The New York Review of Books, November 11, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Basic Books, 524 pages
Timothy Snyder's bloodlands run from Poznan in the West to Smolensk in the
East. Between 1933 and 1953, the armies and secret policemen of two
totalitarian states marched back and forth across these territories.
This region was also the site of most of the politically motivated killing
in Europe. Between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million people died there, not in
combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them.
Stalin conducted his first utopian agricultural experiment in Ukraine.
His campaign rapidly evolved into a war against Ukrainian peasant culture
itself, culminating in a mass famine in 1933. In that same year, Hitler came
to power and began dreaming of creating Lebensraum for German colonists in
Poland and Ukraine. In 1941, the Nazis also devised the Hunger Plan, a
scheme to feed German soldiers and civilians by starving Polish and Soviet
Stalin and Hitler shared a contempt for the very notions of
Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic independence, and jointly strove to eliminate
the elites of those countries. Following their invasion of western Poland in
1939, the Germans arrested and murdered Polish professors, priests,
intellectuals, and politicians. Following their invasion of eastern Poland
in 1939, the Soviet secret police arrested and murdered Polish professors,
priests, intellectuals, and politicians.
Stalin and Hitler also
shared a hatred for the Jews who had long flourished in this region. Jews
were fewer than one percent of the German population in 1933. Hitler's
vision of a "Jew-free" Europe could thus only be realized when the Wehrmacht
invaded the bloodlands, which is where most of the Jews of Europe actually
lived. Of the 5.4 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, four million were
from the bloodlands. The vast majority of the rest were taken to the
bloodlands to be murdered. After the war, Stalin became paranoid about those
Soviet Jews who remained. He purged and arrested many thousands of them.
Although they had agreed in 1939 to divide the bloodlands between them,
Stalin and Hitler came to hate each other. This hatred proved fatal to both
German and Soviet soldiers who became prisoners of war. Both dictators
treated captured enemies with deadly utilitarianism. For the Germans, Soviet
POWs were expendable. And so they were deliberately starved to death. In
total more than three million perished, mostly within a period of a few
The Soviet attitude toward German POWs was no different. In
the months following the Battle of Stalingrad, at least half a million
German and Axis soldiers died in Soviet captivity. But as the Red Army began
to win the war, it tried harder to keep captives alive as forced laborers.
According to Soviet statistics, 2.3 million German soldiers and about a
million of their allies wound up in the labor camps of the Gulag.
Some were released after the war. At the height of the postwar famine, the
NKVD unexpectedly released several hundred thousand war prisoners. The
Soviet leadership simply hadn't enough food to keep them all alive. And in
the postwar world there were pressures to keep them alive.
know that three million Soviet soldiers starved to death in Nazi camps, that
most of the Holocaust took place in the East, and that Hitler's plans for
Ukraine were no different from Stalin's. Snyder's original contribution is
to treat all of these episodes as different facets of the same phenomenon.
The two systems committed the same kinds of crimes at the same times and in
the same places, and they aided and abetted one another.
Nazis marched into western Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in 1941,
they entered a region from which the Soviet secret police had deported
hundreds of thousands of people in the previous few months, and shot
thousands of prisoners in the previous few days. The conquering Germans were
thus welcomed by some as liberators.
The vast majority of Hitler's
victims never saw a concentration camp. Although about a million people died
because they were sent to do forced labor in German concentration camps,
some ten million died in killing fields in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and
Russia, as well as in German starvation zones and German gas chambers.
Although a million died in the Soviet Gulag between 1933 and 1945, an
additional six million died from politically induced Soviet famines and in
Soviet killing fields. Prisoners who could work had a chance of staying
alive. Prisoners who were too weak to work, or for whom work could not be
organized because of war and chaos, were far more likely to die.
United Nations 1948 definition of genocide was deliberately narrow: "Acts
committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national,
ethnical, racial or religious group." Soviet diplomats had demanded the
exclusion of any reference to social, economic, and political groups.
Until recently, it was politically incorrect in the West to admit that
we defeated one genocidal dictator with the help of another. Only now has
the extent of the Soviet Union's mass murders become better known in the
West. In recent years, some in the former Soviet sphere of influence have
begun to use the word "genocide" in legal documents to describe the Soviet
Union's mass killings too. Yet how can we say of Stalin's and Hitler's mass
murders that one is genocide and the other is not? Perhaps we need a new
word that means mass murder carried out for political reasons.
modern German state "remembers" the Holocaust. But how many Germans remember
the deaths of three million Soviet POWs? How many know or care that the
secret treaty signed between Hitler and Stalin not only condemned the
inhabitants of western Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in
slave labor camps, but also condemned the inhabitants of eastern Poland to
deportation, hunger, and often death in Soviet exile? Germany's sense of
guilt about the Holocaust does not often extend to Soviet soldiers or even
The modern Russian state often talks about the "twenty
million Soviet dead" during World War II as a way of emphasizing its
victimhood and martyrdom. But the majority of those were not Russians and
did not necessarily die because of German aggression. Soviet citizens were
just as likely to die during the war years because of decisions made by
Stalin, or because of the interaction between Stalin and Hitler, as they
were from the commands of Hitler alone.
The American popular memory
of World War II is due for revision. We fought for human rights in Germany
and Japan but we ignored and forgot what happened further east. We liberated
one half of Europe at the cost of enslaving the other half for fifty years.
We won the war against one genocidal dictator with the help of another. This
makes World War II morally ambiguous.
AR I have to agree. We
did only half the job in 1945. The rest came in 1989.