book response: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder (2010)

If you are not a melancholic person like myself, you might not “enjoy” this book, because only a 
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
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melancholic person can “enjoy” the depression brought on by a history of Eastern European genocide. Timothy Snyder writes Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, about the hyperbolic topic of the murder of fourteen million people without supplementing the inherent tragedy of the history sensationalistic writing. Although he weaves the story together with deftness, bringing clarity and, at times, poignancy, he stays out of the story’s way. Only a fool would try to bring attention to himself before something already so immense. Snyder is no such fool.

In my recent reading on the 2nd World War I’ve been stepping out of my America first perspective on it, and looking at the Eastern Front, where we provided materiel, but not the bodies. This book looks back a decade before the German invasion of the USSR to examine the horror Stalin previously wrought there. He writes,

In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people. The place where all of the victims died, the bloodlands, extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. Loc. 41-43
(My Kindle version, borrowed from the local library, does not have page numbers in the preface, so I provide location numbers.)

Of those 14 million, Stalin killed nearly five million of his own people, both before the war, in the Great Famine, but even during the war. His secret police were arresting and torturing Soviet citizens during the siege of St. Petersburg, when hundreds of thousands died of starvation in the city. Starvation, in Snyder’s argument, was the most effective means of murder for both Stalin and Hitler in Eastern Europe.

“Of the fourteen million civilians and prisoners of war killed in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, more than half died because they were denied food. Europeans deliberately starved Europeans in horrific numbers in the middle of the twentieth century. The two largest mass killing actions after the Holocaust—Stalin’s directed famines of the early 1930s and Hitler’s starvation of Soviet prisoners of war in the early 1940s—involved this method of killing.” Loc. 139-42

More civilians or prisoners of war were murdered than soldiers killed in action on the eastern front, and the soldier deaths were about ten million.

“The engagement of the Wehrmacht (and its allies) with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers, not to speak of the comparable number of civilians who died in flight, under bombs, or of hunger and disease as a result of the war on the eastern front. During this eastern war, the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and more than three million prisoners of war.” p. 155
Generally, Snyder follows the chronological unfolding of the waves of mass murder, starting with Stalin’s unintentional famine caused by his collectivation policy, which was followed with an intentional famine, to shift blame off his policies onto the mythical Kulaks, peasant farmers who did better than other peasant farmers, and resisted the deprivation of their property and life so the state could steal their grain for export. I say mythical, because Stalin actually had quotas for his secret police to fulfill in their arrests of Kulaks.

“At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, “we create kulaks as we see fit.” p. 26.
Kulaks also included starving children rounded up for begging.
“In Soviet Ukrainian cities policemen apprehended several hundred children a day; one day in early 1933, the Kharkiv police had a quota of two thousand to fill. About twenty thousand children awaited death in the barracks of Kharkiv at any given time. The children pleaded with the police to be allowed, at least, to starve in the open air... “ p. 22

One of the strengths of Snyder’s book are his sources. He uses public sources found in multiple countries, not only of official records, but also of family anecdotes found in written oral histories. This is not a history book dependent on English-only or English translated sources.

The insanity of Stalin’s narcissism meant that those millions that starved only had themselves to blame. “Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner.” p. 41 Even the appearance of starvation, like those waifs on the streets of Kiev were defying Stalin by looking like walking skeletons. The rationale also provided emotional inflexibility for the police working for Stalin, who executed the kulaks for being hungry, and attacking them for holding back crumbs from the state. Even communist supporters from other countries could buy Stalin’s line, “Foreign communists in the Soviet Union, witnesses to the famine, somehow managed to see starvation not as a national tragedy but as a step forward for humanity.” p. 54 Of course the religiously devout peasants saw it differently,

“Though their Orthodox Church had been suppressed by the atheist communist regime, the peasants were still Christian believers, and many understood the contract with the collective farm as a pact with the devil. Some believed that Satan had come to earth in human form as a party activist, his collective farm register a book of hell, promising torment and damnation. The new Machine Tractor Stations looked like the outposts of Gehenna.” p.29

It’s not that citizens of the USSR were stupid, but if they could be kept ignorant, the easier things were for Stalin. The USSR was an amazing record keeping juggernaut, in the time before spreadsheets, and they tracked everything, and kept those records in order to assist central planning. One important record was population. But that record was not acceptable to Stalin.

“The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than projected: most of these were famine victims in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia, and the children that they did not then have. Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed.” p.53

Repeatedly, those who did whatever Stalin wanted eventually made Stalin feel threatened and were subsequently murdered. Stalin’s ruthless quest for efficiency did not end in his collectivation efforts, but also included his secret police. He kept his killing squads small and their bullet supply limited. “When bullets were in short supply, NKVD men would force their victims to sit side by side, their heads in a line, so that a single bullet could be fired through several skulls at once.” p.99 “Only a very few people were directly involved. A team of just twelve Moscow NKVD men shot 20,761 people at Butovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, in 1937 and 1938.” p.83 Instead of spreading the killing job around, by keeping it to a few, if some of them cracked under the psychological strain, acting from the pathology of another, they could themselves be killed and replacements found.

Snyder sets up the contrast of Stalin to Hitler by pointing out the bar Stalin established before he allied with Hitler. “In the years 1937 and 1938, 267 people were sentenced to death in Nazi Germany, as compared to 378,326 death sentences within the kulak operation alone in the Soviet Union.” p. 86 When Stalin acquired his half of Poland from Hitler, things continued on as before. Stalin also blamed the failures of collectivation on the Poles and made them pay.  “Of the 143,810 people arrested under the accusation of espionage for Poland, 111,091 were executed. Not all of these were Poles, but most of them were.” p. 103 Thousands of Polish military officers were executed in the Katyn forest.

