Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder



The Devils’ Playground

Published: November 26, 2010


BLOODLANDS: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder

524 pp. Basic Books. $29.95


For most Americans, who remember World War II as beginning in 1941, it is necessary to recall that Europe had succumbed to an infatuation with violence long before the United States entered the conflict. Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, compels us to look squarely at the full range of destruction committed first by Stalin’s regime and then by Hitler’s Reich. Each fashioned a terrifying orgy of deliberate mass killing.

In “Bloodlands,” Snyder concentrates on the area between Germany and Russia (Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic region and Belarus) that became the site of horrific experiments to create competing utopias based on class or race war. For Stalin, this meant controlling “the largest social group in the Soviet Union, the peasantry.” They needed to be driven off small plots of land into more efficient collective farms; many were forced to move to factory zones to sustain rapid industrialization.

Ukraine became ground zero for the resulting artificial famine. The regime confiscated grain for the cities, while sealing the borders to prevent people from escaping, or bearing witness. The Holodomor, as Ukrainians call it, destroyed over three million men, women and children. More than 2,500 were sentenced for cannibalism in 1932 and 1933. By 1937, “the Soviet census found eight million fewer people than projected,” largely in Ukraine. Stalin refused to circulate the information and, consistent with his usual practice, “had the responsible demographers executed.”

But Stalin was not done. Within a few years, the Great Terror, as it was called, engulfed party officials and the Red Army, leading to the execution of tens of thousands of officers and officials. The Terror also involved the killing of hundreds of thousands of peasants and members of national minorities, most notably Soviet Poles, and again more Ukrainians. Stalin felt the need to explain the casualties of collectivization by blaming enemies who had sabotaged his plans. Poles inside the Soviet Union, who numbered over 600,000 at that time, fit the bill. Ordered to make large-scale arrests, the state police looked for Polish names in the telephone book. In Leningrad, nearly 7,000 people were rounded up; a vast majority were executed within 10 days.

With the start of World War II in September 1939, Hitler soon occupied a large part of Poland. But he did not immediately engage in genocide against the Jews. It’s true that ghettos were constructed in Warsaw and Lodz, and that tens of thousands of Polish Jews perished from random shootings, exposure and disease. Still, this was not yet the Holocaust. At the time, Hitler had in mind the extermination of a good many Poles: “the educated, the clergy, the politically active.” Such a plan would probably have killed more than the three million Polish Jews that the Nazis eventually murdered. And there was an even broader goal — Generalplan Ost — that was designed to eliminate somewhere between 31 million and 45 million Slavs to give the Germans living space in the East. Snyder cannot help concluding that “the Germans intended worse than they achieved.” But once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 — “the beginning of a calamity that defies description,” Snyder writes — he turned his full attention to the Jews.

Snyder recounts an aspect of the Holocaust that remains unfamiliar to many Americans. Even today, the prevailing image is the fate of Jewish families like Anne Frank’s, who were rounded up and transported to killing centers in Poland. But it was in German-controlled Soviet territory that the Nazis carried out the full logic of their murderous intentions. Within a half-year, the Wehrmacht succeeded in occupying all of Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. And it was here, with the murder first of Jewish men and then of the entire Jewish populations of small towns, that the Germans began the systematic open-air massacres that resulted in the slaughter of two and a half million Jews in German-occupied Soviet territory, a proportion of the six million that remains hard to grasp. Babi Yar was a ravine outside Kiev where the Germans killed more than 33,000 Jews in two days of continuous shooting; this atrocity was matched by thousands of similar massacres, large and small, until 1944, when the Red Army succeeded in driving the Wehrmacht out of Soviet territory.

Drawing on material in several European languages, including memoirs and scholarly literature, Snyder recounts this sequence of mass murder — by Stalin and then by Hitler — which accounted for 14 million civilian deaths in little more than a dozen years. Every nationality in the region and many other categories — Poles, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Soviet P.O.W.’s and Jews — were victimized.

Snyder punctuates his comprehensive and eloquent account with brief glimpses of individual victims, perpetrators and witnesses, among them the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who wrote about Soviet Ukraine and Nazi Germany in the 1930s; Vsevolod Balytskyi, Stalin’s security chief for Ukraine, who invented the “Polish Military Organization” to explain the famine and justify a roundup of Soviet Poles; and the frightful Vasily Blokhin, one of Stalin’s most reliable executioners, who wore “a leather cap, apron and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform.” Blokhin is reported to have personally shot more than 7,000 Polish prisoners in 28 days as part of the notorious Katyn massacre in 1940.

But “Bloodlands” falters when Snyder comes to deal with the aftermath of the war in the Soviet Union. Stalin became obsessed with the Jews. Members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which had conducted an effective propaganda campaign on behalf of the wartime alliance between the Kremlin and the Western democracies, were arrested and convicted in a secret trial in 1952. Snyder fails to grasp the significance of the case. Claiming there were 14 defendants (in fact there were 15), he refers to them as “more or less unknown Soviet Jews.” But the 15 included five renowned Yiddish writers and poets, men like Peretz Markish and David Bergelson, who had international reputations. And the leading defendant, Solomon Abramovich Lozovsky, was an old Bolshevik who had been mentioned by John Reed in “Ten Days That Shook the World” for his role in revolutionary Petrograd. He is even referred to in the diaries of Joseph Goebbels; it was Lozovsky, as deputy Soviet foreign minister, who responded to Goebbels’s demagogic attacks on the Soviet government.

Not long after the Red Army had liberated Auschwitz, the remnants of Soviet Yiddish culture found themselves subjected to secret trials and executions. This sent a disheartening signal to the surviving Soviet Jews, leading them to believe that they had no place in Soviet society and spurring them to try to leave the country. Within two decades, the Jewish emigration movement, together with the broader Soviet human rights campaign, contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.


Joshua Rubenstein is the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA and a co-editor of “The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories.”


Sunday, December 19, 2010; B07


Caught between two killers





Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder

Basic. 524 pp. $29.95


Ten years ago I traveled to Belarus to examine the killing sites of the early Holocaust. My host, Stanislav Shushkevich, who had been the new country's first head of state, was more than willing to show me the places where SS killers had shot Belorussian Jewish men, women and children into mass graves by the hundreds of thousands - but first he wanted to show me where Soviet killers, just a few years earlier, had murdered hundreds of thousands of other Belorussians. My book "Masters of Death" told the story of the early "bullet" Holocaust that pushed out from Germany up through Latvia and down into Ukraine in the wake of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Now, in a more comprehensive narrative, Yale historian Timothy Snyder enlarges the perspective to include Stalin's slaughters as well as Hitler's.

