Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin, by Timothy Snyder
It is the open and avowed goal of the author of this book to deal not only with the thorny questions about whose suffering was the greatest in the troubled period from 1930 to 1950 in Eastern Eurpoe, a subject about which there has been a contentious history, but also to view the history of the space between Hitler and Stalin’s dominions and the immense suffering of the people caught in between from the perspective of the victims themselves in viewing them not merely as statistics but also as people. This book has, therefore, an ambitious and difficult goal, but it manages to succeed at its goal even if it must be admitted at the outset that this is not pleasant reading. How deeply unpleasant this reading is can be conveyed by the fact that when this book talks about the rape and forced relocation of German civilians once vengeful Soviet soldiers invaded Nazi Germany and those parts of modern Poland that were long German territories, it does so with the understanding that the German civilians, as barbarously as they were treated, were still far better treated than the doomed Jews, Poles, or Ukrainians of the space between Hitler and Stalin.
Why would someone want to read this book? The content of this book, after all, is deeply troubling and meticulously researched. We have the diary of a Polish officer writing a diary even as he is having his head blown off by murderous Soviet secret police who were first looting his wedding ring. We have the poignant diary of a young Russian girl in Leningrad talking about the death of her family among the starvation of her family in very laconic ways. We have the accounts of Ukrainian city dwellers staring agape at the sight of starving peasants trying to go to the city to find food because theirs has been requisitioned for Moscow. We have the accounts of Jews sent to be gassed at Treblinka tossing their children out of trains and being stripped naked and raped by SS troops before being left out in freezing air to be gassed the following morning. Then there is the story of the wife of Molotov being sent to the gulag archipelago merely for the crime of being Jewish, and surviving because of the kindness of others who had been sent before in no small part because of her husband.
The reasons to read this book are twofold. For one, the national claims of legitimacy and the immense damages resulting from the horrors of World War II continue to shape the political and geopolitical behavior in areas like Russia, the Ukraine, the Baltic countries, Poland, Germany, and Israel. Varied statistical claims and understandings of the horrors of the time have greatly shaped the geography and demography of our contemporary world. Therefore, even if to many the history of political famines and purges is ancient history, and even if the reporting of such war crimes and horrors has often been colored with intense political agendas. Therefore to understand such matters is a matter of relevance, especially because they took place in an area where Western countries had no presence and only indirect involvement, not even doing what it could to provide a safe place of escape for those who sought to leave such horrors. For another, this book shows us the humanity of those who suffered from both Hitler and Stalin’s cruel rule. It was not merely the totalitarian nature of both Hitler and Stalin’s rule that led to the horrors, but “rational” calculations of threat and fulfilling ambition absent a moral concern for people as people. Understanding, as best as we can, the stories of those caught up in these great evils, whether as perpetrators who feared being victims of history themselves, as people who sought to resist evil or preserve their dignity and honor even in the face of horrible death, or as relatively innocent people caught in the middle and often unaware of their fate until the very end, helps us to recognize our common humanity with everyone involved, and the recognition that there but for the grace of God go all of us as well.
It is this worth that is conveyed through a chronological account that begins with the Soviet famines in the Ukraine, the class and race terror of both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, the significant division between the western and eastern sides of Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe (where people on the west side were most likely to be sent to work camps and people on the east side were more likely to be shot or gassed immediately), the economics of the apocalyptic thinking of the Germans and Soviets, the evolution of the final solution from forced exile to extermination, the examination of the holocaust, partisan reprisals, and the Nazi death factories of the bloodlands, the resistance and incineration and ethnic cleansings that resulted from World War II, along with a coda looking at the Stalinist doctor’s plot and his own rampant anti-Semitism. This book manages to be humane as well as scholarly, full of comparative insights as well as touching stories. This is not a book to savor and enjoy, but it is a book worthy of being read and reflected on.