Sometimes I admire a book of history but am pleased I didn’t have to write it. Either it seems like a too-long project, or involves difficult research efforts, or requires spending psychic time with unattractive historical figures and situations.
All of those emotions arose as I recently read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, a harrowing depiction of the slaughter in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Ever since my older son and I undertook an ambitious bicycle journey from Warsaw to Odessa in 2008, I have been interested in learning about this long-benighted section of the world.
Snyder, a Yale professor, skillfully moves from close-up examinations of the technology and organization of the slaughters managed by Stalin and Hitler, to devastating accounts of the murders of individual innocents, to trenchant analyses of the twisted ideologies and social pathologies that fueled the killing, and finally to the numbers — the awful, brutalizing numbers.
Snyder’s best estimate is the 14 million souls were murdered by both regimes during those two decades. Most of the victims came from Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Both regimes specially targeted the talented and educated for extermination.
The killing techniques varied. In the 1930s, Stalin starved to death millions of Ukrainians as a matter of policy, in order to ensure sufficient food would come to the urban working classes. Then, to enforce political control, his police murdered hundreds of thousands more, their chosen instrument of killing the simple pistol. Until German troops invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Snyder emphasizes, Hitler’s regime may have been brutal but was nowhere near as murderous as Stalin’s. The Nazis, however, made up that ground quickly.
At first, most of the Nazis’ killing was done by machine gun and also pistol, plus the mass starvation of Russian prisoners of war. As the killing concentrated on the Jews, the Germans developed the industrial gas chambers for killing that are the principal historical image of the Holocaust. While Stalin mostly killed his own citizens, the Nazis mostly killed non-Germans. Stalin was most lethal during peacetime; Hitler during war.
Snyder struggles to correct misapprehensions about the killing. The Jews who were killed were mostly Poles, not Germans. Nazi concentration camps were places of work, where death was often a consequence but not a goal. The Nazi gas chambers were in death camps, not concentration camps, and almost no one survived the death camps.
For those living in Belarus, Ukraine, and eastern Poland, the choices were usually terrible: with which group of systematic killers would you cast your lot? How could you protect your family? As the Wehrmacht swept east, then the Red Army swept West, a single false step often meant death, as did taking not step at all. As Snyder observes, for years it was virtually impossible for anyone in those lands to know anything like happiness.
I came to have great respect for Snyder’s ability to sustain his inquiry through this mass of soul-crushing information. As he writes in his final pages, no one can make sense, for example, of the murder of 5.7 million Jews; it’s too abstract and too huge. He proposes that we think of it as “5.7 million times one” — that is, a single death repeated over and over and over. I’m not sure that conceptual device helps me a great deal, but I hope it helped Snyder complete Bloodlands, which is a remarkable piece of work.
Next up on this Eastern European Trail of Tears? I have my eye on an intriguing new book that looks at Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War, called The Taste of Ashes. I may take a few months off before I start on that one.
And I’m still glad I didn’t have to write Bloodlands.