Snyder identifies three phases of mass killing in what he chillingly calls the "Bloodlands" of Eastern Europe: deliberate mass starvation and shootings in the Soviet Union in the period from 1933 to 1938; mass shootings in occupied Poland more or less equally by Soviet and German killers in 1939 to 1941; deliberate starvation of 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and mass shooting and gassing of more than 5 million Jews by the Germans between 1941 and 1945. Snyder estimates the death toll from all this deliberate killing at 14 million. How did Stalin and Hitler justify such slaughter? Were there parallels or commonalities between the two?

Stalin forced famine upon Soviet Ukraine and the Caucasus to collectivize farming, appropriating it to feed the workers as the U.S.S.R. rapidly industrialized. He did so by authorizing impossible production quotas and confiscating even the seed grain. The millions who starved in their scraped fields in the early 1930s were blamed for their own deaths, their starvation evidence that they had deliberately sabotaged production to subvert the government's plans. A second round of mass killing in the late '30s targeted Stalin's former associates as well as quotas of random victims, consolidating his power while installing terror as the basic mechanism of state authority. Decapitating the Soviet military by imprisoning or executing almost all its general officers nearly cost the country its survival when Germany invaded it in a surprise attack in 1941.

Hitler imagined the Bloodlands to be places of colonization, like India and Africa for England, Belgium and France and Native America for the United States. The Poles would be worked to death, the Russians allowed to starve to free up the Bloodlands granary to feed Germans. After the victory, retired SS warrior-farmers would establish utopian agricultural colonies to block the Asiatic hordes pressing westward over the Urals. Rather than feed Soviet prisoners of war, of which there were millions, the Wehrmacht callously confined them behind barbed wire without shelter or food; it was from this wretched mass that the SS selected laborers to dig its killing pits and, later, guard its death camps.

Debate has long raged among historians about the timing of the Final Solution decision. Snyder, in my opinion correctly, identifies "four distinct versions of the Final Solution" that preceded the actual hecatomb: "the Lublin plan for a [Jewish] reservation in eastern Poland," Jewish emigration into the Soviet Union with Stalin's consent (which he refused), Jewish resettlement in Madagascar (which the British navy would have blocked), and forced emigration into the Soviet Union after the German invasion. When these alternatives failed, Hitler in the summer of 1941 ordered the Jews of Europe directly killed because he judged them to be uniquely dangerous. The SS-Einsatzgruppen - special task forces - that Heinrich Himmler sent into Poland and the Soviet Union in the wake of the German invasion benefited from the jails full of corpses that the Soviet NKVD forces had left behind. "The act of killing Jews as revenge for NKVD executions," Snyder writes, "confirmed the Nazi understanding of the Soviet Union as a Jewish state . . . . The idea that only Jews served communists was convenient not just for the occupiers but for some of the occupied as well."

Snyder's research is careful and thorough, his narrative powerful, if inevitably restrained. His interpretation of the events he describes is less confident, however. He is clear that the influence of "modernity," as some have theorized, is hardly an adequate explanation for the Holocaust. But in attributing the Nazi shift from shooting to gassing to the gas chamber's supposedly greater "efficiency," he overlooks the very evidence he cites. The death camps seldom managed as many as 6,000 deaths in a day, while 34,000 were shot to death in Kiev's Babi Yar ravine in two days in September 1941 and more than 40,000 in Romania "in a few days" that December. Another 40,000 were shot at Maly Trastsianets, one of the sites outside Minsk that Shushkevich took me to see. "Nearly half" of the 5.4 million Jews who died "under German occupation," Snyder summarizes, died by bullets.

Why does the distinction matter? Because the trauma of direct killing worked destructively on the killers, to Himmler's great chagrin. They turned drunken, broke down or, worse in Himmler's view, came to enjoy killing rather than only tolerating it as a grim duty. The death camps with their gas chambers and crematoria made it possible for a few SS officers to direct large-scale killing with minimal contact with the victims; local conscripts, Russian prisoners of war and the Jews themselves suffered the burden of guarding, processing and mass murder. That is, the death camps evolved not to kill human beings more efficiently but to limit the trauma of the perpetrators.

In that regard the killings were not much different from the mass firebombings and atomic bombings from high altitude that Britain and the United States perpetrated upon enemy civilians in the course of the war. The Bloodlands of central Europe had their counterparts in the burned-out cities of Germany and Japan with their millions of dead. Almost 10 times as many died on all sides across those six terrible years as died in the Holocaust. It deserves its reputation as the horror of horrors, but there was more widespread horror as well. By including Soviet with German mass atrocities in his purview, Timothy Snyder begins the necessary but as yet still taboo examination of the full depravity of total war as it was practiced in the 20th century, before the advent of nuclear weapons foreclosed it. The next step, for someone brave enough, will be to examine and explain the mass atrocities of the victors.

Richard Rhodes is the author most recently of "The Twilight of the Bombs."






OCTOBER 18, 2010

Savagery in the East

How Stalin and then Hitler turned the borderlands of Eastern Europe into killing fields


The story of World War II, like that of most wars, usually gets told by the victors. Diplomatic and military accounts are set largely in the West and star the morally upright Allies—the U.S., Britain and Soviet Union—in battles against fascism. The Holocaust gets its own separate history, as a case apart in its genocidal intent and human tragedy.

Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin" forces a dramatic shift in these perceptions. First, there is the setting: the flat and marshy eastern borderlands—inhabited by Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others—that Stalin and then Hitler turned into what Mr. Snyder calls the "bloodlands." No GIs fought on or liberated this soil, so the fate of its people never entered the collective Western imagination. Yet this was the true heart of the European conflict. By Mr. Snyder's "conservative" reckoning, 14 million people were shot, deliberately starved or gassed while Hitler and Stalin were in power. All these dead were noncombatants. Mr. Snyder puts a third of the total on Stalin's account.

Both Hitler and Stalin dreamed of a new European order, one in the name of a master race, the other of a master class. Their visions met in the borderlands. In his use of political mass murder to achieve it, Stalin was the trailblazer, an elder statesman of terror. The Soviet-made famine of 1932-33, which killed more than three million Ukrainians, launched an era of horror that ended only with the end of the war.

