Timothy Snyder’s monumental new history Bloodlands is a staggering work of scholarship. Using primary sources written in at least ten languages, Snyder documents the nightmarish history of that portion of eastern Europe that stretches from Poland north to St. Petersburg and sweeps southwest to the point where Ukraine runs into the Black Sea. In these places, the titular bloodlands, the policies of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin converged to kill approximately 14 million people in less than a quarter of a century. Snyder postulates that the eradication of such large numbers of human beings was possible because National Socialism was the perfect foil to Soviet Communism, and vice versa, and because each system allowed totalitarian one-party states to deflect blame for their respective failings onto the other, or onto large groups of relatively powerless national, ethnic, or religious minorities. Rectifying problems required starving, shooting, gassing, or otherwise disappearing hundreds of thousands of the people who inhabited these regions and who had no intention or ability to subvert whichever ruling regime claimed them as subjects at any particular moment. The particular atrocities committed in these areas were largely overlooked in the West at the close of World War II as these victims and their memories disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.
The book begins not in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union but a decade earlier. After Lenin’s death, Josef Stalin found himself at the head of the Soviet Union’s security forces as well its sole ruling party. When he recognized that revolutions were not about to sweep over the rest of capitalist Europe, Stalin prioritized ensuring that the U.S.S.R. remained a strong Communist nation and a beacon of hope to committed Marxists across the world. Despite the Communist ethos that capitalist excess would be negated by exploited industrial workers in urban environments, the Bolshevik Revolution had taken place in one of Europe’s most diverse and rural populations. When Stalin took it upon himself to collectivize Soviet agriculture, disaster struck in the Ukraine and Bloodlands’ long and nuanced chronicle of paranoia and death properly begins.
The famine in the Soviet Union’s most fertile land, the Ukraine, caused at least 3 million people to starve in the early part of the 1930s. After the seed needed to plant next year’s crop was requisitioned for the collective, nothing remained to eat and there was no future to look forward to, either. People died where they fell, women prostituted themselves for bread, parents gave their children away to strangers, and villages ceased to exist. Fires in chimneys marked the presence of cannibals. Snyder writes–
In the cities carts would make rounds early in the mornings to remove the peasant dead of the night before. In the countryside the healthier peasants formed brigades to collect the corpses and bury them. They rarely had the inclination or the strength to dig graves very deeply, so that hands and feet could be seen above the earth.
In order to ensure their own corporeal and political survival, the Soviet leadership responsible for collecting the harvest had to steal whatever they could from the hungry.
And so it continued. Hitler rose to power partially on the basis of his powerful condemnation of the popular German Communist parties, and used the famine in the U.S.S.R. to bolster arguments that doomed the opposition to his left and center. Although Stalin argued that all the excesses of capitalism could be seen in the racist and nationalistic rhetoric spewing from the Nazis, these two nations signed a non-aggression pact and started the war in 1939 when they jointly invaded Poland. The Soviet reign of terror commenced and the secret police killed and deported hundreds of thousands of class enemies and nationalists in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. The Germans and the Soviets began to move Poles out of their homes. The Germans designed policies meant to kill educated Poles in order to create a population amenable to slavery. The Soviets killed Polish military officers who were capable of leading uprisings against their new rulers. Both nations instituted their first policies of mass shootings contemporaneously.
When Hitler disregarded the treaty and invaded the Soviet Union (which now included the portions of Poland both nations had agreed to share), already vulnerable populations were decimated. Nazism required that a superior race must take what it needed without regard to rule of law or human empathy. Advancing German forces who came upon obvious signs of recent brutality by the retreating secret police forces of the U.S.S.R. and the Red Army saw “a confirmation of what that had been trained to see: Soviet criminality, supposedly steered by and for the benefit of Jews.” Hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were condemned to die of starvation and exposure in makeshift camps. Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring implemented a Hunger Plan, which, although unsuccessful, aimed to “transform eastern Europe into an exterminatory agrarian colony” by purposefully starving its inhabitants or deporting them to Siberia. The German plan to achieve victory in Leningrad involved cutting off food supplies to the city’s 3.5 million inhabitants and covering all possible escape routes with landmines which would eliminate potential evacuees. Even before the German security forces began purposefully destroying Jewish populations, a culture of cruelty and privation had been foisted upon innocent civilian populations.
