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The Worst of the Madness

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Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, center, arriving in Berlin to meet with Adolf Hitler, November 12, 1940. At front left are German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Once, in an attempt to explain the history of his country to outsiders, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz described the impact of war, occupation, and the Holocaust on ordinary morality. Mass violence, he explained, could shatter a man’s sense of natural justice. In normal times,

had he stumbled upon a corpse on the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions….

Murder became ordinary during wartime, wrote Miłosz, and was even regarded as legitimate if it was carried out on behalf of the resistance. In the name of patriotism, young boys from law-abiding, middle-class families became hardened criminals, thugs for whom “the killing of a man presents no great moral problem.” Theft became ordinary too, as did falsehood and fabrication. People learned to sleep through sounds that would once have roused the whole neighborhood: the rattle of machine-gun fire, the cries of men in agony, the cursing of the policeman dragging the neighbors away.

For all of these reasons, Miłosz explained, “the man of the East cannot take Americans [or other Westerners] seriously.” Because they hadn’t undergone such experiences, they couldn’t seem to fathom what they meant, and couldn’t seem to imagine how they had happened either. “Their resultant lack of imagination,” he concluded, “is appalling.”1

But Miłosz’s bitter analysis did not go far enough. Almost sixty years after the poet wrote those words, it is no longer enough to say that we Westerners lack imagination. Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian whose past work has ranged from Habsburg Vienna to Stalinist Kiev, takes the point one step further. In Bloodlands, a brave and original history of mass killing in the twentieth century, he argues that we still lack any real knowledge of what happened in the eastern half of Europe in the twentieth century. And he is right: if we are American, we think “the war” was something that started with Pearl Harbor in 1941 and ended with the atomic bomb in 1945. If we are British, we remember the Blitz of 1940 (and indeed are commemorating it energetically this year) and the liberation of Belsen. If we are French, we remember Vichy and the Resistance. If we are Dutch we think of Anne Frank. Even if we are German we know only a part of the story.

Snyder’s ambition is to persuade the West—and the rest of the world—to see the war in a broader perspective. He does so by disputing popular assumptions about victims, death tolls, and killing methods—of which more in a moment—but above all about dates and geography. The title of this book, Bloodlands, is not a metaphor. Snyder’s “bloodlands,” which others have called “borderlands,” run from Poznan in the West to Smolensk in the East, encompassing modern Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and the edge of western Russia (see map on page 10). This is the region that experienced not one but two—and sometimes three—wartime occupations. This is also the region that suffered the most casualties and endured the worst physical destruction.

More to the point, this is the region that experienced the worst of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness. During the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, the lethal armies and vicious secret policemen of two totalitarian states marched back and forth across these territories, each time bringing about profound ethnic and political changes. In this period, the city of Lwów was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Wehrmacht. After the war ended it was called L’viv, not Lwów, it was no longer in eastern Poland but in western Ukraine, and its Polish and Jewish pre-war population had been murdered or deported and replaced by ethnic Ukrainians from the surrounding countryside. In this same period, the Ukrainian city of Odessa was occupied first by the Romanian army and then by the Wehrmacht before being reoccupied by the Soviet Union. Each time power changed hands there were battles and sieges, and each time an army retreated from the city it blew up the harbor or massacred Jews. Similar stories can be told about almost any place in the region.

This region was also the site of most of the politically motivated killing in Europe—killing that began not in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, but in 1933, with the famine in Ukraine. Between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million people died there, not in combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them. These deaths took place in the bloodlands, and not accidentally so: “Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow,” writes Snyder, “but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between.”

Beginning in the 1930s, Stalin conducted his first utopian agricultural experiment in Ukraine, where he collectivized the land and conducted a “war” for grain with the kulaks, the “wealthy” peasants (whose wealth sometimes consisted of a single cow). His campaign rapidly evolved into a war against Ukrainian peasant culture itself, culminating in a mass famine in 1933. In that same year, Hitler came to power and began dreaming of creating Lebensraum, living space, for German colonists in Poland and Ukraine, a project that could only be realized by eliminating the people who lived there.2 In 1941, the Nazis also devised the Hunger Plan, a scheme to feed German soldiers and civilians by starving Polish and Soviet citizens. Once again, the Nazis decided, the produce of Ukraine’s collective farms would be confiscated and redistributed: “Socialism in one country would be supplanted by socialism for the German race.”