Among his other goals in "Bloodlands," Mr. Snyder attempts to put the Holocaust in context—to restore it, in a sense, to the history of the wider European conflict. This is a task that no historian can attempt without risking controversy. Yet far from minimizing Jewish suffering, "Bloodlands" gives a fuller picture of the Nazi killing machine. Auschwitz, which wasn't purely a "death camp," lives on in our memory due in large part to those who lived to tell the tale. Through his access to Eastern European sources, Mr. Snyder also takes the reader to places like Babi Yar, Treblinka and Belzec. These were Nazi mass-murder sites that left virtually no survivors.

Yet Mr. Snyder's book does make it clear that Hitler's "Final Solution," the purge of European Jewry, was not a fully original idea. A decade before, Stalin had set out to annihilate the Ukrainian peasant class, whose "national" sentiments he perceived as a threat to his Soviet utopia. The collectivization of agriculture was the weapon of choice. Implemented savagely, collectivization brought famine. In the spring of 1933 people in Ukraine were dying at a rate of 10,000 per day.

Stalin then turned on other target groups in the Soviet Union, starting with the kulaks—supposedly richer farmers, whom Stalin said needed to be "liquidated as a class"—and various ethnic minorities. In the late 1930s, Mr. Snyder argues, "the most persecuted" national group in Europe wasn't—as many of us would assume—Jews in Nazi Germany, a relatively small community of 400,000 whose numbers declined after the imposition of race laws forced many into emigration at a time when this was still possible. According to Mr. Snyder, the hardest hit at that time were the 600,000 or so Poles living within the Soviet Union.

Convinced that this group represented a fifth column, Stalin ordered the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB, to "keep on digging out and cleaning out this Polish filth." Mr. Snyder writes that before World War II started, 111,091 Soviet Poles were executed. This grim period is little known in Poland itself, but its detailed recounting here shows how a determined totalitarian machine could decimate a national group. Apologists for Stalin, in the West and elsewhere, have insisted that his Great Terror was needed to prepare the Soviets for a coming showdown with Hitler. Mr. Snyder destroys this argument.

Barbarism reached new lows after the Wehrmacht and the Red Army invaded Poland in 1939. The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, signed in August a week before the blitzkrieg, had split sovereign Poland between the Nazi and Soviet allies. The invading Germans obeyed orders not to spare the civilian population. But the Soviets were more experienced then at brutality. In the spring of 1940, Stalin ordered the murder of 21,768 Polish officers in what came to be known as the Katyn massacres. Hundreds of thousands of other people from "enemy" classes and nationalities were deported to the east, where many died.

Plans for the Holocaust fell into place after Hitler's surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 failed to produce the quick victory that the Nazis expected. The killing began east of the Ribbentrop-Molotov line. Most of the victims were shot over pits. Nearly half of the millions of Jews killed by the Germans died in lands taken from the Soviets. In territory that the Nazis occupied in 1939, the extermination started later. The innovation was the gas chamber in the main "death factories" at Treblinka, Chelmno, Belzec, Majdanek and Sobibor, which took in Jews only to kill them. By the time the sixth death camp came on line at Birkenau, near Auschwitz, in early 1943, more than three-quarters of the Jews killed in the Holocaust, and most Soviet and Polish Jews, were already dead.

In the grim postscript to World War II, millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Germans were ethnically cleansed from lands they had occupied for generations. Churchill and Roosevelt let Stalin redraw Europe's borders, and all the bloodlands fell into his hands. Unlike Hitler, Stalin realized his dreams of a global empire. His last murderous act was to launch another anti-Semitic purge, in late 1952, before he himself died in early 1953.

"Bloodlands" manages to clarify as well as darken our view of this era. "To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond . . . historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap," Mr. Snyder writes. "The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them."

Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal's editorial board.


The Washington Times


November 9, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Bloodletting before and during World War II

By John M. Taylor


By Timothy Snyder
Basic Books, $35.95, 524 pages


Virtually every adult in the Western world is by now aware of the barbarities committed by Hitler's Germany. A smaller number recognize that Stalin also was guilty of many atrocities. What Yale professor Timothy Snyder has now provided is a detailed recounting of the massive bloodletting in the lands between Germany and the Soviet Union before and during World War II.

The author believes that between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi and Soviet regimes together murdered some 14 million civilians of both sexes. But the circumstances varied widely, as did the motives behind the bloodletting. Hitler, of course, was committed to the extermination of the Jews, but Stalin's targets were more diverse, and his motives were often ideological rather than racial.

The author's "Bloodlands" comprise a broad swath from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea, including Poland, western Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine. Much of the book focuses on the period of World War II, but Mr. Snyder begins with Stalin's war against the Kulaks (well-to-do peasants) and the deliberate abetting of starvation in the USSR's agricultural south. Ukrainians in particular were considered resistant to collectivization, and therefore to be destroyed.

A Ukrainian doctor wrote to a friend in 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was "not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you." Mr. Snyder believes that terror in the USSR far exceeded that in Germany. He writes, "Nothing in Hitler's Germany remotely resembled the execution of nearly four hundred thousand people in eighteen months" under Stalin. But Hitler would soon catch up. "On any given day in the second half of 1941," Mr. Snyder writes, "the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire."

The country most affected by German-Soviet rivalry was Poland. An August 1939 pact between Germany and the USSR divided most of the country into German and Soviet spheres, sectors that came into being following the twin invasions of Poland from the east and west in September. The Nazi occupation began a period of unspeakable horror for the Poles. The Germans brought in special operational units to seek out Jews and other potential dissidents and to implement summary executions.

Conditions in the Soviet occupation zone were only marginally better than those under the Germans. Some Polish troops had resisted the Soviet occupation, and when the Soviets encountered resistance their response was instant retaliation.

The Katyn Forest massacre in the spring of 1940 provided a remarkable instance of Soviet brutality. At that time, some 22,000 Poles, most of them army officers, were seized and transported to the remote area of Katyn. There the prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and were killed with a shot to the head.

Hitler's own interest in ethnic cleansing was reflected in the German campaign against Leningrad. In December 1941, with his troops invested about the city, Hitler ordered that Leningrad be obliterated by bombing, shelling and starvation; no surrender was to be accepted. As a result, the city underwent a siege of 900 days in which as many as 1 million people are believed to have died.

Warsaw's fate was equally grim. By July 1942, the Germans had begun moving residents of the Warsaw ghetto to the death camp at Treblinka. Seeing their fate as inevitable, the 60,000 who remained in the ghetto determined to resist; they manufactured arms and created underground bunkers. For some six weeks, the defenders held off the attacking Germans, but the battle eventually claimed the lives of 14,000 Jews.



Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder – review

Neal Ascherson on why Auschwitz and Siberia are only half the story

Neal Ascherson

The Guardian, Saturday 9 October 2010

He found himself treading upon "bottomless, unsteady earth" crawling with small flies. The novelist Vasily Grossman, then a Red Army soldier, was walking across the still-settling wasteland where the extermination camp of Treblinka had stood until nine months before. As Timothy Snyder writes, Grossman "found the remnants: photographs of children in Warsaw and Vienna; a bit of Ukrainian embroidery; a sack of hair, blonde and black". The loose soil, flung around by peasants digging for Jewish gold, was still "throwing out crushed bones, teeth, clothes, papers".

The history of modern Europe, and especially of its fearsome 20th century, is like that field: unsteady under the scholar's foot. Forgotten stuff works its way to the surface. Some historians use metal-detectors to snatch out something flashy. Others do patient archaeology, relating the tiniest object in each stratum to its context. Snyder is the second kind.

In this book, he seems to have set himself three labours. The first was to bring together the enormous mass of fresh research – some of it his own – into Soviet and Nazi killing, and produce something like a final and definitive account. (Since the fall of communism, archives have continued to open and witnesses – Polish, Ukrainian, Belarussian especially – have continued to break silence.) But Snyder's second job was to limit his own scope, by subject and by place. He is not writing about the fate of soldiers or bombing victims in the second world war, and neither is he confining himself to the Jewish Holocaust. His subject is the deliberate mass murder of civilians – Jewish and non-Jewish – in a particular zone of Europe in a particular time-frame.

The time is between about 1930 – the start of the second Ukraine famine – and 1945. The zone is the territory that lies between central Poland and, roughly, the Russian border, covering eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. Snyder's "Bloodlands" label is jarring, a title those beautiful lands and those who now live there do not deserve. But it's true that in those years and in those places, the unimaginable total of 14 million innocent human beings, most of them women and children, were shot, gassed or intentionally starved to death.

Snyder's third aim is to correct, radically, the way we remember what happened. To start with, the public in western countries still tends to associate mass killing with "Nazi concentration camps", and with Auschwitz in particular. Stalin is thought to have killed far more people than the Nazis by consigning millions to the gulag. But neither assumption is accurate.

In the Soviet Union, it now appears that, although about a million men and women perished in the labour camps, nine out of 10 gulag prisoners survived. Stalin's great killing took place not in Siberia, but in the western Soviet republics, above all in Ukraine where in the 30s at least four million people died in man-made famines and in the slaughter of the "kulak" peasantry.

In the concentration camps of the Third Reich, a million prisoners died miserable deaths during the Nazi period. But 10 million others who never entered those camps were shot (mostly Jews), deliberately starved to death (mostly Soviet prisoners of war) or gassed in special "killing centres" which were not holding camps at all. At Auschwitz, the overwhelming majority of Jews were taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. And Auschwitz, terrible as it was, formed a sort of coda to the Jewish Holocaust. By the time the main gas chambers came on line in 1943, most of Europe's Jewish victims were already dead.

Some – the Polish Jews especially – had been gassed in the three killing centres set up on Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. But most had been shot and pitched into mass graves by German police units operating far to the east in Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus, the Einsatzgruppen who moved from village to village behind the front lines of war.

Snyder shows convincingly how the Holocaust emerged. Up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hitler's thinking was still about deportation: when the USSR was conquered, all Jews would be driven into its vast wildernesses to labour and die of hunger and disease. But Himmler, impatient, sent in the Einsatzgruppen on the heels of the advancing army to begin the slaughter. By the end of 1941, they had shot a million Soviet Jews.

In December 1941, when the Red Army finally halted the Wehrmacht outside Moscow, Nazi policy changed. Without the conquest of Soviet space, deportation was impossible. So the decision was taken to solve the whole remaining "Jewish problem" by mass murder. As Snyder puts it, "the final solution as mass killing 'was spreading to the west.'" But there more "modern" methods were adopted. The three gassing centres built in occupied Poland, followed by another at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were designed to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe west of the old Polish-Soviet frontier. East of that line, in the lands where most of Europe's Jews had once lived, the job had already been done by the firing-squads.

All this modifies our view of this appalling period. The British, who liberated Belsen, at first located the slaughter in "the concentration camps". Later, as knowledge of Auschwitz spread, came the image of "impersonal" industrialised killing. Now it becomes clearer that at least half the killing was anything but industrialised; it was done by individual human beings aiming their guns at other naked and helpless human beings.

Snyder reinforces this by aligning the Holocaust with the fate of the Soviet prisoners of war. Herded into enormous wired enclosures with little or no food or shelter, they were intentionally left to die. In German-occupied Poland alone, half a million Soviet prisoners starved to death. Counting the hunger victims in besieged Leningrad, this most primitive method of mass killing took something like four million lives in the course of the war.

Snyder insists that the colossal atrocities in his "bloodlands" have to be set inside a single historical frame. To look at them separately – for instance, to see Hitler's crimes as "so great as to stand outside history", or Stalin's as a monstrous device to achieve modernisation – is to let the two dictators "define their own works for us". This, too, is quaggy ground for historians. In the cold war and afterwards, claims that "Stalin was worse than Hitler", or that "communism and fascism come to the same thing", generated more heat than light. But Snyder doesn't fall into such holes. He is saying that both tyrants identified this luckless strip of Europe as the place where, above all, they must impose their will or see their gigantic visions falter.

For Stalin, it was in Ukraine that "Soviet construction" would succeed or fail; its food supplies must be wrested from the peasantry by collectivisation and terror. And foreign influence – which meant above all Polish – must be flamed out of the western borderlands. (Snyder reveals the little-known fact that the Polish minority were the main ethnic victims of the great terror between 1937 and 1938: well over 100,000 were shot for fictitious "espionage".)

This book's unforgettable account of the Ukraine famine shows conclusively that Stalin knew what was happening in the countryside and chose to let it run its course (some 3 million died). For Hitler, too, seizing Ukraine and its produce for Germany was crucial for his new empire. So was smashing Polish identity. Between them, Germany and the Soviet Union tried to behead the nation's elite by murdering 200,000 Poles in the first 21 months of the war.

The figures are so huge and so awful that grief could grow numb. But Snyder, who is a noble writer as well as a great researcher, knows that. He asks us not to think in those round numbers. "It is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 different people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber." The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. "It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people."

