There were moments reading this book when I was forced to shut it closed, an experience utterly alien to me. Like any reasonably historically-aware individual, I considered myself familiar with the carnage that overtook Europe in the earlier half of the 20th century: the gas chambers and the gulags, the mass shootings and show trials, the wanton disregard for human life and the heinous ideas which compelled people to, actively or passively, play a part in the deaths of tens of millions of fellow human beings. Reading about this period, there comes a point when the sheer scale and horror of the events which took place — the instant incineration of tens of thousands of civilians, for instance — desensitizes one from appreciating the sheer terror and physical pain that individuals endured.
Even with the knowledge of these attrocities, there is still little than can prepare a reader for the grisly accounts of the Ukrainian Famine that Timothy Snyder details in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Of course, I knew something about the widespread starvation that afflicted Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933. This mass culling was directly caused by Josef Stalin’s collectivization policies, which were comprised of seizing private farms and exporting whatever food was grown to the rest of the Soviet Union and beyond. Those who have studied the event in-depth will not find anything new in Snyder’s account. But most readers, I imagine, will reevaluate their conception of the depths of human depravity when they read, in particular, about the widespread cannibalism that became rampant in what Robert Conquest has referred to as “one vast Belsen.” These are tales that one imagined lay only in the realm of zombie films: parents cooking and eating their own children, children in a nursery eating each other, a starving toddler literally eating himself.
The lack of popular knowledge about the Ukrainian Famine, or Holodomor, is largely attributable to two factors. The first is that, unlike the Nazi Holocaust, the question of whether the famine constitutes a premeditated act of genocide on the part of Joseph Stalin (as opposed to, at worst, a symptom of callous neglect, or, at best, a tragedy brought upon by environmental factors) remains a topic of a highly politicized historical debate. In modern-day Ukraine, a nation still struggling to find an identity for the post-Soviet age, this question is a contentious issue, to say the least (the first act of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, after his inauguration last year, was to remove a section on the presidential website dedicated to the Holodomor). Memory of the famine has also not been served well by the various apologists for communism, from Walter Duranty (who, as the New York Times’s man in Moscow at the time, not only denied that it was happening but won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so) to the celebrated Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who, when asked in a television interview, “had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” simply answered, “Yes.” Secondly, the Holocaust of European Jewry in the subsequent decade has overshadowed the Ukrainian tragedy, in both scale and intent. Today, denial of the Nazi Holocaust is a crime in many European countries. While some former Soviet states have passed similar laws regarding the crimes of communism, minimizing or rationalizing said crimes as the result of poor leadership as opposed to the inevitable results of an inherently unjust doctrine remains, in some Western intellectual circles, a mark of erudition.
That the Ukrainian genocide (or, indeed, any of the Soviet Union’s mass-killing campaigns) is not popularly remembered as such is also partly due to the machinations of that regime in crafting the internationally agreed-upon legal definition of the term. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer who devised the term “genocide,” intended that it include crimes against members of a “social collectivity.” Early drafts of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide included members of “political” groups in the definition, yet due to hard lobbying by the Soviet Union, this was written out. The Soviets cynically argued that defining “social” or “political” groups was a nebulous task at best; given Stalin’s wanton killings of enemies, real or perceived, this elision was obviously convenient. As opposed to the strict racial classifications of Nazi Germany, which left no room for ambiguity as to what constituted an inferior class of human beings, the mutability of the groups which the Soviet leadership invariably deemed “reactionary” or “counter-revolutionary” rendered Stalin’s terror all the more arbitrary.
With its ferocious attention to detailing the crimes of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Bloodlands has inevitably become a new entrant into the long-running debate about the comparative evil of Nazism and Stalinism, though Snyder, a scrupulous historian who shies away from polemic (an exemplar of this increasingly rare breed), does not consider himself a partisan in this particular battle. Contrary to some of his critics, Snyder has not minimized the horror or unique evil of the Holocaust by writing a book that studies it alongside the array of atrocities carried out by Stalin in the years leading up to, during, and after the Second World War. Rather, Snyder’s aim is to place the Holocaust within the context of this era of mass killing. He does so by focusing on the region he terms the “bloodlands,” the territories that fell under both German and Soviet occupation between 1933 and 1945 and were the main theaters of those regimes’ policies of non-combat-related mass murder. The era of the bloodlands commences with the Ukrainian famine, is followed by Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937–1938, continues with the combined German and Soviet mass murder of Poles during the short-lived period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the German starvation of Soviet citizens across present-day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and ends with the German “reprisal” killings of Belarusians and Poles. All told, some fourteen million people are estimated to have died as a result of these atrocities; to put this number into context, it is two million more than the total number of German and Soviet soldiers killed in battle and over thirteen million more than American losses in all of its foreign wars combined.
