Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder

Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

The “bloodlands” of the title of this book refers to roughly the portion of Europe between Germany and Russia, that is, primarily Poland and the western non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union—the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. This area is the “bloodlands,” because between about 1930 and the end of World War II, Stalin and Hitler killed seven figures worth of civilians. (Well, people obeying Stalin and Hitler did; Stalin and Hitler themselves had virtually zero capacity to kill without massive cooperation from non-anarchist, non-pacifist folks who automatically do what they’re told by people in authority.)

This is civilian deaths, not soldiers killed in combat. And it’s only those who died in that portion of Europe, not, say, Holocaust victims west of there, or people sent to the Siberian Gulag east of there.

Those killed by the Nazis were during the war, while those killed by the Soviets were off and on over a much longer period.

Snyder holds that the vague, general view that most of us have of the civilian deaths during that time period is that of the Holocaust and World War II as they pertain to western Europe, and that we tend not to know or not to think about the fact that the overwhelming majority of the killing took place instead in this specific geographic area of eastern Europe.

So when we think of the Holocaust, we think of Jews dying in death camps after being captured in countries like France. We think about Stalin less than Hitler, but when we think about his murders we probably think mostly about people dying in the Gulag, or perhaps the Communists eating their own by massacring more and more top and mid-level officials in Moscow.

But Snyder points out that the vast majority of Jews (and Gypsies and other undesirables) killed by the Nazis came from Poland and the east, and the majority of those never saw the inside of Auschwitz or any other camp, but were typically gunned down by special units as the German army moved eastward conquering more and more land.

And as far as the Soviets, the number of civilians who died as a result of their brutal programs of intentional mass starvation dwarfs the number who died in the prison camps of the Gulag or through any other means. (Though I have seen reviews of the book that fault Snyder for downplaying a bit the magnitude of Stalin’s slaughters that happened outside the “bloodlands” in order to exaggerate how focused the killing was on this one specific area.)

Then there were all the civilians who died in the war as collateral damage rather than through a conscious program of genocide, as civilians always die in war, with this eastern part of Europe being where the fighting was the fiercest for the longest.

I don’t know if prisoners of war count as civilians—obviously they were soldiers, but now they’re disarmed non-combatants—but the Nazis systematically slaughtered most of the huge number of prisoners they took on the eastern front, typically confining them in open air wired enclosures and leaving them to starve or freeze to death. (Not that they faced a very bright future if they happened to avoid that fate and survive captivity. Stalin treated surrender as a capital offense, and had returning prisoners killed.)

Though it obviously wasn’t a total secret at the time that civilians were being slaughtered in the “bloodlands,” the details of it and the magnitude of it were far less known than what was happening in western Europe. This is especially true of Soviet crimes. The Nazis to some extent were proud of their butchery, but Stalin was more secretive, and the Soviet Union a more closed society. Getting reliable news out of the Soviet Union was rather like getting reliable news out of North Korea today, or I suppose even tougher given the differences in technology.

Not that it was possible for the Soviets to keep their actions a total secret. Snyder describes journalists and diplomats who were privy to at least some evidence that millions were starving as a result of Stalin’s policies. But a lot of it remained unknown or doubted.

Including the fact that the starvation was intentional. This wasn’t a byproduct of pursuing some other policy. Stalin decided that millions of farmers had to in effect be converted into slave laborers, have the food they grew taken away from them (to mostly feed the cities) and be starved.

Why? Well, partly because Stalin was insane. But beyond that there were a variety of reasons: To strike a blow against people he perceived as his enemies based on class or ethnicity, to redistribute food to areas he thought were more important to his hold on power, to implicate as many people as possible in horrific crimes so as to cement their loyalty to him, to show what he was capable of to serve as a warning to anyone who might think to cross him, and I’m sure other things that only make sense to a warped mind like Stalin’s.

Some of the most emotionally powerful passages in the book are the descriptions of the few farmer victims who made it as far as a city. Evidently most people didn’t know quite how to react to them, except to ignore them or assume that whatever they were suffering was somehow unavoidable or justified in the grand scheme of things. Plus it’s not like people in the cities were doing great and had a lot to spare for charity. So if they weren’t captured, they mostly died of starvation in the streets as beggars.

It makes you think about how we now do or do not react similarly to the suffering all around us. I don’t think everyone today responds to pitiful starving people with such indifference—there are plenty of government programs and private efforts to combat poverty and starvation—but there’s still a significant element of that indifference, rationalized by an ideological commitment to a certain heartless form of capitalism that says that when people suffer it’s their own fault, and only bleeding hearts waste their time on life’s losers who can’t even feed themselves.

Anyway, so then after the war, there was enormously more news, film footage, testimony, etc. from the areas liberated by the Allies other than the Soviets than there was from the areas that soon ended up behind the “Iron Curtain.” The fact that journalists and historians had far less to work with from the east only accentuated the disproportionate attention that the western part of the continent received.

Then the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied governments in the “bloodlands” meant that scholars like Snyder could pore over a great deal of hitherto unavailable information, and tell far more details of the stories of some of the 20th century’s worst crimes against humanity.

One of the other points from the book that struck me is that Hitler intended to kill tens of millions more after the completion of a successful war in the east. The death camps were something of a fallback solution when the war went against him. But really the original idea had been that once the Soviet Union surrendered, the Nazis would ship millions of people who’d survived the war—not just Jews, but Russians and other Slavs—to godforsaken parts of Siberia that the Germans had no desire to colonize for themselves.

On the surface that might seem slightly less harsh than killing them at places like Auschwitz—they’re being exiled to an inhospitable place rather than executed—but in fact the intent was to kill them, just a little more slowly. They would be provided no provisions, sent where it was impossible to grow much if any food, and shot on sight if they attempted to leave their designated areas of Siberia. So death would come, and probably pretty quickly. And if somehow they defied the odds and figured out some way to survive, the army could be sent in to massacre them after all.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin is a painstakingly researched, thorough account by a person I take to be the world’s foremost authority on this particular historical period in this particular region of the world. It is to be recommended, with the caveat that obviously its subject matter is painfully depressing.

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