Neal Ascherson's The Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism is published by Vintage


The Telegraph

09 Nov 2010

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin: review


Both Hitler and Stalin were in belligerent complicity over their plans for mass murder, finds Ian Thomson.



Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

by Timothy Snyder



Infamously, the Nazi science of mass murder was first put to the test in occupied Poland. Within two months of Hitler’s invasion in September 1939, 50,000 Jews were murdered behind the Polish lines. One year into the occupation a ghetto was established in Warsaw as a holding place for Jews prior to their deportation and death. A total of 265,000 of the city’s Jews were gassed over a single summer at Treblinka nearby. It was the largest slaughter of any single community in the Second World War.

We are still learning to understand Hitler’s war against the Jews. There have been other massacres in recent times, but none so ferocious, so total in its effect, as that willed by Hitler’s Germans.

Evidently, once people have been deprived of their humanity it is much easier to kill them. Prisoners sent to the Gulag by Stalin were first stripped of their name, then worked to death. Jews sent by Hitler to the ghetto were so degraded by their captivity that they were no longer considered menschen – human beings – but animals to the

Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian, reflects that the division of labour in the Nazi death camps – the fragmentation of responsibility – made the contribution of any single functionary seem unimportant. The SS doctors felt no more responsible, personally, for killing gypsies than the NKVD agents who starved three million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine after the collectivisations of 1932-33. Beneath their contempt for parliamentary democracy, Hitler and Stalin shared a callous disregard for human life.

In this scrupulously researched history, Snyder chronicles atrocities committed by both Hitler and Stalin in central Poland, western Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. In these contested “bloodlands”, the power and malice of Stalin and Hitler often overlapped. At times the dictators even operated in belligerent complicity.

During the anti-German Warsaw uprising of August 1944, for example, Soviet troops stood by and watched as Hitler ordered the city and its inhabitants to be annihilated. By the time the Red Army finally “liberated” Warsaw five months later, in January 1945, there was hardly anything left.

Beyond their ideological differences, Hitler and Stalin were united in a determination to destroy Poland, having carved up the country among themselves in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. Without this opportunist move, Snyder reminds us, Hitler would not have been able to implement the mass killings of Jews in Poland, or Stalin been able to deport thousands of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian “enemies of the people” to the frozen immensity of Siberia. In fact, Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe was a “joint production” of the Soviets and the Nazis.

Snyder does not argue for a supposed moral equivalence between Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and the earlier Stalinist extermination of the kulaks. On the contrary, the industrial exploitation of corpses and their ashes was a uniquely Hitlerian atrocity – a unique instance of human infamy.

Nevertheless, this is the first book in English to explore both German and Soviet mass killings together. As a history of political mass murder, Bloodlands serves to illuminate the political sickness that reduced 14 million people to the status of non-persons.

Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica won the 2010 Ondaatje Prize and was Dolman Travel Book of the Year







30 November 2010

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder

Reviewed by David Herman 


When the Soviet Union invaded east Poland in 1939, many Poles and Jews panicked and fled to the Nazi-occupied west. Nothing, they thought, could be worse than Stalin. At one bridge an SS-officer watched this in disbelief. "Where on earth are you going?" he exclaimed."We are going to kill you."

It wasn't just Poland. Millions of east Europeans were trapped between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two most murderous regimes in European history. Their story is at the heart of Timothy Snyder's outstanding book. What he calls "the Bloodlands", that huge area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is "where Europe's most murderous regimes did their most murderous work".

For Snyder, this period of violence begins in 1933 not with Hitler's rise to power but with Stalin's decision to starve more than three million Ukrainians to death. Then came the killing of 700,000 Soviet citizens, shot during the Great Terror of 1937-38. At this point, the Soviet Union was "the only state in Europe carrying out policies of mass killing". Before 1939, the Nazi regime "killed no more than ten thousand people. The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of a million."

200,000 Polish citizens were shot by the Soviets or Germans at the beginning of the Second World War. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the atrocities escalated. Four million Soviet citizens were starved to death by the Germans, including three million Soviet prisoners of war. More than five million Jews were gassed or shot by the Germans. In total, Snyder concludes, in the middle of Europe in the middle of the 20th century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people. This doesn't include soldiers killed on the Eastern Front. The Bloodlands were the site of the Nazi death camps, mass shootings by the NKVD and the Einsatzgruppen, campaigns of mass starvation by both the Soviet Union and the Nazis, and the scene of the worst fighting of the war. And it could have been worse. If the Nazis had won, tens of millions of Slavs would have been killed, creating a living space in the east for German colonist-farmers.

We think of the Germans as the main perpetrators. Snyder has none of this. The point is, he argues, that murdering was most intense in the countries which were occupied first by the Soviet Union, then by the Germans and then, again, by the Red Army. That dynamic is crucial. Ukrainians and Latvians welcomed Germans because they couldn't believe anything could be as bad as Stalin. Two inhuman utopian visions clashed and for those caught in between the result was catastrophe.

In addition to the mass killings, there were huge deportations. In Soviet Belarus about two million people were killed, but two million were also deported and a million more fled from the German invasion. "By the end of the war," writes Snyder, "half of the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved." Nor did it stop in 1945. Then came the ethnic cleansing and mass population movements of the post-war years. Snyder takes the story up to Stalin's death in 1953.

Bloodlands is well written, clear and accessible. The book is packed with up to date statistics -- many simply astonishing -- but there are also moving accounts of individuals. Stories like that of Jozef Sobolewski, a toddler, starved to death with his mother and five of his brothers and sisters in 1933 in the Ukraine. The one brother who survived was shot in 1937, in Stalin's Terror.

Some of this is familiar. A great deal, however, isn't. Snyder is a key figure in the new thinking about eastern Europe which is transforming the way we think about Stalinism, Nazism and the Holocaust. Any illusions you might have about the decency of the Wehrmacht or of Stalin's regime will not survive reading this book. We think of German concentration camps and the Gulag as the worst symbols of totalitarianism, but most of those who entered German concentration camps survived. 90 per cent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive. Most of the killings went on in pits, forests, death camps and "starvation zones", some gassed, most shot or starved, in east Europe and the west of the Soviet Union. Not, Snyder is emphatic here, in Russia. But in the non-Russian periphery of the Soviet Union, above all, the Ukraine, Belarus and formerly Soviet-occupied east Poland. Even Stalin's Great Terror was not concentrated in Russia. Of nearly 700,000 executions carried out for political crimes in 1937-38, few were poets or old Bolsheviks. More than 625,000 were kulaks or members of non-Russian minorities.

