By Anne Applebaum
The New York Review of Books, November 11, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
By Timothy Snyder
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 citizens.

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 months.

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.

Historians 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.

When the 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.

The 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.

The 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 to Poles.

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.