Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2011-023
16 June 2011
Review by Anthony Adamthwaite, University of California, Berkeley
Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
By Timothy Snyder
New York: Basic Books, 2010. Pp. xix, 524. ISBN 978-0-465-00239-9.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 20th century, World War II Print Version

Timothy Snyder, a distinguished Yale historian, has authored several scholarly studies about eastern Europe. His latest, Bloodlands, is in a class of its own, a real blockbuster that profoundly reconfigures our understanding of World War II and the 1930s. It marks the first full investigation of the mass killing of fourteen million people over twelve years in the lands between Germany and the Soviet Union—the biggest man-made disaster in twentieth-century Europe, surpassed in world history only by Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward famine of 1958-61. About half of the military losses in all battlefields took place in the region. But the fourteen million who are the subject of this book were all civilians—mostly women, children and the old—not one soldier. More than half were deliberately starved to death.

True, Holocaust writings and national histories of individual states have familiarized us with some of the horrors. Snyder, however, is the first to analyze the slaughter as a transnational phenomenon. The ambitions and policies of Hitler and Stalin, he argues, interacted and fuelled each other. His argument, however, is not a replay of the Historikerstreit (historians' debate) of the late 1980s, when German conservative historians headed by Ernst Nolte explained Auschwitz as in part a response to Stalin's Gulag.[1] The contention is that Berlin and Moscow were driven by utopian ideologies, calling for the elimination of those judged ethnically, socially, and politically undesirable. Cooperation and rivalry provoked interactions that ratcheted up the murders in "a pattern of belligerent complicity" (415).

A smartly paced chronological narrative introduces the twin tyrants and their aspirations, and then reviews Stalin's crimes: the creation of the Gulag in 1931, the Ukrainian famine of 1933, the destruction of the kulaks, the Great Terror of 1937-38, and the murder of national minorities. Next, the German-Soviet division of the borderlands, followed by the joint invasion of Poland, and the unfolding of the Final Solution after the failure of the initial offensive against the Soviet Union. Included on the way are the ethnic cleansings of 1945-46 and a discussion of Stalinist anti-Semitism. This account highlights like no other the connection between the war against the USSR and the Holocaust. Originally envisioned as part of a post-victory new order, the Final Solution was unleashed "as it became clear in the second half of 1941 that the war was not going according to plan" (416).

Scholarly books can prove unreadable for specialists and lay readers alike—in Dorothy Parker's words, they are not to be tossed aside lightly but thrown with great force. In the academy two- and three-decker, Victorian-style saturation studies are back in fashion with a vengeance. Bloodlands, like the Third Reich, might easily have swallowed up three volumes. Happily, the author resists that temptation in a triumph of measured writing and sound judgment. Analyzing an age of atrocity challenges the best of writers. The enterprise can too easily devolve into an awful inventory of horrors eclipsing the individual tragedies of myriad lives. Snyder adroitly sidesteps the trap. In a final chapter he makes a determined attempt to humanize both victims and torturers. The story is brilliantly accessible—clear, compelling, lively, and sparkling with insights: "'Now we will live!' This is what the hungry little boy liked to say, as he toddled along the quiet roadside, or through the empty fields. But the food that he saw was only in his imagination. The wheat had all been taken away, in a heartless campaign of requisitions that began Europe's era of mass killings. It was 1933, and Joseph Stalin was deliberately starving Soviet Ukraine. The little boy died, as did more than three million other people" (vii).

Why has it taken well over sixty years to produce a critical overview of the mass killings carried out by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in Belarus, the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine? Several influences conspired to prevent and delay a full reckoning with the "most lethal conflict in history" (viii): inaccessibility of the evidence, persistent national myths about the war's significance, Cold War constraints, Hitler's long shadow, the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust, and the thirty-years war thesis. Firstly, evidence. The full horrors of the massacres were off radar in the west and east. What shocked Western opinion were the newsreels of the liberation of the concentration camps, not death camps. Only the collapse of the Soviet empire made a full accounting possible—"American and British forces reached none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites … saw none of the places where the Soviets had killed … never saw the places where the Germans killed" (xiv).

Over seventy years later, World War II still rumbles on in our collective memory—energized in part by the national myths each of the major allies has fashioned. Hollywood's Saving Private Ryan (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1998) recycled the perception of the Second World War as America's last good war. The film's focus on the D-Day landings in Normandy confirmed the illusion that the United States spearheaded the global struggle against tyranny in Europe and the Pacific. In reality, Britain and the United States, self-proclaimed defenders of liberty and democracy, by their silence and alliance with Moscow, not only colluded in Soviet mass killings but also ensured the victory of one totalitarian regime over another. The Soviet Union, in bearing the brunt of the conflict, destroyed the Wehrmacht's offensive power, thus ensuring Allied victory in northwest Europe. Until Norman Davies's No Simple Victory[2] redressed the balance, standard Western histories of the war soft-pedaled the centrality of the eastern front to help perpetuate the Anglo-American myth. The USSR invested heavily in its own version of events. Moscow's claim to global anti-fascist leadership and the creation of a Socialist paradise ruled out any admission of state atrocities or German-Soviet partnership in mass murder. After decades of justifying the German-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 1939 and denying the existence of the treaty's secret understanding on Eastern Europe, post-Communist Russia finally surrendered: at ceremonies marking the war's seventieth anniversary in 2009, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin condemned the pact as "immoral," comparing it to the Munich agreement of 1938.

The onset of the Cold War reinforced national myths. Although Western Cold War propaganda twinned Hitler and Stalin, merging Nazism and Communism in a totalitarian model, it did not dwell on the Soviet Union's war record. Exposing what was then known about Stalin's war against his own citizens would have discredited the wartime grand alliance and the Nuremberg war crimes trials. As late as 1972, the British government, under pressure from Moscow, aborted a planned memorial in Kensington, London, to the thousands of Polish officers shot on Stalin's orders at Katyn in 1940.

