Sunday, November 14, 2010



Tim Snyder has written an outstanding book about the region from Poland through the Ukraine and Belorussia. Based on agriculture, the lust for control of these lands by Communist Commissars and Nazi Murderers---each as deadly as the other---is an epic that Snyder ventures to explore after the Iron Curtain hid its central stage for more than 70 years, in the case of the Ukraine.
Both Hitler and Stalin dreamed of a new European order, one in the name of a master race, the other of a master class. Their visions met in the borderlands. In his use of political mass murder to achieve it, Stalin was the trailblazer, an elder statesman of terror. The Soviet-made famine of 1932-33, which killed more than three million Ukrainians, launched an era of horror that ended only with the end of the war.

In this all-encompasing book which has enthralled me for a while now, Snyder takes no prisoners. He compares the Holocaust with the preceding Holodomor, the Ukrainian induced-famine mass-murder "class-cleansing" rampages of Stalin's commissars.
Among his other goals in "Bloodlands," Mr. Snyder attempts to put the Holocaust in context—to restore it, in a sense, to the history of the wider European conflict. This is a task that no historian can attempt without risking controversy. Yet far from minimizing Jewish suffering, "Bloodlands" gives a fuller picture of the Nazi killing machine. Auschwitz, which wasn't purely a "death camp," lives on in our memory due in large part to those who lived to tell the tale. Through his access to Eastern European sources, Mr. Snyder also takes the reader to places like Babi Yar, Treblinka and Belzec. These were Nazi mass-murder sites that left virtually no survivors.

Yet Mr. Snyder's book does make it clear that Hitler's "Final Solution," the purge of European Jewry, was not a fully original idea. A decade before, Stalin had set out to annihilate the Ukrainian peasant class, whose "national" sentiments he perceived as a threat to his Soviet utopia. The collectivization of agriculture was the weapon of choice. Implemented savagely, collectivization brought famine. In the spring of 1933 people in Ukraine were dying at a rate of 10,000 per day.

What Snyder up to now has not written about nor do I think he includes in his book is the unwritten corollary of the cooperation of the Ukrainian resistance to Stalin with the Gestapo and SS in routing out the Ukrainian Jews. Almost all the commissars in the thirties sent from Moscow to take the seed grain which then caused the Holodomor were young Jewish activsts. The Ukrainians reacted against their own Jews in an act of vengeance, only to quickly discover that the Ukrainians themselves were considered "Untermenschen" by the Nazis and treated almost as poorly as the Jews. This Nazi barbarity turned the Ukrainians, who had suffered so much under Stalin, into nationalists when Stalin changed the entire tenor of the war. Indeed, one Jewish refugee from the war told me personally that EVEN the JEWS in the Ukraine looked forward to the Germans taking over, being entirely ignorant of Hitler's racial theories and assuming that their knowledge of German-based Yiddish would give them more cachet with the German occupiers. Many had known the Germans in the brief occupation after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and assumed the Nazis were similar to the relatively benign German occupiers of 1918-1920.

No, the true history of the Bloodlands, which also includes the Polish Holocaust [also 6 million killed throughout the war, according to one source] inflicted by both the USSR and the Third Reich.

This book is not for those of a Panglossian mindset, and its scholarship is peerless---and I have read many dozens of books about the war and the Soviet purges. Snyder ends with a salutary warning:
In the grim postscript to World War II, millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Germans were ethnically cleansed from lands they had occupied for generations. Churchill and Roosevelt let Stalin redraw Europe's borders, and all the bloodlands fell into his hands. Unlike Hitler, Stalin realized his dreams of a global empire. His last murderous act was to launch another anti-Semitic purge, in late 1952, before he himself died in early 1953.

"Bloodlands" manages to clarify as well as darken our view of this era. "To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond . . . historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap," Mr. Snyder writes. "The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them."

Given that human nature appears to be intrinsically evil, no matter what the amoralists say, we might once again experience the sort of total moral depravity that the Bloodlands saw for twenty-five years. There follow a couple of superb reviews from some of the greatest historians of Europe:
Tony Judt
“For over a decade in the middle of twentieth century, the lands between Russia and Germany were the killing fields of Europe. Tens of millions of civilians from Poland to Ukraine, Lithuania to Belarus were starved, beaten, shot and gassed to death by the authorities and armies of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. We think we know this story and we assign it shorthand labels: Auschwitz, the Gulag. But neither the concentration camps (which were mostly not death camps) nor the Soviet network of labor camps in Siberia (from which many survived) were representative of the worst crimes committed in these years. Jews were without question the supreme victim (and in the Nazi case, the dominant target); but there were many other victims with whom western readers are far less familiar. Without a better grasp of the scale and breadth of the suffering experienced in these lands, we cannot hope to appreciate the true impact of the twentieth century.

“In his path-breaking and often courageous study of Europe’s ‘bloodlands,’ Timothy Snyder shows how very much more complicated the story was. His account of the methods and motives of murderous regimes, both at home and in foreign war, will radically revise our appreciation of the implications of mass extermination in the recent past. Bloodlands – impeccably researched and appropriately sensitive to its volatile material – is the most important book to appear on this subject for decades and will surely become the reference in its field.”

I have Norman Davies Europe: A History and it is one of my favorites:
Professor Norman Davies, F.B.A., author of Europe: A History
“Nearly seventy years after VE-Day, World War Two continues to be perceived through a narrow Western perspective, and many basic problems about the war of 1939-45 remain unresolved. In Bloodlands – which refers to the huge belt of territory between Germany and Russia – Timothy Snyder examines the little known tract of the European continent that was scourged by Stalin as well as Hitler, and reaches some disturbing conclusions. Combining formidable linguistic and detective skills with a fine sense of impartiality, he tackles vital questions which have deterred less courageous historians: Where and when were the largest casualties inflicted? Who were the perpetrators, and which ethnic and national groups were victimized? How can one calculate and verify the numbers? This is a book which will force its readers to rethink history.”

Anne Applebaum's Gulag won the Pulitzer and is a must read for this era and region:
Anne Applebaum, New York Review of Books
“[A] brave and original history of mass killing in the twentieth century…. Snyder’s original contribution is to treat all of these episodes—the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust, Stalin’s mass executions, the planned starvation of Soviet POWs, postwar ethnic cleansing—as different facets of the same phenomenon. Instead of studying Nazi atrocities or Soviet atrocities separately, as many others have done, he looks at them together. Yet Snyder does not exactly compare the two systems either. His intention, rather, is to show that the two systems committed the same kinds of crimes at the same times and in the same places, that they aided and abetted one another, and above all that their interaction with one another led to more mass killing than either might have carried out alone.”

Finally, The Economist:
“[G]ripping and comprehensive…. Mr. Snyder’s book is revisionist history of the best kind: in spare, closely argued prose, with meticulous use of statistics, he makes the reader rethink some of the best-known episodes in Europe’s modern history…. Even those who pride themselves on knowing their history will find themselves repeatedly brought up short by his insights, contrasts and comparisons…. Mr. Snyder’s scrupulous and nuanced book steers clear of the sterile, sloganising exchanges about whether Stalin was as bad as Hitler, or whether Soviet mass murder in Ukraine or elsewhere is a moral equivalent of the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews. What it does do, admirably, is to explain and record. Both totalitarian empires turned human beings into statistics, and their deaths into a necessary step towards a better future. Mr. Snyder’s book explains, with sympathy, fairness and insight, how that happened, and to whom.”

No comments :