Three weeks ago, I finished Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, which I had been reading off and on and writing about several times over the preceding two months. As I mentioned two weeks ago, it focus in the later chapters on the close of World War II, the arrival of Red Army, and the mass westward re-location of the German population reminded me that a year earlier I had thought of reading Timothy Snyder’s then-new Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Anne Applebaum’s review in the New York Review of Books had caught my attention, and I quoted from the review at the time.
Two weeks ago I downloaded the free opening sample of Bloodlands to my Kindle. A day later, I bought and downloaded the full book. With the arrival of snow days later in the week, I began to read it and was surprised by how gripping Snyder’s account was of the events between 1932 and 1945 in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. No short description can do the book justice, and in any case, you can read Applebaum’s account for that. But the book turns out to be an unexpected, and horrific, page turner.
I finally broke free from Bloodlands‘s grip early this past week, in mid World War II, because a new New York Review of Books had arrived and I decided to devote my evening reading to that. A day later, fearful of returning to the horrors, I took another night off. But once I returned, I was again swept along, finishing last night.
Snyder works on three levels, if I may be a bit simplistic. There are brief overviews of the broader historic European and world events, beginning with the close of World War I and the Russian Revolution. There are detailed accounts of the actual horrors, starting with Stalin’s mass starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasants in 1932-1933 in favor of shipping agricultural produce abroad in order to obtain the necessary capital for rapid industrialization (to simplify once again). And there are the searing descriptions, typically no more than a few sentences or a paragraph, of individual lives and deaths.
Special attention is given to the lands that formed the eastern half of Poland at the onset of war in 1939, the portion that the Soviet union took over by mutual agreement with Germany when the two invaded from east and west and divided the country between them. Two years later, Hitler would take these lands over on his way east toward Moscow, and three years after that the Red Army returned, pushing its way on to Berlin.
This of course isn’t news. Nor is the ultimate result, Stalin choosing to incorporate one-time eastern Poland into the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, while getting the agreement of Churchill and Roosevelt that Poland would be shifted westward to include lands that had been part of Germany before the war. Millions of Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, and others were moved back and forth, a significant percentage dying along the way. And this was the least of the horrors. The Jews, of course, were by then already largely exterminated, as were (by design) millions of Poles, this suiting the interests of both Hitler and Stalin.
How all this came about, and why, with an explanation of the evolving political logic, forms the heart of the book. A central goal is the placement of the murder of six million Jews in a broader context, where it can be seen as not just an isolated abhorrence but part of a larger universe of mass killings. Snyder argues that there is in particular a need to recognize that typical accounts of the Holocaust are skewed, and for a particular historical reason: much of what we knew for decades was based on the camps discovered by the US and British troops in the west, whereas much of the killing was done in the “bloodlands” to the east, lands conquered by Soviet troops. This had two consequences in terms of our sources of information. First, Stalin did not allow news to come out about what was found. Second, much of the killing in the east was by shooting, or mobile gassing, the gas chambers of Auschwitz for example coming into use only after the majority of the killing was done. Thus, to the extent that we typically picture the Holocaust as consisting of Jews being sent to and dying in concentration camps, we are viewing only a small part of the story.
Here’s a short passage from Snyder’s Preface:
At the end of the Second World War, American and British forces liberated German concentration camps such as Belsen and Dachau, but the western Allies liberated none of the important death facilities. The Germans carried out all of they major killing policies on lands subsequently occupied by the Soviets. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz, and it liberated the sites of Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec, Chelmno, and Majdanek as well. American and British forces reached none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites. It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed, leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives. Is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long.
I am so glad that I read Bloodlands, and didn’t content myself with a few reviews. A natural book to read next might be Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, which has sat above my desk for years. But 831 pages?! And small print? I don’t know. Some day. I’ll then want to re-purchase it for my Kindle, the price for that currently being set at $16.99. (What’s up with that?) For now, I’m ready for something completely different.