Without diminishing the enormity of the Holocaust, Snyder dissents from those writers who argue that it is its very enormity that renders it inexplicable. “To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap,” he writes. Considering the fact that genocides have occurred with depressing regularity over the seven decades since the mass-murder of Ukrainian “kulaks,” Roma, gays, the Polish intelligentsia, and the attempted extinction of European Jewry itself, this is a sensible, and morally responsible course to take. The Holocaust was a unique historical event, the causes of which were distinctive. But it’s precisely because it occurred alongside other wide-scale horrors that Snyder is right to “test the proposition that deliberate and direct mass murder by these two regimes in the bloodlands is a distinct phenomenon worthy of separate treatment.”
That these territories would one day earn the moniker of “bloodlands” became inevitable before Adolf Hitler ever came to power. In 1928, Stalin announced the first in what would become a series of Five Year Plans, mandating the forced collectivization of agricultural land in the Soviet Union. Two years later, the ogpu, or Soviet Secret Police, promulgated a policy calling for the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” There was no particular rhyme or reason involved in determining what constituted a “kulak”; Snyder recounts one local party leader stating, “We create kulaks as we see fit.” Basically, any peasant who owned land was considered a kulak, and this relatively privileged position meant that they had to be eliminated in order to allow “history” to proceed apace. In a murderous adaptation of the local traffic cop’s speeding ticket quota, local communist party officials were given victim targets; “the numbers came down from the center,” Snyder writes, “but the corpses were made locally.” Camps were established in the far reaches of the Soviet Union, in Siberia and Kazakhstan, where, eventually, some 1.7 million kulaks, (among them 300,000 Ukrainians), were deported. By the summer of 1932, over one million people had starved to death.
Did the murder of the kulaks — and the starvation of Ukrainians more broadly — constitute “genocide?” The language that Stalin and his henchmen used to describe these victims was similar to the sort employed by Nazis to depict Jews and other undesirables. “We will make soap of kulaks” and “Our class enemy must be wiped off the face of the earth” were two such slogans. There can really be no doubt about the eliminationist intent of Stalin here, even if the killings were not as mechanized or methodically carried out as was the mass murder of nearly six million Europeans Jews by the Nazis and their allies. Kulaks were essentially endowed with ethnic traits; the children of Kulaks were forever cast as such by the Stalin regime.
In terms of mass murder, Stalin had a major head start on Hitler. By 1938, only 267 people had been sentenced to death in Nazi Germany (compared to the nearly 400,000 death sentences meted out in the anti-kulak operation by this time). Both ideologically and practically, Stalinism gave rise to Hitler. This was thanks to Soviet communism’s absolutist and totalitarian nature, which gave Hitler all the evidence he needed that nothing less than the full militarization of society was required to confront the eastern menace. Similarly, Stalin’s paranoid worldview directly contributed to policies which only emboldened Hitler. Stalin instructed German communists to treat their Social Democratic countrymen as “social fascists,” leading to fractures on the German left that ultimately gave way for Hitler’s ascent. This hothouse geopolitical environment created, as Hobsbawm would later put it, an “Age of Extremes.”
Despite its mantra of international brotherhood and cross-cultural fraternity, the Soviet Union’s killing campaigns were very much targeted at particular ethnic groups, even if they were publicly presented as class-motivated. In this sense, too, can the various anti-national killing sprees of the Soviet Union be classified as “genocides,” even if Stalin did not frame them in such an explicitly racialist or ethnic manner. The anti-kulak campaigns, for all their class-laden rhetoric, were directed mostly at Ukrainians. And “the most persecuted European national minority in the second half of the 1930s,” Snyder writes, “was not the four hundred thousand or so German Jews (the number declining because of emigration) but the six hundred thousand or so Soviet Poles (the number declining because of executions).” Concocting a conspiracy by which a “Polish Military Organization” caused the Ukrainian famine by sabotaging collectivization schemes, Stalin had some 85,000 Soviet Poles executed in 1937 and 1938 as part of his larger Great Terror campaign, in which nearly 700,000 were killed across the Soviet Union. At the time, Poles represented less than 0.4 percent of the Soviet population. The motivation for these murder campaigns — genocides — belied the basic Marxist principle of internationalism, predicated as they were on the very racial and nationalist fears that capitalists supposedly provoked to undermine international worker solidarity. “If the diaspora ethnicities of the Soviet Union were disloyal, as the case against them went, it was not because they were bound to a previous economic order,” Snyder writes, “but because they were supposedly linked to a foreign state by their ethnicity.”
