Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books 2010), 560 pages.
We can locate the deadliest place and time in world history, certainly for the modern West, in the stretch of land between Berlin and Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s. That setting hosted an unimaginable bloodbath thanks to the worst killers ever to plague Europe — Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The region was home to the two dictators’ military conflict, the Eastern Front of World War II, the most lethal theater of war humanity ever saw. But even putting the combat aside, those two rulers implemented policies of deliberate mass murder of unarmed civilians and POWs that took more lives in a narrower span of time and space than we can attribute to virtually any other human cause.
No historian had ever before unified Hitler’s and Stalin’s deliberate killings under this geographical theme. Focusing on the bloodshed inflicted in this area, especially in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Timothy Snyder has written a superb history of Nazi and Soviet crimes in the region he calls “the bloodlands.” His book will shake to the core any reader with a love of humanity. With a grip on 10 relevant European languages, this Yale professor has created a gem of original archival research and a synthesis of the most recent historical literature in Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.
The geographical focus is justified, as Snyder partly explains in his potent introduction, describing the historical setup of the two totalitarian regimes. “Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow, but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between. Their utopias of control overlapped in Ukraine,” a fertile land that both saw as a key to feeding their people and “the place that would enable them to break the rules of traditional economics.” The atrocities took place between two regimes striving for territorial conquest and to nationalize land, so an analysis of the inhumanity should take account of the political economy.
This “history of political mass murder” accounts for 14 million “victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy,” many of whom died from the “interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.” As Snyder notes, in the 1930s “the Soviet Union was the only state in Europe carrying out such policies,” during which Stalin murdered millions and Hitler murdered only thousands. Hitler caught up with Stalin’s murderousness as the two teamed up to invade Poland, and, upon betraying his ally and invading the Soviet Union, he soon overtook Stalin’s death toll. “Of the fourteen million people deliberately murdered in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, a third belong in the Soviet account.”
This may surprise those accustomed to the idea that Stalin killed more than Hitler, but Snyder shows exhaustively that this is simply not so. Bloodlands shatters other myths, including a few that have long been held by those who whitewash Soviet crimes.
Famines and terror in the 1930s
Stalin’s greatest crimes were the famines of the early 1930s, particularly in Ukraine, where he implemented policies of collectivization to foster food surpluses as part of his industrialization strategy, punishing those who did not hand over enough grain by seizing more, as well as their livestock. Of course, the most vulnerable suffered especially: “Children born in Soviet Ukraine in the late 1920s and early 1930s found themselves in a world of death.” The Ukrainian people, as would any people, Snyder stresses, resorted to cannibalism. “At least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in the years 1932 and 1933.” People ate members of their own family, and children sometimes even ate parts of their own bodies. The Ukrainian famine, which took about 3.5 million lives, amounted to a particularly cruel method to murder Stalin’s enemies. It only bolstered the political capital of Hitler, who pointed to the atrocity as the embodiment of Soviet terror.
It is horrifying, Snyder writes, that “communists in the Soviet Union, witnesses to the famine, somehow managed to see starvation not as a national tragedy but as a step forward for humanity.” Also disturbing were the Stalin apologists in the United States. Snyder discusses the shameful case of New York Times journalist Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize winner who called
accurate reporting … of the famine a “big scare story.” Duranty’s claim that there was “no actual starvation” but only “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition” echoed Soviet usages and pushed euphemism into mendacity. This was an Orwellian distinction; and indeed George Orwell himself regarded the Ukrainian famine of 1933 as a central example of a black truth that artists of language had covered with bright colors.
The early 1930s also saw both Hitler and Stalin intimidating political enemies through violent suppression. Stalin engaged in “purification” to eliminate alleged class enemies from the institutions of government. Stalin’s political purges foreshadowed his “Great Terror, which in 1937 and 1938 would take the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for reasons of class and nation.”
