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.
I was surprised by the emotional response I had to Obama’s sweeping win last night–or rather, I was surprised by the emotional response that I had to the emotional responses I saw on my television. But it was these images of Jesse Jackson crying that intrigued me–and continue to intrigue me–the most:
What are we seeing here? Jackson’s tears, his clenched jaw, his bared teeth–all stand out in strange relief against the cheering, joyous faces around him. What is he thinking? What is he feeling? What is the word for how he feels? Is this catharsis?
Raw and complex, Jackson’s response is not gleeful joy, but some kind of release–not elation, but deflation, it seems. Indeed, Jackson’s tears, his face, seem to reflect and signal the aspiration of a lifetime’s work–his work–achieved now in a different man, a new man, a man for a new and different time. In some sense–and perhaps I’m way overboard here–it seems that Jackson is working through some deep Oedipal anxieties. And yet such a cathartic response, such a purging also seems to indicate and symbolize a dramatic shift in America’s narrative.
In any case, in our heavily mediated age of instant news and “reality TV” (an age saturated with information and scant on wisdom or reflection), Jackson’s tears strike me viscerally. They are wholly real, the abject edges of turmoil and pain, but also the strange fruit of over fifty years of the Civil Rights movement. And while Obama’s ascendancy in no way changes the past, it changes the future, and delivers a promise to the rest of the world that America truly is a land of freedom, opportunity, and hope.
Like many Americans, my main interest in last night’s Vice-Presidential Debate was the hope for a little schadenfreude: I wanted to see Palin dissolve in a “nucular” meltdown. And while the clumsy silences and passive aggressive volleys of her previous interviews weren’t on show last night, Palin still managed to cram her “answers” with stock speaking points and vague generalities–namely, what passes for political rhetoric today. What gets me is this: expectations for the doltish Palin were so low that without a spectacle gaffe, many pundits are today declaring her jabberwocky a success. For example, take David Brooks’s gushing op-ed piece in today’s New York Times:
By the end of her opening answers, it was clear she would meet the test. She spoke with that calm, measured poise that marked her convention speech, not the panicked meanderings of her subsequent interviews.
Okay, so, now, in 2008, as America seeks to prove that we can dare to be dumber than ever, it seems that anything above “panicked meanderings” equals success (Palin’s agitated mannerisms, particularly at the beginning of the debate, didn’t really strike me as “calm” or “measured” either). Fair and balanced FOX News reported that Palin’s “cool and confident performance . . . helped John McCain regain his footing.” I don’t know what specific data they have to back this claim up.
What FOX hailed as a “bravura performance” was yet another incoherent string of non-answers tarted up in sloganeering and divisive, diversionary rhetoric. Palin doesn’t understand the traditional purpose of debate; at one point she even said as much: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.” Near the end of the debate, when asked what her biggest weakness is, Palin simply didn’t answer: she just blasted out a bunch of talking points (I thought that I might’ve misheard the question, but no–check out the transcript here). Governor Palin, the point of the debate is to respond to questions and to respond and rebut your opponent’s responses. Is it too much to ask that you do this? Or is it that you simply have no answers? I believe it’s the latter.
What fascinated me most during the debate was Palin’s syntax. Her long, elliptical answers danced around the topic at hand in a showy, glittery masquerade of stock phrases, slowly disintegrating into the kind of glowing generalities that I guess Joe Six-Pack and his hockey mom wife are supposed to lap up (being an east-coast liberal elitist I simply don’t understand such realities of the Heartland; I’m far too busy eating latte salads in my Subaru while listening to gay operas and worshiping false idols to care about this kind of mundane peasant behavior). At least one critic got it right. Also from today’s New York Times:
After a series of stumbling interviews that raised serious doubts even among conservatives about her fitness to serve as vice president, Ms. Palin had to do little more than say one or two sensible things and avoid an election-defining gaffe. By that standard, but only by that standard, the governor of Alaska did well. But Ms. Palin never really got beyond her talking points in 90 minutes, mostly repeating clichés and tired attack lines and energetically refusing to answer far too many questions.
Are specific answers too much to ask from our leaders? Or are we now okay with our politicians not even answering the questions that we ask?