Not accidentally, the fourteen million victims of these ethnic and political schemes were mostly not Russians or Germans, but the peoples who inhabited the lands in between. Stalin and Hitler shared a contempt for the very notions of Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic independence, and jointly strove to eliminate the elites of those countries. Following their invasion of western Poland in 1939, the Germans arrested and murdered Polish professors, priests, intellectuals, and politicians. Following their invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, the Soviet secret police arrested and murdered Polish professors, priests, intellectuals, and politicians. A few months later, Stalin ordered the murder of some 20,000 Polish officers at Katyn and in other forests nearby as well.

Stalin and Hitler also shared a hatred for the Jews who had long flourished in this region, and who were far more numerous there than in Germany or anywhere else in Western Europe. Snyder points out that Jews were fewer than one percent of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933, and many did manage to flee. Hitler’s vision of a “Jew-free” Europe could thus only be realized when the Wehrmacht invaded the bloodlands, which is where most of the Jews of Europe actually lived. Of the 5.4 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, four million were from the bloodlands. The vast majority of the rest—including the 165,000 German Jews who did not escape—were taken to the bloodlands to be murdered. After the war, Stalin became paranoid about those Soviet Jews who remained, in part because they wanted to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust. At the end of his life he purged and arrested many thousands of them, though he died too soon to carry out another mass murder.

Above all, this was the region where Nazism and Soviet communism clashed. Although they had signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact in 1939, agreeing to divide the bloodlands between them, Stalin and Hitler also came to hate each other. This hatred proved fatal to both German and Soviet soldiers who had the bad luck to become prisoners of war. Both dictators treated captured enemies with deadly utilitarianism. For the Germans, Soviet POWs were expendable: they consumed calories needed by others and, unlike Western POWs, were considered to be subhuman. And so they were deliberately starved to death in hideous “camps” in Poland, Russia, and Belarus that were not camps but death zones. Penned behind barbed wire, often in open fields without food, medicine, shelter, or bedding, they died in extraordinary numbers and with great rapidity. On any given day in the autumn of 1941, as many Soviet POWs died as did British and American POWs during the entire war. In total more than three million perished, mostly within a period of a few months.

In essence the Soviet attitude toward German POWs was no different. When, following the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army suddenly found itself with 90,000 prisoners, it also put them in open fields without any food or shelter. Over the next few months, at least half a million German and Axis soldiers would die in Soviet captivity. But as the Red Army began to win the war, it tried harder to keep captives alive, the better to deploy them as forced laborers. According to Soviet statistics, 2.3 million German soldiers and about a million of their allies (from Romania, Italy, Hungary, and Austria, but also France and Holland) eventually wound up in the labor camps of the Gulag, along with some 600,000 Japanese whose fate has been almost forgotten in their native land.3

Some were released after the war and others were released in the 1950s. There wasn’t necessarily any political logic to these decisions. At one point in 1947, at the height of the postwar famine, the NKVD unexpectedly released several hundred thousand war prisoners. There was no political explanation: the Soviet leadership simply hadn’t enough food to keep them all alive. And in the postwar world there were pressures—most of all from the USSR’s new East German client state—to keep them alive. The Nazis had operated without such constraints.

Though some of the anecdotes and statistics may be surprising to those who don’t know this part of the world, scholars will find nothing in Bloodlands that is startlingly new. Historians of the region certainly know that three million Soviet soldiers starved to death in Nazi camps, that most of the Holocaust took place in the East, and that Hitler’s plans for Ukraine were no different from Stalin’s. 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.

  1. 1

    Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (1953; Penguin, 2001), pp. 26–29. 

  2. 2

    Typical is the story of a house I own in northwest Poland: intending to “Germanize” the region, the Nazis evicted the Polish owners in 1939 and installed a German family from Lithuania in their place. These Germans were evicted again in 1944, and the house became state property. 

  3. 3

    These figures come from Richard Overy, Russia’s War (Penguin, 1997), p. 297, and from Voennoplennye v SSSR, 1939–1956: dokumenty i materialy, edited by M.M. Zagorul’ko (Moscow: Logos, 2000), pp. 331–333. 

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