We more often hear about Stalin’s purges based on economic class — the crackdown on relatively wealthy peasants called kulaks. Indeed, “Collectivization had forced millions of kulaks into the Gulags or into the inner cities” and under Stalin’s police-state agency, the NKVD, kulaks were forced to confess under torture. Show trials resulted in mass death. “In a single night the Leningrad troika, for example, sentenced to death 658 prisoners of the concentration camp at Solovki.” Meanwhile, the Nazis rounded up political enemies into concentration camps. Yet “in comparison with the Gulag, these … camps were rather modest. While more than a million Soviet citizens toiled in the Soviet concentration camps and special settlements in late 1939, the number of German citizens in the German concentration camps was about twenty thousand.”
What is often neglected is the nationalist flavor of Stalin’s murders. “By the late 1930s, Hitler’s National Socialist regime was well known for its racism and anti-Semitism. But it was Stalin’s Soviet Union that undertook the first shooting campaigns of internal national enemies.” As Snyder explains, “In 1937 and 1938, a quarter of a million Soviet citizens were shot on essentially ethnic grounds.” While today we often think of Soviet show trials and political killings of the late 1930s, the Soviet Union also exterminated people on the periphery of its empire — in particular Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Without any oversight, the NKVD implemented a “Polish operation” that took 72,000 lives through its “special troikas.”
The Soviet murderousness toward Poles expanded and was matched with Nazi aggression against Poles once Hitler and Stalin allied and invaded Poland in September 1939. The Nazis killed those at the top of Polish society in order to better fit their supremacist views, which looked down on Slavs. Bombed-out cities became ghettos and labor camps. The Nazis began aggressive transportation schemes to deal with the millions of Jews in Poland. “[Between] September 1939 and June 1941, in their time as allies, the Soviet and German states had killed perhaps two hundred thousand Polish citizens, and deported about a million more,” Snyder writes.
Extermination and ethnic cleansing in the 1940s
Hitler had ambitions surpassing what he actually achieved. His Generalplan Ost — Master Plan East — involved the relocation of many millions of people, the destruction of the Soviet state, the enslavement of ethnic Slavs, the forced starvation of tens of millions of Soviet citizens, and the eventual elimination of Jews from Europe by any means necessary. With his betrayal and invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1940, his attempt at these plans began to unfold and he overtook Stalin in murderousness, all with his expectation of a quick “lightning victory.” When that didn’t happen, he had to reprioritize his plans.
Hitler’s foreign-policy agenda, particularly his “hunger plan,” was all about food. “The Soviet Union was the only realistic source of calories for Germany and its west European empire,” Snyder writes. Looking at the Soviet Union’s starvation campaigns, Hitler’s men saw “the collective farm” as a perfect method “to starve millions of people.” But because he lacked the ideological allies and established police-state apparatus in Ukraine that Stalin had, he was not able to recreate Stalin’s death count there. It also became quickly apparent that the “lightning victory” was a failure and Germany “lacked contingency plans for failure.” Some of the greatest victims of their frustrations were Soviet war captives: “The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation of mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more.”
By that point the Nazi policy toward Jews was also a failure. “By late 1941,” Snyder writes, “the Nazi leadership had already considered, and been forced to abandon, four distinct versions of the Final Solution.” By November 1939 the leadership abandoned the idea of a reservation in eastern Poland. In February 1940 they gave up on sending Jews to the USSR: Stalin didn’t want them. The idea of shipping them to Madagascar wouldn’t work because of Polish and British noncooperation. And having failed to destroy the Soviet Union, the plan to forcibly send Jews eastward didn’t work either. Given those frustrations dealing with the five million Jews within their control, and informed by their recent experiences of gassing and otherwise killing Soviet prisoners, the Nazis shifted their emphasis: “a war to destroy the Soviet Union became a war to murder the Jews.”