The perverse irony of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s desire to conquer the bloodlands was that by expanding their empires they diversified them. Suddenly, they had a whole lot of foreigners living under their domain, who would need to be pacified. And so the solution to this problem would have to be the liquidation of massive numbers of people. It was in Poland where these murderous impulses first converged. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union could agree on the decapitation of the Polish intelligentsia, “an attack on the very concept of modernity,” Snyder writes, “a policy of de-Enlightenment.” It was this mutual interest — fear of Poland — that brought the erstwhile antagonistic powers to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Over the two-year period in which the Pact held firm, both sides murdered about 200,000 Poles and deported a million more.
But it was in Belarus where the conflagration between Nazis and Soviets, and between collaborationists and partisans, was greatest. By the end of the war, Snyder writes, a full half of the country’s population had either been killed or deported. Minsk had the greatest concentration of Jews in Europe, and it was here where Nazi anti-Semitism confronted Stalin with a challenge. “If the Soviet Union was nothing more than a Jewish empire,” as Hitler claimed (a belief that was somehow able to coexist with the equally maniacal belief that Jews controlled the levers of international finance), “then surely (went the Nazi argument) the vast majority of Soviet citizens had no reason to defend it.” Stalin deflected this propaganda by ignoring the vast crimes committed against Soviet Jews, qua Jews, characterizing Hitler’s victims as “Soviet citizens,” the greatest portion of whom were, he emphasized, ethnic Russians. The baleful effects of this double denial of the anti-Semitic nature of the Holocaust remains with us today. Throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, the special suffering of the Jews was never acknowledged, as it presented a “threat to postwar Soviet mythmaking.” To this day, the populations of the former Soviet Bloc, and some elements of their intelligentsia, have yet to come to terms with their historical complicity in the Holocaust, painting their ancestors as victims, which indeed many of them no doubt were, while ignoring the fact that many were erstwhile collaborators. In Lithuania, for instance, where over 95 percent of the country’s Jewish population died in the Holocaust with widespread Lithuanian complicity, the government has actually attempted to bring legal charges against Holocaust survivors who participated in the anti-Nazi underground because they happened to collaborate with communists.
The problem of forgetting is treated brilliantly in Snyder’s study of postwar Stalinist revisionism, and the role that Western policies played in eliding the significance of the Holocaust. Allied leaders did not want to portray the war as one to save European Jewry, not because they were “reticent” to buy into “Hitler’s racist understanding of the world” (which Snyder allows would have been a “more enlightened form” of interpreting their motives), but because they knew that a war which explicitly cited the rescue of European Jews as a principal aim would not gain popular support among their domestic constituencies. In this way, the motive of their downplaying of Nazi anti-Semitism was similar to Stalin’s. And while Holocaust education and memorializing is prevalent in the United States (far more so than in Europe — with the notable exception of Germany — which is shameful considering the geographical location of the events), this was not always the case. Despite the images of walking skeletons that greeted American liberators at Buchenwald, the full enormity of the Holocaust was not fully appreciated, even in the Western world, until relatively recently, for the simple reason that “the Americans and the British liberated no part of Europe that had a very significant Jewish population before the war, and saw none of the German death facilities.” Those facilities, and the fields in which the Germans exterminated the vast majority of their Jewish victims, lay in the bloodlands, which were conquered by the Soviets.
The concentration camp and the gas chamber loom large in our understanding of this era, and for good reason: The locus of mechanized and efficient killing, they were the horrific fruits of 20th-century technological expertise put to use in service of a barbaric ideology. Snyder stresses, however, that these impersonal houses of slaughter were not the places where most victims of the bloodlands died. Indeed, “the vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.” Their murders were personal affairs in that they involved soldiers firing bullets into their bodies; death did not take place within a closed chamber and the murderers saw the faces of their victims. Most of the killing took place in the fields and forests of Eastern Europe.
Again and again, we see how the policies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union complimented each other in killing off the people who lay between them. As the Red Army advanced on Warsaw in late 1944 and the Polish Home Army rose in resistance to the Germans, Snyder writes that “it made perfect Stalinist sense to encourage an uprising, and then not to assist one.” The logic behind this was that the deaths of both Germans and Polish partisans would be beneficial to Soviet aims, as the latter would be expected to resist communist control of their country once they had repelled the Nazis. When the war was over and the Soviet Union took control of Poland, Stalin executed those non-communists (and many communists) who took part in the anti-Nazi resistance in the belief that “armed action not controlled by the communists undermined the communists” (Stalin carried out a similar policy during the Spanish Civil War, encouraging his proxies to turn on the other anti-fascist forces, thereby ensuring a victory for Franco). As one Polish Home Army soldier put this horrible predicament in a poem quoted by Snyder, “We await you, red plague / To deliver us from black death.”