Snyder has pulled together a huge amount of new thinking and research, much of it not yet translated. It is a formidable work of scholarship, shattering many myths, and opening up a fascinating new history of Europe.





The Economist




 Oct 14th 2010

Mass murder

History and its woes

How Stalin and Hitler enabled each other’s crimes

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. By Timothy Snyder. Basic Books; 524 pages; $29.95. Bodley Head; £20.


IN THE middle of the 20th century Europe’s two totalitarian empires, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, killed 14m non-combatants, in peacetime and in war. The who, why, when, where and how of these mass murders is the subject of a gripping and comprehensive new book by Timothy Snyder of Yale University.

The term coined in the book’s title encapsulates the thesis. The “bloodlands” are the stretch of territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea where Europe’s most murderous regimes did their most murderous work. The bloodlands were caught between two fiendish projects: Adolf Hitler’s ideas of racial supremacy and eastern expansion, and the Soviet Union’s desire to remake society according to the communist template. That meant shooting, starving and gassing those who didn’t fit in. Just as Stalin blamed the peasants for the failure of collectivisation, Hitler blamed the Jews for his military failures in the east. As Mr Snyder argues, “Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: 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.”

Mr Snyder’s book is revisionist history of the best kind: in spare, closely argued prose, with meticulous use of statistics, he makes the reader rethink some of the best-known episodes in Europe’s modern history. For those who are wedded to the simplistic schoolbook notions that the Hitlerites were the mass murderers and the Soviets the liberators, or that the killing started in 1939 and ended in 1945, Mr Snyder’s theses will be thought-provoking or shocking. Even those who pride themselves on knowing their history will find themselves repeatedly brought up short by his insights, contrasts and comparisons. Some ghastly but well-known episodes recede; others emerge from the shadows.

Sometimes the memories are faded because so few were left to remember. Those who suffered horribly but lived to tell the tale naturally get a better hearing than the millions in unmarked graves. Mr Snyder’s book straightens the record in favour of the voiceless and forgotten.

He starts with the 3.3m in Soviet Ukraine who died in the famine of 1933 that followed Stalin’s ruthlessly destructive collectivisation. He goes on to mark the 250,000-odd Soviet citizens, chiefly Poles, shot because of their ethnicity in the purges of 1937-38. Sometimes the NKVD simply picked Polish-sounding names from the telephone directory, or arrested en masse all those attending a Polish church service.

Some stories remained untold because they were inconvenient. About as many people died in the German bombing of Warsaw in 1939 as in the allied bombing of Dresden in 1945. Post-war Poland was in no state to gain recognition for that. The Nazi-Soviet alliance of August 1939 was “cemented in blood”, Stalin said approvingly. Few wanted to remember that two years later, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The Western allies did little to stop the Holocaust. Few wanted reminding that the only government that took direct action to help the Jews was the Polish one: seven of the first eight operations conducted in Warsaw by the underground Polish Home Army were in support of the ghetto uprising. (After the war, the Communist authorities executed as “fascists” Polish soldiers who had helped the Jews.)

Stalin regarded all Soviet prisoners-of-war as traitors. Their German captors starved them to death in their millions; nobody dared mourn them. The Holocaust, too, did not fit into Soviet historiography, especially as post-war anti-Semitism intensified (“Every Jew is a nationalist and an agent of American intelligence,” Stalin said in 1952). Memorials to murdered Jews carried not the Star of David but the five-pointed Soviet one, and referred blandly to “Soviet citizens” or “victims of fascism”.

Many of the stories in the book are already known as national or ethnic tragedies. Poles focus on the Warsaw uprising; Jews on Auschwitz; Russians on the siege of Leningrad; Ukrainians on the great famine. Mr Snyder’s book weaves the stories together, explaining how the horrors interacted and reinforced each other. Hitler learnt a lot from Stalin, and vice versa.

Mr Snyder shifts the usual geographical focus away from the perpetrator countries to the places where they first colluded and then collided. Germany and Russia (and Germans and Russians) mostly fared better, or less horribly, than the places in between (there were more Jews in the Polish city of Lodz alone than in Berlin and Vienna combined). No corner of what are now Belarus and Ukraine was spared. Much of Germany and even more of Russia was unscathed, at least physically, by war.

He also corrects exaggerations, misapprehensions and simplifications. The bestial treatment of slave labourers in concentration camps, and the use of gas chambers, are commonly seen as the epitomes of Nazi persecution. But the Germans also shot and starved millions of people, as well as gassed and worked them to death. In just a few days in 1941, the Nazis shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all their concentration camps.

“Bloodlands” has aroused fierce criticism from those who believe that the Soviet Union, for all its flaws, cannot be compared to the Third Reich, which pioneered ethnic genocide. Doing this, the critics argue, legitimises ultranationalists in eastern Europe who downplay the Holocaust, exaggerate their own suffering—and dodge guilt for their own collaboration with Hitler’s executioners.

That argument is powerful but unfair. Many people say stupid things about history. Mr Snyder is not one. He does not challenge the Holocaust’s central place in 20th-century history. Nor does he overlook Soviet suffering at the hands of Hitler or the heroism of the soldiers who destroyed the Third Reich. But he makes a point that needs reinforcement, not least in Russia where public opinion and officialdom both retain a soft spot for Stalin’s wartime leadership. The Soviet Union’s ethnic murders predated Nazi Germany’s. Stalin was not directly responsible for the Holocaust, but his pact with the Nazis paved the way for Hitler’s killing of Jews in the east.

Mr Snyder’s scrupulous and nuanced book steers clear of the sterile, sloganising exchanges about whether Stalin was as bad as Hitler, or whether Soviet mass murder in Ukraine or elsewhere is a moral equivalent of the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews. What it does do, admirably, is to explain and record. Both totalitarian empires turned human beings into statistics, and their deaths into a necessary step towards a better future. Mr Snyder’s book explains, with sympathy, fairness and insight, how that happened, and to whom. Just don’t read it before bedtime.





Friday September 10,2010


By Christopher Silvester


BLOODLANDS: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder Bodley Head, £25


Belarus is a less evocative name than Auschwitz or the Gulag. Yet this former Soviet republic was the scene of more mass killings and displacements of population in the Second World War than anywhere else. A figure of around “two million total mortal losses… seems reasonable and conservative”, says Timothy Snyder.