Hitler did not treat the Poles any better. The Jews in Poland were Hitler’s problem. I learned from Snyder that Jews were more of a hypothetical issue in Germany than actual. They comprised less than one percent of Germany’s population when he came to power in 1933, and a fourth of one percent by the time of the invasion of Poland. (p.61) Poland, however, was ten percent Jewish. (p. 122) All the death camps were outside of Germany, mostly in Poland. “The German mass murder of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union, not in Germany itself.” Loc. 59-60. In no way am I belittling the Jewish genocide of Hitler’s, but the population was small enough for him to do it, but his intentions did not end with Jews.

“The Germans murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (more than three million) and residents of besieged cities (more than a million) or by shooting civilians in “reprisals” (the better part of a million, chiefly Belarusians and Poles).” Loc. 72-74 As the movie Conspiracy showed, Hitler’s original solution for Jews was relocation to Madagascar, but that didn’t work out, and the rest of the world, except for the Dominican Republic, did not offer to take them, and save their lives.

“Jews at the time comprised no more than one half of one percent of the German population, and even this total was shrinking with emigration. There had never been very many Jews in Germany; but insofar as they were regarded as a “problem,” the “solution” had already been found: expropriation, intimidation, and emigration. (German Jews would have departed even faster than they did had the British allowed them to go to Palestine, or the Americans seen fit to increase—or even fill—immigration quotas. At the Evian Conference of July 1938, only the Dominican Republic agreed to take more Jewish refugees from Germany.)” p. 112

Slavs, however, were stuck between their enemies, Stalin and Hitler. When Hitler crossed over into the USSR, the genocidal plan was put into place to starve them while stealing their food to supply the army and the Germans back home. Hitler found historical precedent in European settlers’ treatment of Native Americans.

“The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, “in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.” p.160
If they couldn’t starve them in their homes, they’d starve them in their prisoner of war camps. “As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War.” p.182 Hitler actually collaborated with Stalin in the deaths of Soviet soldiers since Stalin declared that any soldier captured could not have been a loyal citizen who should have fought to the death. “All in all, perhaps 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war were killed.” p.184

Their psychopathic narcissism found scientific justification in Darwinism.

“Hitler and Stalin both accepted a late-nineteenth-century Darwinistic modification: progress was possible, but only as a result of violent struggle between races or classes. Thus it was legitimate to destroy the Polish upper classes (Stalinism) or the artificially educated layers of Polish subhumanity (National Socialism).” p. 156

By believing the Slavs as subhuman, ordinary German soldiers were able to write home about their atrocities, uncensored by the military watchdogs,
“...Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water.” On the second and third of October 1941, the Germans (with the help of auxiliary policemen from Ukraine) shot 2,273 men, women, and children at Mahileu. On 19 October another 3,726 followed. p.205
This “subhuman” mentality worked on Jews as well. “On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire.” p.227

The body counts do start to numb the mind, but it has to be proclaimed. The sheer immensity of human depravity needs to never be forgotten. I recently met a Belarusian after finishing this book, she noted my last name as German, and immediately I offered my apologies, though she bore no hard feelings. But the German atrocities in Belarus were just as bad as in Poland.

“Of the nine million people who were on the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians). These three general campaigns constituted the three greatest German atrocities in eastern Europe, and together they struck Belarus with the greatest force and malice. Another several hundred thousand inhabitants of Soviet Belarus were killed in action as soldiers of the Red Army.” p. 250

As the Red Army pushed into Poland, within sight of Warsaw, they encouraged the Poles to rise up, not to assist them in their invasion, but to assist Stalin in getting rid of uppity Poles who resist invaders. Without support, the Warsaw uprising was a massacre. The Western allies begged Stalin to let them use their air bases to bomb the Germans in assistance to the Jews, but Stalin wouldn’t give in until it was too late.

“The massacres in Wola had nothing in common with combat. The Germans lost six dead and killed about twenty Home Army soldiers while murdering at least thirty thousand people.” p. 304

“Great Britain had gone to war five years earlier on the question of Polish independence, which it was now unable to protect from its Soviet ally.” p.306

I have read and heard the guilty conscience of those opposed to bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they need to be put into the context of what the Germans and Japanese were doing themselves. “About as many Poles were killed in the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 as Germans were killed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945.” p.405

“More Poles were killed during the Warsaw Uprising alone than Japanese died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” p. 406


While Hitler’s Final Solution involved the demonically efficient gas chambers and crematoria, the completed facilities were late to the genocidal campaign. “By the time the gas chamber and crematoria complexes at Birkenau came on line in spring 1943, more than three quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead.” p.383

Somehow, name calling allows humans the fortitude to kill with less resistance of conscience. Stalin used the name Kulaks. Hitler used Untermenschen. As Snyder comes to the end of his work, he tries to summarize what we can learn from this experience.

“People who called others subhuman were themselves subhuman. Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.” p. 400

I think World War 2 is essential to keeping things in perspective. It’s the low water mark within living memory. Humans around the world are still trying to emulate the depravity, but no country has achieved the scale that the war did (except for Mao in China). When 14 million civilian lives are lost in eastern europe, there are 14 million stories to be told, and there aren’t enough books or historians to write them to give even a fraction the honor they deserve. I think all of us today can honor them by at least reading one of these books.

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