Review of Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin."

Thursday, December 16, 2010; 6:29 PM


Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder

Basic. 524 pp. $29.95

Ten years ago I traveled to Belarus to examine the killing sites of the early Holocaust. My host, Stanislav Shushkevich, who had been the new country's first head of state, was more than willing to show me the places where SS killers had shot Belorussian Jewish men, women and children into mass graves by the hundreds of thousands - but first he wanted to show me where Soviet killers, just a few years earlier, had murdered hundreds of thousands of other Belorussians. My book "Masters of Death" told the story of the early "bullet" Holocaust that pushed out from Germany up through Latvia and down into Ukraine in the wake of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Now, in a more comprehensive narrative, Yale historian Timothy Snyder enlarges the perspective to include Stalin's slaughters as well as Hitler's.

Snyder identifies three phases of mass killing in what he chillingly calls the "Bloodlands" of Eastern Europe: deliberate mass starvation and shootings in the Soviet Union in the period from 1933 to 1938; mass shootings in occupied Poland more or less equally by Soviet and German killers in 1939 to 1941; deliberate starvation of 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and mass shooting and gassing of more than 5 million Jews by the Germans between 1941 and 1945. Snyder estimates the death toll from all this deliberate killing at 14 million. How did Stalin and Hitler justify such slaughter? Were there parallels or commonalities between the two?

Stalin forced famine upon Soviet Ukraine and the Caucasus to collectivize farming, appropriating it to feed the workers as the U.S.S.R. rapidly industrialized. He did so by authorizing impossible production quotas and confiscating even the seed grain. The millions who starved in their scraped fields in the early 1930s were blamed for their own deaths, their starvation evidence that they had deliberately sabotaged production to subvert the government's plans. A second round of mass killing in the late '30s targeted Stalin's former associates as well as quotas of random victims, consolidating his power while installing terror as the basic mechanism of state authority. Decapitating the Soviet military by imprisoning or executing almost all its general officers nearly cost the country its survival when Germany invaded it in a surprise attack in 1941.

Hitler imagined the Bloodlands to be places of colonization, like India and Africa for England, Belgium and France and Native America for the United States. The Poles would be worked to death, the Russians allowed to starve to free up the Bloodlands granary to feed Germans. After the victory, retired SS warrior-farmers would establish utopian agricultural colonies to block the Asiatic hordes pressing westward over the Urals. Rather than feed Soviet prisoners of war, of which there were millions, the Wehrmacht callously confined them behind barbed wire without shelter or food; it was from this wretched mass that the SS selected laborers to dig its killing pits and, later, guard its death camps.

Debate has long raged among historians about the timing of the Final Solution decision. Snyder, in my opinion correctly, identifies "four distinct versions of the Final Solution" that preceded the actual hecatomb: "the Lublin plan for a [Jewish] reservation in eastern Poland," Jewish emigration into the Soviet Union with Stalin's consent (which he refused), Jewish resettlement in Madagascar (which the British navy would have blocked), and forced emigration into the Soviet Union after the German invasion. When these alternatives failed, Hitler in the summer of 1941 ordered the Jews of Europe directly killed because he judged them to be uniquely dangerous. The SS-Einsatzgruppen - special task forces - that Heinrich Himmler sent into Poland and the Soviet Union in the wake of the German invasion benefited from the jails full of corpses that the Soviet NKVD forces had left behind. "The act of killing Jews as revenge for NKVD executions," Snyder writes, "confirmed the Nazi understanding of the Soviet Union as a Jewish state . . . . The idea that only Jews served communists was convenient not just for the occupiers but for some of the occupied as well."

Snyder's research is careful and thorough, his narrative powerful, if inevitably restrained. His interpretation of the events he describes is less confident, however. He is clear that the influence of "modernity," as some have theorized, is hardly an adequate explanation for the Holocaust. But in attributing the Nazi shift from shooting to gassing to the gas chamber's supposedly greater "efficiency," he overlooks the very evidence he cites. The death camps seldom managed as many as 6,000 deaths in a day, while 34,000 were shot to death in Kiev's Babi Yar ravine in two days in September 1941, more than 40,000 in Romania "in a few days" that December. Another 40,000 were shot at Maly Trastsianets, one of the sites outside Minsk that Shushkevich took me to see. "Nearly half" of the 5.4 million Jews who died "under German occupation," Snyder summarizes, died by bullets.

Why does the distinction matter? Because the trauma of direct killing worked destructively on the killers, to Himmler's great chagrin. They turned drunken, broke down or, worse in Himmler's view, came to enjoy killing rather than only tolerating it as a grim duty. The death camps with their gas chambers and crematoria made it possible for a few SS officers to direct large-scale killing with minimal contact with the victims; local conscripts, Russian prisoners of war and the Jews themselves suffered the burden of guarding, processing and mass murder. That is, the death camps evolved not to kill human beings more efficiently but to limit the trauma of the perpetrators.

In that regard the killings were not much different from the mass firebombings and atomic bombings from high altitude that Britain and the United States perpetrated upon enemy civilians in the course of the war. The Bloodlands of central Europe had their counterparts in the burned-out cities of Germany and Japan with their millions of dead. Almost 10 times as many died on all sides across those six terrible years as died in the Holocaust. It deserves its reputation as the horror of horrors, but there was more widespread horror as well. By including Soviet with German mass atrocities in his purview, Timothy Snyder begins the necessary but as yet still taboo examination of the full depravity of total war as it was practiced in the 20th century, before the advent of nuclear weapons foreclosed it. The next step, for someone brave enough, will be to examine and explain the mass atrocities of the victors.

Richard Rhodes is the author most recently of "The Twilight of the Bombs."

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