Snyder’s conclusion that it was Stalin who “won Hitler’s war” will be controversial with many historians and contemporary anti-communist political figures who argue that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were equally to blame for the outbreak of World War II. By renouncing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and declaring war on the Soviet Union, Hitler plunged his erstwhile ally into the most devastating conflict that the world had seen, in which over twenty million Soviet citizens perished. This was a war that Hitler ultimately wanted — and started — but from which Stalin ended up being the biggest beneficiary. As his pre-war policies made clear, Stalin was not in the least worried by the deaths of his own people — even in their millions. By the time he had defeated the Nazis, Stalin found himself in control (with the connivance of his Western allies) over whole swaths of Eastern Europe that he had long coveted. Post-war Soviet population transfers fit hand-in-glove with the very Nazi racial policies that the West had tried to defeat; by removing ethnic minorities from Poland and killing the country’s nationalists, “communists had taken up the program of their enemies.” But world domination was not the motivating goal of the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, as it was for Nazi Germany.
Snyder leaves us with the frightening thought of what fate might have befallen Soviet Jewry if Stalin hadn’t died in March, 1953. In 1951, with Stalin’s goading, Czech communists launched the notorious Slansky show trial against alleged traitors within their ranks; eleven of the fourteen defendants were of Jewish origin. This was followed the next year by “The Doctor’s Plot,” when the Soviet central committee accused “Jewish nationals” of attempting to kill Stalin and overthrow his regime. “Every Jew is a nationalist and an agent of American intelligence,” Stalin declared in December 1952; the implications of this statement, given everything we know about his treatment of those he deemed “nationalists” or “agents” of foreign powers, is chilling. Fortunately, he died just a few months later. Had Stalin lived longer, Snyder writes, it would not have been too much to expect that “the Jewish people as such would have been subject to forced removal or even mass shootings,” or even, one presumes, a second Holocaust.
How is it that Stalin, and communism more generally, gets a better hearing than Hitler and Nazism, universally regarded as the epitome of evil? Snyder reports that the Nazis deliberately killed upwards of eleven million; for the Soviets during the Stalin period the figure was between six and nine million. On the Soviet side, these numbers are far less than what had originally been believed, due to the opening of Eastern European and Soviet archives in the twenty years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Numbers alone, however, cannot be the only measure of these regimes’ evil, especially when they are so ghastly high on both sides. As Snyder has written elsewhere, “Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death.” What has allowed the Soviet Union to escape the same sort of historical reproach as Nazi Germany is that its killing was carried out in the furtherance of various causes — absolute economic equality, the preservation of a dictatorship, the collectivization of agriculture — that are not commonly considered to exist on the same moral plane as a theory of racial superiority. “In Stalinism mass murder could never be anything more than a successful defense of socialism, or an element in a story of progress toward socialism; it was never the political victory itself,” Snyder explains. That of course doesn’t excuse the crimes of Stalinism or render them, on an individual scale, less tragic or evil than those committed by Nazis.
But the question won’t go away. Nearly 70 years since the end of the Second World War, this book has been released in the midst of a contentious debate in Central and Eastern Europe about the relative nature of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Academics, journalists and political leaders in this region, particularly in the Baltic states, have put forward a “double genocide” approach to understanding this period of European history, which, unlike the more nuanced take of Snyder (who, while placing the Stalinist and Nazi regimes alongside each other as subjects of historical inquiry, does not equate them in terms of moral depravity), is explicitly political. In 2008, a group of political figures from the European Soviet successor states issued “The Prague Declaration,” which calls upon Europe to accept Nazism and Communism as its “common legacy.” Lithuania’s Museum of Genocide Victims is emblematic of this worrying trend. The “genocide” it refers to is the accumulated crimes of the Soviet occupation, which, over the course of nearly five decades, resulted in the deaths of 74,500. There is no mention of the word “Holocaust,” and hardly any mention of the more than 200,000 Jews who were murdered by the Nazis or their Lithuanian collaborators from 1941 to 1944.
