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Reviewed by John H. Brown, PhD.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, New York: Basic Books, 2010. ISBN-13-978-0-465-00239-9, hardcover 524 pp., list price $29.95, Kindle Edition, ASIN: B0042F2XZ6, 2012, $9.88.

When I was posted in Krakow, Poland, 1986-1990, as Branch Public Affairs Officer with the now-defunct USIA (United States Information Agency) few Washington dignitaries on official tours to that part of the world failed to pay the obligatory visit to nearby Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, part of which was converted into a Museum in 1947 by the Polish Communist authorities with the stated purpose of honoring victims of Nazism.

Had these VIPs — and the Foreign Service officers accompanying them, including this reviewer — read the book by Yale historian Timothy Snyder (published in 2010), their understanding of this Nazi horror would have greatly increased.

For, as he contends in his brilliant, profoundly unsettling volume, Auschwitz (as propagandized through film and photographs disseminated to the outside world) was not, in fact, the ultimate incarnation of Nazi evil. It was only one more illustration (not the worst, in his view) of the tragic nature the “bloodlands,” a geographic area under switching Nazi/Soviet domination, between 1933 and 1945, extending “from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States.”

At Auschwitz, both a concentration and extermination camp, registered laborers “had a chance of surviving,” whereas in Nazi death factories like Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec (also in Nazi-dominated Poland), “almost everyone died.” “Still more Jews, Polish or Soviet or Baltic Jews,” Snyder adds, were “shot over ditches and pits.” Indeed, Auschwitz was among the least horrendous of the horrendous: “[A]lthough no one survived the gas chambers at Auschwitz, more than a hundred thousand people survived the concentration camp known by that name.”

In this volume — so tempting to put down because of the tragedies it describes, so impossible to dismiss because of its revelations — Snyder has, as I see it, four purposes in mind: Get the record of the totalitarian horrors straight; give the troubling statistics he cites an (even more troubling) human dimension; explain the reasons behind the Hitler-Stalin bloodlands from a concrete, historical perspective; and draw moral lessons from this nightmare of European history.

First, as an indefatigable researcher who for years mined archives in numerous countries and read secondary materials in a vast number of languages, Snyder wants readers to get the basic facts regarding a topic that arouses so many emotions and recriminations often caused by the question: Who, among the victims of totalitarianism, suffered most? For him, a historian with a background in economics, an important basis of truth is numbers — how many persons, when and where, perished as a result of the “deliberate policies of mass murder” in the Stalin-Hitler-controlled bloodlands.

Snyder is intellectually unsympathetic to Hannah Arendt’s philosophical speculations about totalitarianism being a “sign of some deeper dysfunctionality of modern society.” Instead, he wants to know what concretely happened on the ground as a result of the “belligerent complicity” between Hitler and Stalin. He distinguishes between the Holocaust and the Final Solution: “[T]he term Holocaust signifies the final version of the Final Solution, the German policy to eliminate the Jews of Europe by murdering them. … [T]he Holocaust on this definition begins in summer 1941, with the shooting of Jewish women and children in the occupied Soviet Union.”

Subtle distinctions and precise figures are, Snyder suggests, necessary for understanding a Dante’s hell which in the past has been blurred by ideological/nationalistic biases and agendas. This is especially applicable, Snyder underscores, to the Stalinist regime, eager to demonstrate, after World War II, that Russians, not Jews or other nationalities, endured the most in this conflict. Not to be overlooked, there was also a Cold-War lack of access to archival information that rendered objective analysis difficult.

Among the innumerable ghoulish statistics provided by Snyder: “some fourteen million people were killed in the bloodlands,” he states on p. vii (on p. 379, however, he says that “more than fourteen million people killed”). Not included in the gruesome figure of fourteen million human beings murdered: “the people who died of exertion or disease or malnutrition in concentration camps or during flight from armies” and “forced laborers.” The most number of people killed, among these victims: “5.4 million Jews (most of them Polish or Soviet citizens) gassed or shot by the Germans in 1941-1944.”

