Friday, January 06, 2012

What We're Reading: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder

This book is a little more than a year old now, but has continued to gather a long list of accolades, a list on occasion punctuated by some pointed criticisms. I believe it is an exceptional and moving work of history. Snyder’s ambition is to broaden our understanding of a region that witnessed the greatest crimes in human history. He has not, contrary to some criticisms, diminished the enormity of the Holocaust or offered extenuation by placing those crimes in the broad landscape of the atrocities that were committed in Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic Republics, what he has called the “Bloodlands.” These crimes of mass killings were committed by the Nazi and Soviet regimes between 1933 and 1945 against various ethnic groups, nationals, and Jewish nationals in these countries. Rather than diminish the Holocaust by placing it in this larger landscape, he has added a dimension to it that broadens our common conception, documenting not just the slaughter that occurred in the methodical and organized murder of the Nazi death camps but chronicling the wholesale shooting of European Jews and ethnic nationals that was the preferred method of Nazi execution east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line that divided the German and Soviet spheres of East European hegemony.

During this period, Snyder estimates that 14 million people lost their lives through actions that he considers were deliberate decisions to commit mass murder. He does not include in this figure the millions of German and Soviet soldiers that lost their lives in combat in this region, but his estimates do include decisions made to starve to death those who were taken as prisoners of war. His account of killings in this region begins with the deliberate starving to death of more than five million people primarily in the western region of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s drive to collectivize farming. The people killed were predominantly citizens of the Soviet Ukraine. This was followed by the Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, in which certain national minorities in these same regions were identified as enemies of the Soviet state. Seven hundred thousand people were murdered, mostly agricultural laborers and Soviet Poles. After the war began, this region, where German and Soviet power overlapped at various times, was particularly deadly. The fate of nationals and Jews in Poland (jointly invaded and occupied by the Germans and Soviets when they were allies, occupied fully by the Germans when they declared war on the Soviet Union, and finally “liberated” by the Soviets) was simply horrendous. Warsaw was completely leveled by the end of the war, Poland’s political elite and intellectual classes murdered, and most of Europe’s largest Jewish population, that of the Polish Jews, almost completely exterminated. And for all the killing, the Nazi plans for the region fell far short of their ambitions, which were to occupy and annex Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, western Russia, and the Caucasus. The region was to be depopulated and de-industrialized, made into an agrarian domain of Germany, and repopulated by German nationals who needed additional living space. The plans for this area that the Nazis expected to conquer included starving 30 million people of the region to death, deporting, enslaving or assimilating the remaining population, and exterminating all of the Jews living in this area.

This book is not popular narrative history as much as it is a meticulous chronicle. It attempts to comprehensively document what happened more than address why it happened, at least in the sense that examination of cultural and psychological motives are not extensively explored. Snyder does look at political motives, especially at the logistical mechanisms they spawned and how those were informed by the fate of the military conflict. For example, Soviet prisoners and other captives were simply killed or starved to death when German soldiers on the Eastern Front needed food, but at other times, when there were labor shortages in Germany, they were transported to Germany to work as slave labor in vital war industries. Snyder is concerned that his task of providing numbers and quantification can have on the reader a numbing effect, that they can diminish our empathy, so he has included in his account extracts from the diaries of victims in order to put a human face on the numbers.

Snyder’s concluding chapter, in which he interprets the significance of the story he has documented and argues for a paradigmatic shift in how we view what happened in the “Bloodlands,” is the most controversial part of the book. But whether the reader agrees or disagrees with his conclusions, Snyder makes here an eloquent and moving argument about the purpose of historical scholarship. His argument that we develop “cultures of memory” that serve contemporary political interests, and that those cultures alter our perspective of particular historical events, seems inescapably true. It means that our laudable sense of duty to represent the past accurately, to honor how people lived during a particular place and time, to understand what they suffered, and to find meaning in their experience, is an active and ongoing task. We may treasure memory, rightly or wrongly as something inviolate, but the practice of what we call “history” is a continuous conversation with the past.

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