Add to this more than a million who fled the region, two million who were deported as forced labour by the Germans and another quarter of a million more people who were deported to Poland or the Gulag by the Soviets and the scale of this human tragedy begins to emerge.

“By the end of the war half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved,” says Snyder in this scintillating book. “This cannot be said of any other European country.”

Although several hundred thousand Belarusians were killed in action, many more were killed by the Germans away from the battlefields, including 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews and 320,000 partisans.

Most of the executed partisans were unarmed civilians. Snyder cites one Wehrmacht report about the shooting of 10,143 partisans from whom only 90 guns were taken. Meanwhile Soviet partisans killed tens of thousands of civilians they deemed to be class enemies.

“Often the Germans and the Soviets goaded each other into escalations,” explains Snyder.

As well as Belarus, the “bloodlands” as defined by Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, included Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States.

The mass killings in this region began in the early Thirties when Stalin condemned three million people to death in a political famine in Ukraine.

Both Germans and Soviets cooperated in the destruction of Poland, killing 200,000 of its educated classes. The gassing and shooting of Jews in the “bloodlands” was intended to be part of a German colonial fantasy.

But the death facilities of eastern Poland, where more Jews were killed than anywhere else, were mainly staffed by Soviet citizens. Stalin encouraged uprisings in Poland without assisting them, knowing that more Poles than Germans would be killed.

Even Western historians are apt to point out Britain and the US lost fewer citizens in the Second World War than the Soviet Union but this statement is misleading. For it was Snyder’s “bloodlands” which suffered the most.

People in those lands occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939 (eastern Poland, the Baltic States, north-eastern Romania) “died in higher proportions than almost anywhere in Soviet Russia – and many of the victims were killed not by the German but by the Soviet invader”.

The Soviet version of history, understandably, chose to overlook a salient fact: “Soviet and German occupation together was worse than German occupation alone.”

He ends his cogently argued book with an appeal to range beyond the numbers and the distortions of cultural memory and instead to embrace the humanity of those people, upwards of 14 million, who were deliberately killed throughout the “bloodlands” in little more than a decade.





Nov 26, 2010

Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin

Matthew Price


Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Timothy Snyder


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.







19 November 2010

Stalin’s world is still with us



Eighty years ago, Joseph Stalin enforced a policy that changed the course of history and led to the deaths of tens of millions across the decades and around the world. In a violent and massive campaign of “collectivization,” he brought Soviet agriculture under state control.

Stalin pursued collectivization despite the massive resistance that had followed when Soviet authorities first tried to introduce the policy. The Soviet leadership had relied then on shootings and deportations to the Gulag to pre-empt opposition. Yet, Soviet citizens resisted in large numbers; Kazakh nomads fled to China, Ukrainian farmers to Poland.

In the autumn of 1930, the shootings and deportations resumed, complemented by economic coercion. Individual farmers were taxed until they entered the collective, and collective farms were allowed to seize individual farmers’ seed grain, used to plant the next year’s harvest.

Once the agricultural sector of the Soviet Union was collectivized, the hunger began. By depriving peasants of their land and making them de facto state employees, collective farming allowed Moscow to control people as well as their produce.

But control is not creation. It proved impossible to make Central Asian nomads into productive farmers in a single growing season. Beginning in 1930, about 1.3 million people starved in Kazakhstan as their meagre crops were requisitioned according to central directives.

In Ukraine, the harvest failed in 1931. The reasons were many: poor weather, pests, shortages of animal power after peasants slaughtered livestock rather than lose it to the collective, shortages of tractors, the shooting and deportation of the best farmers, and the disruption of sowing and reaping caused by collectivization itself.

“How can we be expected to build the socialist economy,” asked a Ukrainian peasant, “when we are all doomed to hunger?” We now know, after 20 years of discussion of Soviet documents, that, in 1932, Stalin knowingly transformed the collectivization famine in Ukraine into a deliberate campaign of politically motivated starvation. He presented the crop failure as a sign of Ukrainian national resistance, requiring firmness rather than concessions.

As famine spread that summer, Stalin refined his explanation: Hunger was sabotage, local Communist activists were the saboteurs, protected by higher authorities, and all were paid by foreign spies. In the autumn of 1932, the Kremlin issued a series of decrees that guaranteed mass death. One of them cut off all supplies to communities that failed to make their grain quotas.

The Communists, meanwhile, took whatever food they could find, as one peasant remembered, “down to the last little grain,” and, in early 1933, the borders of Soviet Ukraine were sealed so the starving couldn’t seek help. Dying peasants harvested the spring crops under watchtowers.

More than five million people starved to death or died of hunger-related disease in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, 3.3 million of them in Ukraine, of which about three million would have survived had Stalin simply ceased requisitions and exports for a few months and granted people access to grain stores.

These events remain at the centre of East European politics to this day. Each November, Ukrainians commemorate the victims of 1933. But Viktor Yanukovich, the current Ukrainian President, denies the special suffering of the Ukrainian people – a nod to Russia’s official historical narrative, which seeks to blur the particular evils of collectivization into a tragedy so vague it has no clear perpetrators or victims.

Rafal Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who established the concept of “genocide” and invented the term, would have disagreed. He called the Ukrainian famine a classic case of Soviet genocide. As Lemkin knew, terror followed famine: Peasants who survived hunger and the Gulag became Stalin’s next victims. The Great Terror of 1937-1938 began with a shooting campaign – directed chiefly against peasants – that claimed 386,798 lives across the Soviet Union, a disproportionate number of them in Ukraine.

Collectivization casts a long shadow. When Nazi Germany invaded the western Soviet Union, the Germans kept the collective farms intact, rightly seeing them as the instrument that would allow them to divert Ukrainian food for their own purposes, and starve whom they wished.

After Mao made his revolution in 1948, Chinese Communists followed the Stalinist model of development. This meant that some 30 million Chinese starved to death between 1958 and 1961 in a famine very similar to that in the Soviet Union. Maoist collectivization, too, was followed by mass shooting campaigns.

Even today, collective agriculture is the basis for tyrannical power in North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of people starved in the 1990s. And in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, collective farming was never undone, and a former collective farm director, Alexander Lukashenko, runs the country.

Mr. Lukashenko is seeking a fourth consecutive presidential term in December. Controlling the land, he also controls the vote. Eighty years after the collectivization campaign, Stalin’s world remains with us.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University. His most recent book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.



THE TLS n.º 5629, 18-2-2011


Victims of the frontiers



Alexander V. Prusin


Conflict in the East European borderlands, 1870—1992

324pp. Oxford University Press. £35 (US $65).