The Nazi plan to eliminate the Jewish race — a plan which it executed often with the gleeful participation of local collaborators who needed no prompting in rounding up and murdering their Jewish neighbors — is today being downplayed so that Soviet crimes loom larger. If this were being done merely to recover a part of history that was suppressed until 1989, and whose enormity continues to be downplayed by Western leftists, it would perhaps be defensible. But there are ulterior motives. This historical airbrushing amounts to “Holocaust obfuscation,” in the words of the academic Dovid Katz, which, he writes, “tries to reduce all evil to equal evil, in effect to confuse the issue in order to write the inconvenient genocide that is the Holocaust out of history as a distinct category.” Last year, for instance, the Lithuanian government passed a law making it illegal to deny that the actions of the Soviet Union in Lithuania constitute “genocide,” as it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. Another suggestion of those pushing the “double genocide” analysis is the commemoration of August 23, the date the Molotov-Ribbentrop Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact was signed, as a single memorial day for the victims of both totalitarian regimes, thus reducing the importance of Holocaust remembrance. In campaigning for EU recognition of this new standard, the Lithuanian foreign minister has said that the body’s understanding of genocide should be broadened to include crimes against groups targeted for their “social status or political convictions,” in other words, Lemkin’s original formulation.
That’s a proposal with which Snyder would no doubt agree. But his acknowledgement that the period of 1933 to1945 was marked by several genocides, rather than a single one, does not lead him to promote the “double genocide” theory. Snyder has written elsewhere that “The mass murder of the Jews was, indeed, unprecedented in its horror; no other campaign involved such rapid, targeted and deliberate killing, or was so tightly bound to the idea that a whole people ought to be exterminated.” It is morally specious to compare the Jewish Holocaust to the Soviet “genocide” of Balts or Poles or Ukrainians, awful as the experiences of these peoples were, because of the inherently different nature of the methods the Soviet and Nazi regimes used against their subject populations. The Soviet Union had many local collaborators throughout its occupied and satellite territories. And while the Nazis also had collaborators during their occupation of the Baltic States, there was never any room for a Jewish collaborator in the Nazi project. A Jew’s fate under Nazism was inescapable and could not be mitigated by membership in the Nazi party, as, say, a Lithuanian’s or Pole’s or Ukrainian’s fate under Soviet occupation could be affected by his membership in the local Communist party. Though Stalin’s murder campaigns were, in many cases, predicated on ethnic antagonism, the difference is that the Soviets did not exterminate for extermination’s own sake. Once Stalin’s discrete policies had been achieved (the collectivization of Ukrainian farms, for instance), the mass murder stopped, and the Soviet Union eventually wound down its widescale deportations and mass killings in the mid- 1950s. Had Hitler’s regime, with its animalistic understanding of human nature, lasted beyond 1945, its mass murder and terror would not have decreased. For these tactics were not just means but ends; they were the very lifeblood, theweltanschauung, of nazism itself. Following the extermination of European Jewry, the Nazis would have moved onto the wholesale elimination of other ethnic and national groups. As the historian David Satter has written, “Their plans for the racial purification of Europe envisaged an open ended process.” The crucial factor one must consider in evaluating these two strains of totalitarianism is their competing long-term visions, and the policies that were required to execute them. Classifying Stalin’s various murder campaigns (alongside Nazi policies towards Roma, gays, educated Poles and Soviet citizens in Belarus and Ukraine) as “genocides,” which Snyder does, while also singling out the Holocaust as the worst of them all, is not mutually exclusive. To recognize the uniqueness of the Holocaust is not to be “soft” on the crimes of communism.
Surveying a time and subject that has been studied, dramatized, and argued about perhaps more thoroughly than any other in history, Bloodlands is an incredibly original work. It seeks to redirect our understanding of the Holocaust as primarily an eastern phenomenon, and one which took place among a spate of mass killing policies. When popular interest in the Holocaust and an “international collective memory” of it began to form in the 1970s and1980s, it focused almost exclusively on the experience of German and West European Jews, the wealthiest and most assimilated on the continent, who died in far smaller numbers than did the Jews of Poland, Belarus, and the Baltic States, who were nearly eradicated. “Deprived of its Jewish distinctiveness in the East, and stripped of its geography in the West, the Holocaust never quite became part of European history,” Snyder writes. Similarly, “By introducing a new kind of anti-Semitism into the world,” Snyder writes, “Stalin made of the Holocaust something less than it was” by minimizing the distinct hatred that the Nazis reserved for the Jewish people. (Ironically, by their promotion of the “double genocide” rubric, today’s nationalistic eastern European anti-communists are furthering Stalin’s own pernicious historical whitewash of the Holocaust’s distinctly anti-Jewish nature). Snyder has corrected these historiographic oversights. With this magisterial book, he has rendered the Holocaust, and the horrors that preceded and accompanied it, their rightful place.