Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
by Timothy Snyder
Reviewed by Doug Brown
Almost all accounts of non-combat deaths in the WWII European Theater focus on the Holocaust, as if it were a singular event and no other governments were involved in murdering civilians. In Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder opens up the scope to include murder by the Soviets in Central Europe from 1930 to 1950. The overall picture is one in which The Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania were very bad places to be in the mid-20th century. Snyder refers to this area as the Bloodlands, as over 14 million non-combatants were killed there in a 20-year period.
Through the 1930s, Stalin was the primary tormentor in the Bloodlands. First came agricultural collectivization, which meant starvation for five million Ukrainians. This was followed hard upon by the Great Terror of 1937-38, in which another 700,000 people were shot. Many of these victims were also peasant farmers, as the failure of collectivization had to be blamed on someone.
Once Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland between them and co-occupied it from 1939-1941, the killing was close to equal on both sides. Both Germany and Russia sought to rid Poland of its intellectuals and leaders, in order to eliminate anyone with the fortitude to rise up against their occupiers. At this point the Holocaust hadn't really begun, as Jewish resettlement was still the Nazis' plan (rather than the euphemism it became).
All that changed with the invasion of Russia in 1941, particularly in 1942 after the invasion stalled. The Soviet Union was still killing large numbers of its subjects, and many German POWs died of starvation in camps. Likewise, over a million Russian POWs died in German camps during the war. But behind German lines something new was happening. SS and police units, often assisted by the local populace, would round up all the Jews in a town, march them off somewhere, and shoot them. For the majority of the time the Holocaust was happening, shooting was the method of murder. The gas camps came later, and only account for half of all deaths. Shooting was often more efficient; units in large actions could kill 10,000 people a day, whereas Auschwitz-Birkenau rarely reached that rate. Snyder argues that the focus in the West on equating the camps with the Holocaust has created an unrealistic picture of the event.
As the Eastern Front crumbled and Germany was driven back, there was no respite in the Bloodlands. Now the killing was happening behind the Soviet lines, as accused collaborators and nationalist elements were purged. During this desperate time, the Holocaust reached its peak; more victims died in 1944 than any other year. Russia stirred up resistance elements to bring about the Warsaw uprising, but made no effort to assist. The Germans brutally smashed the uprising and bombed the city to rubble; Snyder reports that more Poles died in those few weeks than the total number of Americans killed in all foreign wars combined. Once the war ended, killing continued under Soviet rule as all communists who weren't 100% pro-Russia were purged.
To people living in Central Europe, Germany and Russia were alternately viewed as saviors and monsters. After the famine and Terror, some in The Ukraine weren't sad to see the Russians driven out. But then the Germans started killing the survivors, concentrating on Jews and communist leaders. After living under that boot for a while, the Russians were momentarily welcomed back, a welcome quickly worn out by fresh purges. By some estimates, 1 in 5 Ukrainians were killed in a 20-year period. Snyder makes a good case for not viewing the Holocaust as an event separate from history, or even separate from geography. For the middle years of the 20th century, two murderous regimes made a swath of the East European Plain their killing fields. Bloodlands brought to me a fresh perspective on a period that I have read a great deal about, and I recommend it to all who wonder how people can be so horrible to each other.