Snyder very ably demonstrates the somewhat nuanced historical reality that Hitler did not set out to kill all the Jews from the very beginning — he initially considered less lethal ways to get rid of them — but his frustrations early in the war turned total extermination of European Jewry into the main goal. “The plan had been to destroy the Soviet Union and then eliminate the Jews,” Snyder writes. “Now, as the destruction of the Soviet Union was indefinitely delayed, the utter extermination of the Jews became a wartime policy.”
The Holocaust began in earnest in 1941 and was conducted first in the east of Nazi-occupied territory, mostly by bullets fired by Einsatzgruppen death squads. In 1942 most of the remaining Jews living under German occupation were murdered:
West of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, mass murder would be carried out at gassing facilities. East of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, the Germans continued the mass shootings, and also used the gas vans that had been tested on the Soviet prisoners of war.
Many Gwere killed in “reprisals,” murderous shootings where Nazi officials blamed and collectively punished groups of Jews for violence against Nazi forces. By such warfare against noncombatants, the Nazis turned Belarus into a bloodbath, one of the very worst places anywhere on earth during the war, a fact neglected in many casual accounts.
Of course, the most well-known of the Holocaust methods was the death camp, and Snyder gruesomely discusses the six run by Germans — Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, and Belzec. Unlike the concentration camps where many starved or died of disease, the gassing facilities were designed and operated primarily to kill those who checked in. Jews were led into gas chambers and told they would be disinfected:
As a result of feverish struggles and death agonies, the bodies were twisted together, limb through limb, and sometimes very fragile. As the Treblinka laborer Chil Rajchman recalled, they underwent “an atrocious metamorphosis.” Their corpses were covered, as was the chamber itself, with blood, feces, and urine. The Jewish laborers had to clean the chamber, so that the next group would not disbelieve the disinfection lie.
At the close of the war, atrocities continued. With Stalin’s approval, victorious Soviet soldiers raped their way through conquered Germany, and millions of Germans were forcibly relocated, many from where their families had lived for generations. Many thousands perished in the relocations. In the late 1940s, Stalin targeted thousands of Jews and worked to rewrite history to make ethnic Russians into the primary victims and victors of the war, rather than the Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles, Balts, and Jews, millions of whom he had himself directly or indirectly murdered.
Understanding the height of political evil
Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes were the worst European atrocities of modern times. To this day they are still misunderstood in very basic ways. The Soviet crimes were most extensive at peacetime, demonstrating that in a state of “normalcy,” nothing is quite so murderous as Marxist state socialism. But what is often forgotten by those who understand communist evil is that most of the killing was conducted on the periphery of the empire. The vast majority of Stalin’s worst victims were not Russians living in the heart of his nation. They were outsiders — Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians. “Stalin, no less than Hitler, spoke of liquidations and cleansing…. Stalinism was a project of self-colonization.”
The Nazi mass murders, in contrast, were fueled by war. “Nazi colonization … was totally dependent upon the immediate and total conquest of a vast new eastern empire,” Snyder writes. People often think of the internal depredations of Hitler’s regime. But war was the health of the Nazi state. Hitler’s criminality took place primarily outside Germany. Ninety-seven percent of his Jewish victims never spoke German and most never met a German until the war. They were mostly Eastern European victims of his war machine. The western-centric vision of the Holocaust, informed by such stories as that of Holland’s Anne Frank, is a very incomplete picture. Hitler murdered and mistreated Jews and others in Western Europe, but the vast majority of his criminality was directed eastward. The Holocaust was a foreign-policy initiative.
Conservatives warn against fascism at home, forgetting that the true fuel of tyranny is in most systems militarism and empire. Liberals decry racism and inequality without realizing that left-wing collectivism occasioned the most peacetime race-based mass murder in the early 20th century. In any event, those who love liberty and humanity will want to educate themselves on the greatest negation of their values to occur in the West in the 20th century. Bloodlands is essential reading for all who care to understand the modern world, its most gruesome events, and the pure evil that only state power can produce.