Timothy Snyder, Krvavé země. Evropa mezi Hitlerem a Stalinem, Paseka-Prostor 2013 [Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Basic Books 2012]
This book by the young American historian Timothy Snyder (b. 1969, Oxford graduate, Yale professor) makes essential reading. The original was published in 2010 and the Czech translation appeared last year.
Covering a subject that is fascinating and horrific in equal measure, the book depicts the period from 1933 to 1945—i.e. the period when Hitler was in power in Germany and Stalin’s terror was in full swing in the Soviet Union—in an area that stretches to the east from present-day Poland and includes the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Belarus, Ukraine as well as a swathe in the west of present-day Russia.
These lands were indeed “bloody.” In the course of these dozen years, fourteen million people had been murdered there. The greatest murderers, in terms of the number of victims, were the Nazis and the communists, followed by perpetrators of ethnic and nationalist purges.
Everyone who wants to understand the 20th century, both Nazism and communism, must read this book.
One of its many unique merits is the fact that it connects the history of Western, Central and Eastern Europe, placing the Holocaust in the context of other mass murders and ethnic slaughter.
At the same time, this is a very poignant book, not just a thrilling work of history but at times a truly poetic work, with a melancholy and tragic quality. All the victims are named and are brought to life. They are not just statistics but human stories.
A little boy in Ukraine in 1933. A young Soviet man who said of his wife: “I will meet her under the ground”—and he was proved right since he was shot during the Great Terror shortly after her. The last entry in a Polish officer’s diary just before he was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1940. The eleven-year old girl in Leningrad who ended her humble diary in 1941 with the words “Only Tanya is left.” The twelve-year old Jewish girl in Belarus who wrote a last letter to her father: “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I’m so afraid of this death because they throw little children into the mass graves alive.”
All these victims, mentioned by Snyder on the first page of his book, had names. We are introduced to them—and to those of many other victims—in the course of the book. The author concludes:
“The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers… It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.”
This may well be the main moral message of this powerful book.
However, let us proceed chronologically and take a look at the events and mass killings Snyder describes. The shocking history of the “bloodlands” begins in 1932–1933 in Ukraine, where for political reasons Stalin unleashed a famine that claimed over 3 million victims.
1937 and 1938 in the Soviet Union were the years of the Great Terror, which resulted in seven thousand victims. Thus before World War II began in September 1938, the Nazis had murdered just a tiny number of people compared to the murders committed by the communists. The invasion of Poland was not only the beginning of World War II but also of six years of intensive killings. The allies who had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty did not only destroy the Polish state but between 1939 and 1941 were jointly responsible for murdering two hundred thousand people. In addition, the Soviets occupied Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Western Belarus and Ukraine, imposing a rule of terror. Later, after betraying his ally Stalin in June 1941 and waging war against him, Hitler let some 4 million Soviet people die of starvation, including one million in Leningrad. At the same time, the Nazis unleashed mass murders of the Jewish people: on the German-occupied territory of Poland, in the Baltic countries and Soviet Union 5.4 million Jews were shot dead or gassed. The worst massacres took place on the territory of Belarus and Ukraine, with Nazis and Soviets often goading each other to commit more murders (as during the partisan and anti-partisan battles in Belarus or the Soviet inaction during the Nazi destruction of Warsaw that killed half a million people.)
Altogether, this adds up to 14 million murder victims (Snyder does not include soldiers who died on the front lines). Another thing we have to bear in mind is that much of these “bloodlands” was occupied two to three times; the Nazi invasion was followed by the Soviet one; in the case of the Baltics and the former eastern Poland the Soviet-communist occupation was followed by the Nazi and then another Soviet one. Each of them unleashed a fresh wave of terror.
The book is crammed full of so many fascinating facts and observations that it is hard to know which ones to highlight.
The “internationalist” Soviet regime had always treated various ethnic minorities with selective brutality. It visited the famine upon Ukraine. A disproportionate number of victims of the 1937-1938 Great Terror purges were ethnic Poles living in the Soviet Union (Stalin believed at the time that Poland was planning to attack him jointly with Germany and Japan).
At the beginning of the Great Terror, ethnic minorities such as Jews and Latvians were disproportionately involved in running the Soviet machinery of repression (the Cheka, OGPU, NKVD). While in 1937 Jews comprised a third of higher-ranking NKVD officers, within two years only 4 percent of officers were Jewish; the rest had fallen victim to the Stalinist purges they had helped to start. Following the Great Terror ethnic Russians comprised two thirds of the Soviet repressive machinery, i.e. a much higher proportion than in the general population. This situation remained unchanged, meaning that under the Georgian Stalin the “internationalist” communist system of Soviet Union turned into a Russian nationalist one.
The Nazis started murdering Poles and Jews immediately after invading the country in 1939; a year later the Soviets, in turn, unleashed murders and deportations into gulags of Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and Ukrainians.
However, Snyder points out an astonishing fact: after invading the Soviet Union in June 1941 the Germans immediately began to murder Jews on a much larger scale than the killings in the gas chambers west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line. The number of Jews murdered by gas in these extermination camps (or “death factories” as Snyder calls them) west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line (e.g. Auschwitz)—mostly Jews coming from countries outside the “bloodlands,” i.e. the rest of occupied Europe—was much smaller than the number of those who had been shot dead to the east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line by the end of 1942! In other words, a substantial part of the Holocaust had happened much earlier than generally assumed with most of the victims shot dead, rather than gassed, in massacres such as the one in Babi Yar near Kiev. By the time the West learned of the Holocaust that was taking place in Nazi extermination camps, a much more substantial part of it had long been completed east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line.
