As Hitler’s eyes turned to the east in the late 1930s, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain questioned the sense of intervening in a potential war “in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Decades after the far-away lands east of Berlin and west of Moscow were soaked in blood by Soviet and Nazi terror, most people continue to know little about what happened there.
World War II’s victors spoke. For the West, the war was the story of the Allies’ heroic defeat of Nazi Germany, as well as the enemy’s persecution of victims, primarily the Jews. For the Soviet Union, the narrative described the victory of the socialist system, empowered by the rapid industrialization of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
Bodley Head (U.K.) / Basic Books (U.S.), £25 / $29.95. 524 pages.
But who would speak for the period’s losers – not on the battlefield, but the 14 million civilians who were shot, starved and gassed in modern-day Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, western Russia and the eastern Baltic coast, while Hitler and Stalin were in power?
Timothy Snyder’s powerful Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin takes up the challenge by seeking to force a dramatic shift in the narrative of Europe’s bloody mid-20th century.
First, when it happened. When Hitler set out to eliminate Europe’s Jews at the start of World War II in pursuit of his racial utopia, he wasn’t being original. Stalin had already wiped out at least three million Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s as part of a forced famine aimed at destroying Ukrainian nationalism, which he perceived as a threat to his Soviet utopia.
Second, where and how it happened. Most Soviet citizens weren’t killed in the gulags of Siberia, but starved in the Ukrainian countryside and German prisoner-of-war camps located in the bloodlands. By the time the gas chambers at Auschwitz came on line in 1943, most of Europe’s Jewish victims had already been killed further east. Some of them had been gassed in death camps; most had been sprayed by bullets and dumped into pits.
After the end of the war, most of the bloodlands fell behind the Iron Curtain, and the history remained buried. Snyder is meticulous in digging it up, then placing it all within a single historical frame.
For Snyder, the Soviet and Nazi killings were two parts of one whole. The bloodlands – including, significantly, Ukraine’s black earth – were central to the realization of Hitler’s and Stalin’s competing utopian visions.
Stalin wanted to use the collectivization of agriculture, particularly in Ukraine, to transform the Soviet Union into an industrial power. “For Stalin, profits from grain exports in 1933 were more important than the lives of millions of peasants. He decided that peasants would die, and he decided which peasants would die in the largest numbers: the inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine,” Snyder writes.
Hitler wanted to clear the land to be worked by German farmers to feed his hungry Reich: “Like Stalin, Hitler tended to see Ukraine itself as a geopolitical asset, and its people as instruments who tilled the soil, tools that could be exchanged with others or discarded.”
By comparing the mass slaughter carried out by the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Snyder is not looking to establish answers to the banal question of who was worse, or what similarities existed between the systems and their ideologies (although these do emerge). Instead, he is reminding us that while we can view them in isolation and choose whether to compare, hundreds of millions of Europeans who experienced their rule could not.
The focus is shifted away from German and Soviet decision-making (without ignoring them) and onto the ground where reality was forced to conform to ideology. A comparison of the two regimes should not just seek to explain the crimes, Snyder insists, but “embrace the humanity of all concerned by them.”
We see the dilemmas and horrors facing those who inhabited the bloodlands – how they survived, collaborated, resisted, loved, hoped, watched, lived and died. He tears the historical narrative from the hands of Stalin and Hitler, and places it in the hands of the victims.
This is all underscored by Snyder’s powerful prose: He is not only a skilled historian, who brings together hundreds of sources in several languages, but also a sharp and moving writer.
The book is packed with statistics, but they do not overwhelm, as the reader is continually reminded of the individual stories behind the figures.
“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,” he writes. If the Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, “it is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”
Snyder is doing just that by giving them a voice, bringing people in “far-away” countries such as Poland, Belarus and Ukraine much closer and challenging not only how we remember what happened, but also how we view Europe today.
Kyiv Post staff writer James Marson can be reached at email@example.com.