Hitler casts a long shadow. History is not always the propaganda of the winners—losers can win the post-bellum war of words, as the Weimar Republic's clever campaign against the Treaty of Versailles demonstrated. A glance at the history shelves in any bookshop confirms the Führer's victory in the battle of the books. Nazism in all its shapes and forms remains sexy, hogging listings at Amazon.com: by 2000, the score totaled 37,000 publications on the history of Nazi Germany, including 12,000 since 1995. In the United Kingdom, a school watchdog organization warned in 2005 of the Hitlerization of the nation's history teaching. An outgoing German ambassador in London complained of the country's obsession with National Socialism. With Hitler occupying center stage, Stalin's Russia and the history of early and mid-twentieth century Eastern Europe got pushed into the wings. The fact that until 1939 Stalin, not Hitler, was Europe's number one mass murderer was often overlooked.

Investigating the Holocaust delayed a full exploration of the bloodlands. Thanks to the pioneering research in the 1960s and 70s of scholars like Raul Hilberg[3] and Lucy S. Dawidowicz,[4] Hitler's genocide entered mainstream history. Given the unprecedented scale of the catastrophe, and the fact that relatively little was known about the killing of non-Jews, historians understandably stressed its uniqueness. But a "surfeit of memory," to borrow Charles S. Maier's phrase,[5] is not necessarily beneficial. The sheer quantity and richness of Holocaust documentation and testimony diverted attention from the fate of others. Snyder reminds us that Germans killed as many non-Jews as Jews, and Stalin's murders accounted for about one-third of the fourteen million.

The thirty-years war model, too, helps explain the neglect of the bloodlands. Historian J.H. Hexter, a specialist in Tudor and seventeenth-century England, once observed that the profession could be divided into lumpers and splitters.[6] The lumpers have certainly left their mark on debates about twentieth-century Europe. The years 1919-45 are often described as a thirty-years war, and the period 1918-39 as a European civil war. At first glance, lumping together the two world wars and intervening decades seems persuasive, with Germany's bid for power a strong connecting thread. World War I, it is argued, fractured Europe, empowering fascism, nazism, and communism, and brutalizing civil society. In this perspective, the mass murders of the Nazi-Soviet confrontation appear as extreme manifestations of a sick and violent continent, with the responsibility of the dictators and their executioners accordingly diminished. Many who do not subscribe to the thirty-year war notion still view Europe of the first half of the century as mired in violence and atrocity.

Yet, on closer inspection, the thirty-year war explanation—outwardly so plausible—is seriously flawed. Certainly the Great War left a fractured world but not necessarily a doomed or permanently brutalized one. Responses to the aftermath depended on differences in generations and vantage points. To be sure, German ambitions drove both conflicts, but they were not the same in 1914 as in 1939. The thirty-year war idea implies a determinism that denies the intrinsic contingency of events. If Europe's history ran on tramlines, what agency did decision makers, ideologies, and economic forces have? And why stop with a thirty-year span? Why not adopt Philip Bobbitt's suggestion[7] of a seventy-six-year epochal war from 1914 to 1990? The trouble with catchall explanations is that, like original sin, they only appear to explain a lot; in reality, events, episodes, and issues lose contingency and specificity. Moreover, the overly deterministic thirty-year hypothesis does not square with evidence of renewal and stabilization in the 1920s and 1930s.

To conclude. Bloodlands is the perfect companion for the scholar and student of mid-twentieth-century Europe. Accessible and extraordinarily comprehensive, it will be widely read and cited as the standard work. In one sense, however, the book is almost too successful. Deeply researched and compelling analyses of atrocities can leave readers not only feeling there is nothing more to be said, but also complacent about their own values. The necessary focus on victims tends to demonize perpetrators, making it hard, if not impossible, to understand motivation. In other words, "a surfeit of memory" that treats the past as separate and closed, instead of a call to transformative action in the present. The United States and Britain were not then and are not now knights in shining armor. At the Evian Conference of 1938, only one country agreed to take Jewish refugees—the Dominican Republic. Key features of the 1939-45 conflict—genocide, nuclear weapons, ethnic cleansing, and the targeting of civilians—dominate today's agenda.

"Utterly definitive" (according to its publisher) Bloodlands fortunately is not. History is a continuing debate and Snyder provokes new questions, for example, regarding the relationship between modernity and the killings. Czesław Miłosz's old Jew of Galicia got it about right: "When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck and let him thank God. But what's to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he's 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal."[8]

[1] See Ernst Piper, ed., Forever in the Shadow of Hitler? Original Documents of the Historikerstreit: The Controversy Concerning the Singularity of the Holocaust, trans. J. Knowlton and T. Cates (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Pr, 1993).

[2] Subtitle: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 (NY: Viking Penguin, 2007).

[3] The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961), 3rd ed. in 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale U Pr, 2003).

[4] The War against the Jews, 1933-1945 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975).

[5] See "A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on History, Melancholy and Denial," History & Memory 5 (1993) 136-52; also The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge: Harvard U Pr, 1988; rpt. 1997).

[6] In his review of Change and Continuity in Seventeenth Century England by Christopher Hill (a lumper): Times Literary Supplement (24 Oct 1975) 1250-52.

[7] See The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (NY: Knopf, 2002).

[8] The Captive Mind (London: Secker & Warburg, 1953), epigraph.

Purchase Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
Site News
Books Available for Review
For an updated list of books available for review, see Submissions.
Contact Us
Around the Web
Michigan War Studies Review
© 2005-2017 Michigan War Studies Review