The author himself had not expected to find such a great deal of evidence documenting the massacres: victims‘ diaries, personal testimonies, inscriptions and farewell greetings, like those carved into the wall of the Kovel synagogue. He also relates the tragic choices faced by people caught in the trap between Hitler and Stalin: for example, Polish Jews fleeing from the Nazi- occupied part of Poland to the Soviet zone of occupation in 1939–1940 regarded the Soviet regime as the lesser evil that would allow them to at least survive physically, only for the Nazis to use this fact in anti-Semitic propaganda that presented Soviet communism as a Jewish plot… Or the Baltic people who welcomed German soldiers as liberators in 1941 after having experienced over a year of Soviet occupation… Or the pure pathology of ethnic hatred, exemplified by Ukrainian, Belarusian or Lithuanian nationalists in German service who murdered Jews they suspected of being communist collaborators; Jewish partisans who exterminated several Belarusian or Lithuanian villages suspected of collaborating with the Nazis, or Ukrainian nationalists who sometimes joined forces with the Germans against the Russians, then again with the Russians against the Germans, which in every case involved ethnic purges and killings of ethnic Poles and Jews. And on top of this, there was the systematic terror by the NKVD, SS and Einsatztruppen.
The chapter on the destruction the Germans wrought on Warsaw—both in 1943, following the heroic Ghetto Uprising and in the summer of 1944, following the no less heroic Home Army Uprising—is extremely depressing in its depiction of the brutality of the events but also quite instructive in that it demonstrates Stalin’s perfidy and his attempt to wipe Warsaw off the face of the earth. This was another issue on which Hitler and Stalin agreed…
By the end of the war Stalin increasingly treated his empire as a Russian nationalist one and that is why in his reading there was no place for the special suffering of the Jewish people (or any other peoples, for that matter). In his view, it was the “Soviet people,” primarily the Russians, who had suffered most. The Holocaust did not fit this picture. In the second half of the 1940s his newly-developed suspicion towards the Soviet Jews unleashed a wave of Stalinist anti-Semitism. This must have given those comrades in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other satellites, who were of Jewish extraction, quite a headache (sometimes even worse).
However, if we look at the casualty figures, the number of Russian or “Soviet” ones is actually not as high as official Russian historians have claimed. The population of eastern Poland, western Ukraine, western Belarus and the Baltic countries, including their Jewish populations, cannot be classified as Soviet citizens before the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty and the invasion of Poland. If they can be said to have ever become “Soviet citizens,” this would have been solely as a result of violence and invasion. And if we look at the victims and the places where the slaughter took place and the war raged, we will see that the vast majority of victims were Jews, Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Baltic people rather than Russians.
However, as Snyder rightly points out, it is pointless arguing over who had suffered most and who had been the greatest victim. All this can achieve is stir up nationalist resentment. The question of who had suffered the most is not the most important one. There are two much more important issues—this is not Snyder’s argument but rather my commentary on his book.
The first one is the lesson history teaches us. It is a widespread belief that freedom and a decent form of government had been unknown before 1918. However, as the Jewish-Austrian- American writer Max Nomad (himself an anarchist in his youth, later a communist who broke with Stalinism in 1929) quipped: “the Tsar and Emperor were liberals.” Of course, neither Nicolas, Wilhelm nor Franz Josef were liberals, but their rule was extremely moderate and indeed free, compared to what followed later. That is what Nomad had in mind. The century that lasted from 1814 to 1914 was quite moderate in Europe in terms of state power—moderate compared to what came after 1917 and 1933. It is high time we re-evaluate the generally negative assessment of governments that had been in power in the course of the hundred years before civilized Europe committed suicide in 1914. What came after civilized Europe committed suicide, to say it with Leo Trotsky was “us”—i.e. the possessed. Communists, fascists, Nazis.
The other question is: How was that possible? What had spurred these people to become possessed?
The answer to this question is far from trivial, and neither is it a question of history or even political science. It is a philosophical, indeed theological one. Nazism and communism represented eruptions of metaphysical evil into time, space and material of human events. Literally. And how that came about, and why in the first half of the 20th century of all times, that is the question. A philosophical, indeed a theological one, as I have said.
And that brings us to coming to terms with the past. Nazism has a justly reviled reputation. That this is not quite the case with communism reflects a deficit of moral perception. Not only in Western Europe (when Euro-MPs from the Baltic countries screened the documentary The Soviet Story in the European Parliament, the screening was demonstratively boycotted by west European MPs. One said he could not support this kind of thing because without the Soviet Union Nazism would never have been defeated and Western Europe liberated. That tender-hearted chap from Luxembourg—a former prime minister at that— presumably had no idea that the Wehrmacht tanks that rolled over the Benelux countries and northern France in May 1940 had run on diesel from Baku that Stalin had supplied his friend Hitler with) but also here, in Central Europe.
I am not talking about people afflicted by communist, neo-communist or post-communist nostalgia. I am talking about genuine democrats, whose parents, however, had been communists in the nineteen thirties, forties, fifties and sixties.
What I am missing is some reflection on the part of these democrats—many of whom had in the 1970s and 1980s often been admirable anti-communist dissidents—of how and why it is possible that their fathers and mothers had turned into “Stalin’s willing executioners,“ to paraphrase the title of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s notorious (though ultimately flawed) book.
This is what the solid democrats of today and former anti-communist dissidents—albeit with roots in communist families—owe us to this day.
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