It wasn’t so much Governor Palin’s fumbling toward a semblance of specificity in her recent Katie Couric interview that made me cringe. It wasn’t her misapprehension that Putin is still the president of Russia (an honest mistake, I’m sure) that raised my hackles. It wasn’t her neocon-lite reduction of global politics to “good guys” vs “bad guys” that so irritated me. Even her ignorance of Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy philosophy re: Iran didn’t bother me. If anything, I delighted in watching Gov. Palin blather incoherently, especially after this fiasco two weeks ago. No, what really raised the hairs on the back of my neck was this exchange:
Couric: You recently said three times that you would never, quote, “second guess” Israel if that country decided to attack Iran. Why not?
Palin: We shouldn’t second guess Israel’s security efforts because we cannot ever afford to send a message that we would allow a second Holocaust, for one. Israel has got to have the opportunity and the ability to protect itself. They are our closest ally in the Mideast. We need them. They need us. And we shouldn’t second guess their efforts.
But, you see, it wasn’t what she said so much as it was how she said it. Or mispronounced it, rather.
Let me admit it. I’m an elitist, something of a snob I guess. I can’t help it. Although I didn’t go to five colleges, I did attend two universities to earn two degrees–nothing as prestigious as Palin’s hard-earned MS in communications, of course–but I do have some linguistic standards and expectations for our executive leadership. You see, Gov. Palin didn’t say “second guess,” as the CBS News transcript so generously credits her. No, Gov. Palin distinctly says “second guest.”
Now, we already know that Palin has had some difficulty with one of Bush’s biggest stumbling blocks, that oh-so daunting word “nuclear” (as in “nü-klē-ər” not “nyoo-kyoo-lar”). Observe:
Unfortunately, as of right now there’s no full footage of tonight’s interview up on a site that WordPress will allow me to embed here, and most of the posted clips focus on Palin’s rambling knowledge of basic geography (even Miss Teen South Carolina still managed to get more specific than Palin — “They don’t have maps”).
VIDEO UPDATE–Palin mispronounces “second guess” as “second guest” at 00:17:
If you go to CBS News and wait patiently, Palin’s redneck phrasing pops up at 8:55, wedged neatly amid a vague heap of rhetorically empty catchphrases that the neo-cons and Bush administration have been excreting for the past decade.
In the best assessment I’ve read on Palin yet, Roger Ebert points out that most middle-class Americans would brag if their kids went to Harvard on scholarship; that most of us honor travel as a form of education and the signal of intellectual curiosity. How did we get here? When, exactly, did we decide that our president needs to have the qualities of a good drinking buddy? In short, why do we think that provincialism and ignorance, so summarily captured in Palin’s groan-inducing “second guest,” are the signs of a “real,” “true” American? If we’re going to elect smug, hypocritical leaders, is it too much to ask that they exhibit a modicum of intelligence, or, at the very least, don’t trip over their words?
Containing the bissextus or extra day which the Julian calendar inserts in leap-year. bissextile day (= L. bissextus dies; see above).
[1398 The yere Bisextilis: see prec..] 1594BLUNDEVILExerc. III. I. xli. (ed. 7) 355 The Bissextile or leape yeere, containing 366 daies. 1696WHISTONTh. Earth II. (1722) 158 The Julian Calendar..intercalates the Bissextile Day immediately after the Terminalia. 1768BLACKSTONEComm. II. 140 In bissextile or leap-years. 1854TOMLINSONArago’s Astron. 189 Thus 1600 was bissextile, 1700 and 1800 were not so.
1581LAMBARDEEiren. IV. v. (1588) 491 The Bissextile (or Leepe yeere) which hapneth once in every foure yeeres. 1601HOLLANDPliny I. 586. 1834M. SOMERVILLE Connex. Pys. Sc. xii. 95 If in addition to this, a bissextile be suppressed every 4000 years, the length of the year will be nearly equal to that given by observation.”I want to give a special shout-out to all of those who count leap day as their birthday, including contemporary music recording artist and performer, Ja Rule, who turns 8 today. Also, Nicky Longlunch sent me this cool link that I thought I’d share. Garfield Minus Garfield is a hilarious tumblog that, as the name suggests, removes Garfield from his own strip to reveal the “empty desperation of modern life.” Observe–
Speaking of doing something about the future, I suggest that we all vote for Ralph Nader this year. Now, please all go nuts at me, tell me I’m wrong, blame me for everything Bush has done (yes, I voted for Nader–in Florida–in 2000). But, before all of that, one last Leap Day sentiment from Diamond Dave: