the German reprisals against villagers, and Soviet partisan actions, the Germans carried out the mass-slaughter of Jews, especially in late 1941 and 1942.
In Chapter 8, "The Nazi Death Factories" (pp. 253-276), Snyder notes that unlike the Jewish deaths east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, which were mostly by shooting, the deaths west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line were mostly at death factories specifically constructed for extermination. The best known of these is Auschwitz, which, as Snyder carefully notes, was a "hybrid" facility – a large concentration camp with a death factory attached. Snyder argues for the distinction that it was to some extent possible to survive the war in a concentration camp, but being sent to a death factory meant immediate death.
Chapter 9, "Resistance and Incineration" (pp. 277-312) is a close examination of both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (which began on April 19, 1943), and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (which began on August 1, 1944). Snyder deftly compares and contrasts the two uprisings. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was clearly a gesture of defiance with no hope of success, as the Soviet front was hundreds of kilometers away, and all of Poland was being ground down under a savage German occupation. It can be understood as an existentialist attempt to reclaim one's humanity for posterity. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 began in more optimistic circumstances, with Soviet armies on the east side of the Vistula River (the main city of Warsaw is on the west side) – and the Germans in retreat on all fronts. Unfortunately, Stalin chose to suspend all Soviet offensive operations in the Polish sector, allowing the Germans to crush the uprising with alacrity.
The consequences of Jewish and Polish resistance were much the same: destruction. By the time the Red Army…arrived in the city in January 1945, it was rubble and ash. Half of the population was dead, and the survivors were gone. (p. 280).
Chapter 10, "Ethnic Cleansings" (pp. 313-337) looks at the post-war population and territorial transfers. These were to be seen most prominently in the Soviet-ruled Poland that was being created. The frontiers of the new Poland were shifted by about two hundred kilometers to the west. The surviving Poles in what had been pre-war eastern Poland were displaced into the former German territories, which now became "the Recovered Territories" of Poland, with the western frontier on the Oder and Neisse. The Germans living there were expelled, with some casualties along the way. As Snyder notes, the eastern frontier of Poland now largely followed what had been the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, i.e., Stalin had directly regained everything he had comparatively briefly lost.
Chapter 11, "Stalinist Anti-Semitism" (pp. 339-377), seems a bit anti-climactic after all the megadeaths recounted earlier. After his great empathy for the Poles and Poland in earlier chapters, some of Snyder's comments about the situation in post-war Poland seem a bit snippy. The reviewer believes many historians have accepted figures of three to four million non-Jewish Poles as the casualties of the occupation by Nazi Germany as quite possible, rather than Snyder's suggested 1.2 million.
Prof. Snyder concludes with a deeply philosophical chapter, "Humanity" (pp. 379-408):
The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers… 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. (p. 408).
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.
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