The Jewish populations of cities and regions that had housed their families and their cultures for centuries were then systematically and brutally annihilated. Snyder argues that Western minds have processed the Holocaust in a certain manner because in our history, the accounts of the soldiers who liberated camps in conquered lands to the south and west of the Reich predominate. We have been privileged to hear the stories of survivors from the camps at Auschwitz like Primo Levy and Elie Wiesel, but Snyder points out that the labor and death camps at Auschwitz did not come on-line until near the end of the war and most of those sentenced to labor or die there were brought from German holdings in western Europe. Bloodlands is important because it documents that most of the horrors of the Holocaust were committed in the east. 69,750 of Latvia’s 80,000 Jewish citizens were killed by the end of 1941 by bullets. With the help of Lithuanian conscripts and rifles, the Germans killed at least 114,000 of that nation’s 200,000 Jewish citizens. Estonian volunteers for the S.S. killed all 963 Estonian Jews that could be found. Himmler’s security forces were supposed to “pacify” annexed territories. In Kiev, 33,761 human beings were killed in little more than a day by the concerted efforts of S.S. commandos and conscripted local forces as part of a sustained effort to eradicate Ukrainian Jews. Snyder continues–
Having surrendered their valuables and documents, people were forced to strip naked. Then they were driven by threats or by shots fired overhead, in groups of about ten, to the edge of a ravine known as Babi Yar. Many of them were beaten . . . They had to lie down on their stomachs on the corpses already beneath them, and wait for the shots to come from above and behind. Then would come the next group. Jews came and died for thirty-six hours.
The ghettos were in the east as were the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. By invading Poland and the Soviet Union, Hitler conquered the nations with the largest Jewish populations on the planet, and when it became evident that the German army, like Napoleon’s previously, were unable to conquer Moscow and the icy Russian plains, the death camps were opened with the express purpose to kill massive numbers of people in the shortest period of time. Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were well-engineered for their horrible purpose of killing those who remained behind.
Snyder asks the readers to remember that the lives he documents died because of policies that existed in the Soviet Union and Nazi German that promoted and committed deliberate mass murder. The act of recording and remembering must be initiated where evidence is so easy to destroy or manipulate. People complicit in the murder of their neighbors will attempt to mitigate their shame. Even those with no connection to such events would probably rather think of something more pleasant. Where the Nazis razed the Warsaw ghetto and dismantled the death camp at Treblinka in a matter of hours, Stalin purposefully changed the course of the historical discussion in the U.S.S.R. in order to promote nationalism. The suffering of Jews and other innocents was sublimated to the overall suffering of the Soviet (mostly Russian) population.
14 million people. Farmers, prisoners, gypsies, peasants, freedom fighters, and the unlucky. Wives, fathers, and children. Everyone died to placate ideologies that a great number of people of good conscience did not discount at the time. Although the historical record is expanding, it seems inconceivable that our knowledge of such events could ever be perfected. Appreciate your loved ones and relish the warmth in your homes and in your bodies. Essential knowledge for every conscious, conscientious person. Absolutely recommended.
Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society earned ravereviews when it debuted last year in hardback; this week Modern Library releases the trade paperback version. Uncivil Society is a revisionist history that dispels the romantic myth that a “civil society” of dissenting citizens orchestrated the fall of Eastern European Communism (and its symbol, the Berlin Wall). Rather, Kotkin (along with colleague Jan T. Gross) concisely and methodically shows that the Eastern Bloc’s demise resulted from the corruption and incompetence of the ruling class of bureaucrats and ideologues–the “uncivil society” who borrowed massively from the West to buy consumer goods they could not afford. Kotkin finds case studies in East Germany, Romania, and Poland, but his analysis extends beyond these countries to indict the Soviet model.
Kotkin’s writing is direct and precise, stuffed with concrete facts and political analysis without sacrificing narrative integrity. In other words, he takes a murky subject and illuminates it. The narrative proper is slim at under 150 pages, making the book a quick and ideal survey of a widely misunderstood time. Students and politics of history will wish to take note of Uncivil Society, a straightforward and agile read.