Historical irony is not missing in Snyder’s statistics. In 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, “Hitler had just added significantly more Jews (at least 600,000) to his Reich than he had added Germans, and for that matter nearly tripled the population of Jews in Germany (from about 330,000 to nearly a million).” “On a crusade for racial purity, Germany had become by the end of 1939 Europe’s second-largest multinational state. The largest, of course, was the Soviet Union.” “By the end of the war, some eight million foreigners from the East, most of them Slavs, were working in the Reich.” So much for the all-Aryan Germany!

A second purpose of Snyder’s volume is to give his numbers human/historical meaning by focusing on the events and experiences of victims, whose personal recollections he has examined in detail. He covers, among key episodes, the suffering of victims of the Stalin-imposed famine in Ukraine (1932-1933); during the Soviet Great Terror (1937-1938); in Nazi-Soviet occupied Poland in 1939-1941; in the Nazi death factories; in Belarus under occupation (“By the end of the war,” he notes, half the population of Belarus had been either killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country”); during the Warsaw uprising of August 1944 (“More Poles were killed during the Warsaw Uprising alone that Japanese died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”).

To the Western reader, somewhat familiar with the torments of Poland in World War II and (to a lesser extent) with the Great Terror, Snyder’s pages on the horrors perpetuated in Ukraine through Stalin’s deliberately imposed famine (known in that part of the world as the Holodomor) come as a special shock. “More than one Ukrainian child,” Snyder writes, had to tell a brother or sister: ‘Mother says that we should eat her if she dies.’” Meanwhile, “[w]hen Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna tried to appeal for food aid for the starving in the summer and autumn 1933, Soviet authorities rebuffed him nastily, saying that the Soviet Union had neither cardinals nor cannibals — a statement that was only half true.”

A third focus of Snyder’s volume is why the deadly Hitler-Stalin combination resulted in the tragedy of the bloodlands. Ever the professional historian, he engages in periodization: “In the first [period] (1933-1938) the Soviet Union carried out almost all of the mass killing; in the second, during the German-Soviet alliance (1939-1941), the killing was balanced. Between 1941 and 1945 the Germans were responsible for almost all of the political murder.”

Snyder notes that these totalitarian systems had important differences, with Nazis propagandizing racial purity and the Soviets proclaiming international class struggle, until Russian nationalism was substituted for this slogan by a Georgian dictator in the wake of the Nazi invasion of the USSR. (Snyder’s emphasis on leaders is, in my view, somewhat excessive; moral/intellectual pygmies like Hitler and Stalin were to some extent an expression of their time and place, and not only a manifestation of their own madness). Hitler wanted to expand Germany outside of its borders, whereas Stalin wanted to consolidate the USSR inside its own turf. As Snyder writes,

The secret of collectivization (as Stalin had noted long before) was that it was an alternative to expansive colonization, which is to say a form of internal colonization. Unlike Stalin, Hitler believed that colonies could still be seized abroad; and the colonies he had in mind were the agrarian lands of the western Soviet Union, as well as the oil reserves in the Soviet Caucasus.

Hitler believed his new Europe would challenge the United States by imitating it:

Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor. The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, “In the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.

But, despite their differences, “both Hitler and Stalin aimed at imperial autarky, within a land empire well supplied in food, raw materials and mineral resources.” And, as Snyder suggests throughout, these two monsters did not let human lives stand in the way of their dystopian (strangely called by Snyder “utopian”) visions, while willing to bend to political/economic realities as they saw them.

Fourth and finally, Snyder seeks moral lessons from his painstaking examination of this decade-long madness in European history. Little in his study demonstrates man’s humanity to man, although in his conclusion he has something good to say about the Americans: “As the Cold war began, America and Americans seemed able to do what none of Moscow’s previous rivals had: to present a universal and attractive vision of life.”

In evaluating the past, Snyder argues that simply sympathizing with victims can lead to intellectual superficiality. Rather, it is important to understand the mindset of perpetrators of crimes against humanity, for “to deny a human being,” no matter how reprehensible, “his human character” is to render ethics impossible and “abandon history.”

In a book that is about getting the numbers right, Snyder writes that “It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and put them in perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” Compare this statement with how, during the Great Terror, Stalin’s wishes, according to Snyder, “were transformed into orders, the orders into quotas, the quotas into corpses, the corpses into numbers.”End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Dr. John Brown
Dr. John Brown

Dr. John H. Brown, a Foreign Service officer for more than 20 years, currently is Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches about public diplomacy.

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