9780 199297535


Timothy Snyder


Europe between Hitler and Stalin

544pp. Bodley Head. £25 (US $29.95).

78022408141 2


Are there any blank spaces left in the modem history of Europe? Until now, the East European borderlands have attracted little scholarly attention, remaining obscured by the larger events which defined the history of that region, namely the two world wars and Soviet and Nazi occupation. Although we are only too aware of the human cost of the domination of Europe by both powers, there is more work to be done. Alexander V. Prusin and Timothy Snyder approach the study of this region from entirely different angles and arrive at very different conclusions. Both their books should be of great interest to scholars of Europe.

In The Lands Between, Prusin focuses on the Baltic republics, western provinces - of Belorussia and Ukraine and the republic of Moldova, areas which have always contained mixed populations and which have changed hands repeatedly in recent times. Their inhabitants have been unable to assert their claims to statehood: throughout history the borderlands have been torn apart by ethnic conflict exacerbated by war. For Snyder, this is the part of Europe that fell victim to the worst crimes perpetrated by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, where policies of genocide were implemented because they had become the norm for both powers. Whereas Prusin probes how the region functioned, how its inhabitants responded to the great wars and, most importantly, how they reacted to each other, Snyder shows scant interest in motives. Indeed, he plays down the extent of inter-ethnic violence, in the belief that the people of the borderlands had little control over their own fate. The chief architects of instability, genocide and fratricidal conflict are the outsiders: above all, Hitler, Stalin and his few named henchmen. Moreover, in Snyder’s view, Stalin’s excesses during collectivization acted as a model if not an outright catalyst for Nazi policies. Surprisingly, for an ambitious study of this type, little attention is accorded to ideology as a driving force behind the evident disregard for human life. Instead, Snyder wants the reader to know about the victims.

Prusin starts by asking why the borderlands were relatively conflict-free before the First World War. His conclusions are interesting. He sees Russian and Austrian imperial nationality policies as directed towards maintaining stability. The growth of nationalism and the destruction of the two empires that had hitherto dominated that region created the preconditions for volatility and ultimately led to violent conflict between the various ethnic groups. Prusin is careful in analysing the implications of imperial rule, seeing it as a source of control but also of reform and modernization. With the outbreak of war the focus on nationalism as a means of mobilizing support and galvanizing communities destroyed the previous equilibrium. Relations between Polish landowners and Lithuanian peasants, Poles and Ukrainians, Baltic peoples and Germans, and towards Jews in particular became contaminated by rivalry and distrust. The end of the war and the collapse of pre-war administrations led ethnic groups to compete for resources and to try to establish control over the territories within which they lived. The “frontier wars” were characterized by violence that included “pogroms, massacres, the murder of prisoners of war, and collective reprisals”.

The perpetrators of these crimes were local people, sometimes, though not always, egged on by outsiders. The establishment of the new states of Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic republics that followed the redrawing of boundaries at the end of the war did not diminish the violence, but institutionalized it in the form of state policies. The result was government-sanctioned violence against national minorities and Jewish communities. Economic factors exposed the fragility of the democratic institutions put in place since the end of the First World War. As world prices for agricultural products fell, the peasant communities bore the full brunt of taxation. In the borderlands, still essentially rural, ethnic tensions were exacerbated. In all East European states, dictatorial rule became the norm, even if it was never as brutal and absolute as in the Soviet Union and Germany. Nationalism came to play an important role in state policy, leading to the reduction of minority rights. As Prusin points out, governments wantonly used scare tactics to legitimize their polices, exaggerating the threat that the Left, the Right and various national minorities posed to state stability and to the dominant ethnic groups. In the borderlands, where mistreatment of the minorities proceeded without challenge from intellectuals and urban-based liberals, this created further potential for violence.

The Second World War offered an opportunity for the settling of scores. Nevertheless, “the single most critical factor that led to the outbreak and escalation of the civil wars in the borderlands were German and Soviet ‘transformative’ policies that aimed at redrawing the borderlands’ social, political, and ethnic make-up”. In areas under Soviet and German occupation ethnic tensions were skillfully channeled and exploited. Thus, Soviet policies towards Ukrainian, Belorussian and Baltic areas are analysed in order to explain how and why the local population became complicit in crimes. What Prusin repeatedly tries (and sometimes struggles) to explain is the willingness of one ethnic group to turn so decisively against its neighbours. Soviet domination of most of these areas after the Second World War diminished the violence while never pacifying the communities entirely. With the fall of Communism, hostilities returned.

In Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder argues that Soviet and Nazi policies inflicted rather than fanned existing hostility in the East European borderlands. He focuses on a narrower period than Prusin, namely the twelve years between 1933 (the date of the completion of the Soviet collectivization drive which heavily affected the grain-producing regions of the Ukraine) and 1945. The victims are Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Russians and the Baltic peoples, in addition to the Jews of Europe who perished during the war in camps and anti- Jewish campaigns and pogroms. A tally of 14 million victims justifies the definition of the region as “Bloodlands”, according to Snyder, though inhabitants of the area might well object to a name that stigmatizes these lands in relation to one period only.
Snyder views the Stalinist and Nazi regimes as linked, even co-dependent — a theory which is neither original nor convincingly sustained. He asserts that Stalin’s policies stimulated and encouraged Nazi policies. Just how this dynamic was supposed to have operated is never fully explained; nevertheless, it is assumed that the reader will understand that evil was contagious. Thus the year 1933, when millions of Ukrainian peasants died, also saw the emergence of Nazism in Germany. The ensuing riva1ri between the regimes is supposed to have released the potential for genocide in both. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the process of extermination was magnified. Both powers used local people during the conflict, thus adding to the genocide that afflicted the region. Snyder also criticizes the Western powers for their craven subordination to the Soviet agenda of domination of Eastern Europe, considering them indirectly complicit in the mayhem this unleashed.

The borderlands are not an entirely blank page in the history of Europe, though there is an indisputable need for more frankness in addressing an often painful subject. The reluctance of the East European states to address the degree of violence sustained on their territory accounts for a general lack of debate, a point which Timothy Snyder is unwilling to consider. Instead, he has made extensive use of personal accounts and previously untapped evidence to offer a very human view of what might easily have become just another chapter in the study of politics. The effect is to create an emotionally charged book which gives the victims of the crimes a voice.


The New York Review of Books

November 11, 2010

The Worst of the Madness

Anne Applebaum

Read this article, here