When history professor Timothy Snyder grouped together the areas from central Poland to western Russia in his book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” he was trying to explain why this region became the center of Nazi and Soviet policies of mass killings.
In an interview with the Kyiv Post, the professor said he noticed in writing the book that more people were deliberately killed in Ukraine than in any other part of the world between 1933 and 1945.
While he asserts there is nothing Ukrainians could have done differently in either of the two world wars to win their independence, how the country’s past is approached is important.
Snyder is in Kyiv Oct. 21-22 to introduce the Ukrainian-language version of his book, which has already been translated into 20 languages since its publication last year.
“Ukraine has this ongoing internal dispute about the significance of the [1930s] famine, of the significance of the war. Poland, on the other hand, is inside the European Union and its concerns are more like, how do we get the Europeans to alter the European narrative of history so that it can accept certain things [mass murders] that happened in the east that were different, or indeed worse,” said Snyder, a professor at Yale University.
Snyder explored the catastrophic results of Soviet and Nazi policies from 1933 to 1945 in his internationally acclaimed work.
The legitimating ideology of Belarus, for example, of the Lukashenko regime, has a lot to do with the suffering of Belarus during the Second World War. And because we don’t know anything, or most people don’t know anything about that, the regime is all the more difficult to understand, or all the more inscrutable.
- Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale University.
Spanning from central Poland to western Russia, he argues that 14 million civilians were deliberately murdered on this vast territory, which he labels the bloodlands, because of the policies undertaken by Hitler and Stalin.
Snyder said that even though the region of the bloodlands has changed significantly in the last 70 years, the influence of the past on the region’s current political environment can be easily traced.
“The legitimating ideology of Belarus, for example, of the Lukashenko regime, has a lot to do with the suffering of Belarus during the Second World War. And because we don’t know anything, or most people don’t know anything about that, the regime is all the more difficult to understand, or all the more inscrutable,” Snyder said.
Although there has been a great deal of division in the region since the 1989 collapse of Communism, one of the things the bloodlands nations have in common is an overwhelming preoccupation with history.
Snyder has provided a framework for how to think about the bloodlands in the face of what are often parallel, diverse and competitive national stories on the territory. For him, however, the bloodlands were more a question than an answer.
“Once you know that so many millions of people were killed here and not elsewhere, then you want to try to explain why,” Snyder said. “Of course the answer for why does not have just to do with the people who were there, it has to do with the desire for these territories by not one, but two competing empires. So the bloodlands can’t just be about the people who lived there and died there. The bloodlands became the bloodlands because of Soviet policy and because of German policy and because of the encounter of Soviet and German policy.”
The question of collaboration with the Nazis in World War II still looms large in Ukraine, which is finally coming into its own as a subject of academic study.
However, one can’t begin to understand what happened in Ukraine in the 1930s and 1940s causally without understanding the policies of Moscow and Berlin.
“Any account of any major tragedy in Ukraine that doesn’t begin with the policies is not going to have the causation right,” Snyder said. “You can’t explain the famine by the desire of Ukrainians to starve other Ukrainians, you can’t explain the (Great) Terror by the desire of Ukrainians to shoot other Ukrainians, and you can’t explain the Holocaust by the desire of Ukrainians to kill Jews. The first two are Soviet policies, the last one is a German policy.”
At the same time, there is the moral question.
“What I would say is that insofar as you identify yourself with a given organization or group, then you have to take responsibility, associate yourself with everything it did,” he said.
Staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.