Exploring the ‘Bloodlands’

A controversial new history traces the rise of a horrible idea: the mass killing of civilians

(Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
By Gal Beckerman
March 13, 2011

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The Holocaust often seems to reside outside of history. Over the past 30 years, literature and popular culture have relentlessly reinforced this impression, depicting the genocide as an ultimate, almost otherworldly evil. Its most evocative images have become so well worn that they now appear to us as clichés, detached from their sources: the yellow Star of David sewn onto a jacket, the skeletal bodies behind barbed wire, the smokestacks of the crematoriums.

But now Yale professor Timothy Snyder has written a new history of the 20th century’s worst crimes that purposefully takes the Holocaust out of the protective glass. In his telling, the genocide of the Jews is only one chapter in a broader story: the targeting and mass murder of civilians between 1932 to 1945 in Eastern Europe. Snyder has dubbed these the “bloodlands,” because it is on this territory — today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Western Russia, and the Baltic States — where an extraordinary 14 million civilians were starved, shot, or gassed. In his reading, it is this concentrated period of mass death — with the Holocaust as its horrifying crescendo — that is “the central event” of European history.

The various killing policies that stained these lands between Berlin and Moscow have to be taken together, Snyder contends, if we want to understand the pivotal conflict of the 20th century. He sees no other way of approaching the history of the region, which was occupied first by one ideologically driven regime and then by another, with Hitler and Stalin sometimes mimicking, sometimes responding to each other through civilian slaughters.

This vision of European history, laid out in Snyder’s recent book, “Bloodlands,” is already making waves among historians, in part for its vivid recasting of the conflict, and in part for its very controversial challenge to how we have learned to talk about the Holocaust. Underlying “Bloodlands” is the sense that Hitler and Stalin were opponents bound together by a common idea: the expendability of human beings in the service of a larger, utopian fantasy. Both regimes saw Eastern Europe as the linchpin to their imperialistic dreams. Through this land — occupied three times, by the Soviets in 1939, the Germans in 1941, and the Soviets again in 1944 — both Stalin and Hitler imagined that they would secure their empires, feeding their own populations by exploiting the “breadbasket” of the Ukraine and turning the region into a security buffer. To realize these dreams, both were willing to target entire populations.

“Snyder’s book has a lot of information that people who know these subjects know very well,” said Anne Applebaum, the writer and historian of the gulag. “But what it does that is different and wholly original is show the ways that Hitler and Stalin echoed one another, at times working together and other times fighting one another. The way in which they egged each other on, acting as two facets of what was really the same phenomenon.”

But by drawing together all these various mass murders — by building a narrative that includes both the Ukrainian famine and the Treblinka extermination camp as part of the same larger historical event — Snyder is challenging a notion that many historians and thinkers have long held: that the Holocaust is unique in human history. Nazi ideology, of course, was built around the exceptional goal of destroying the Jewish people completely. Many scholars have argued that this belief in total racial liquidation, in mass murder as a redemptive, purifying act, along with the attempt to carry it out on an industrial scale, must be seen as unprecedented. And Snyder’s critics — who include major scholars of Nazi Germany — believe that the Holocaust was therefore an evil that has to be set apart from the more politically motivated killing policies implemented by Stalin or, for that matter, Hitler.

“It seems to me that he is simply equating Nazi genocide with the mass murders carried out in the Soviet Union under Stalin,” said Richard Evans, the eminent Cambridge professor of Nazi Germany who wrote a blistering review of “Bloodlands” in the pages of the London Review of Books. “There is nothing wrong with comparing. It’s the equation that I find highly troubling.”

Ever since the philosopher Hannah Arendt described Communism and Nazism as two sides of the same totalitarian coin, intellectuals have debated the question of exactly how, and to what extent, Hitler and Stalin can be compared. Yet it was, until recently, a difficult question to approach honestly. In the United States, memories of the American wartime alliance with Stalin made scholars less willing to acknowledge that he might have committed crimes as bad as Hitler’s. And historians also faced the very practical problem of not being able to do research behind the iron curtain where the majority of the killing took place. Instead what took hold was a sort of detente in which Hitler’s crimes were judged to be more evil, but Stalin was said to have killed more people.

With “Bloodlands,” which is based on the latest post-Cold War research combined with a variety of local sources (Snyder himself can read 10 of the region’s languages), a new, challenging picture reveals itself. Stalin, it turns out, did not kill more people than Hitler. And the Nazis were not the only ones to target ethnic groups. In fact, Stalin in some ways pioneered the wholesale targeting of nationalities that Hitler would take to its terrifying conclusion.

It’s this second point that has provoked a backlash. By asking us to look at the Holocaust in this way, Snyder is, in a sense, arguing that the genocide has a context — that it took place in a time and place where mass murder had become normalized. And in doing so, he is slamming up against the politics of memorialization that has arisen around the Holocaust, in which the exhortation “Never Again” has served in part to shield the Jewish tragedy from any comparisons that might diminish its role as history’s greatest evil.

Part of the freshness of “Bloodlands” is that it flips around our traditional viewpoint on the Second World War and the years that led up to it: Instead of seeing the conflict from the top down, as a struggle between powers, it begins with the perspective of the victims and those who were closest to the murder. The driving argument is that to truly understand the history of Europe during this period, we have to see the story through the eyes of the tens of millions of people unlucky enough to be living in those contested lands. This, Snyder says, is an essentially “post-colonial” approach, understanding the events through the eyes of the colonized. He sees it as a needed corrective to past scholarship on the period, including that of Evans and other historians of the Nazi era, who relied heavily on German sources. Without, for example, reading the Yiddish or Polish of the Jewish victims or the other Eastern European languages such as Ukrainian and Lithuanian, you can’t tell a full story of the Holocaust.

“No one thinks you can write about the British Empire just using English anymore,” Snyder said. “And no one would ever write about the German occupation of France without French. No one would dream of doing that. But the Holocaust is an event in the German occupation of Poland. And 99 percent of the literature is written without Polish.”

Working from the ground up in this way guided his research and helped form his new understanding of the period. For example, when he describes how Hitler and Stalin split Poland in 1939 and together killed 200,000 Poles in an attempt to root out any vestige of Polish nationalism, he gives us the revealing stories of two families in which siblings were killed by two different dictators. Janina Dowber was a pilot and the only woman among Polish officers to be taken prisoner by the Soviets and murdered at the Katyn massacre among thousands of others. Her younger sister, Agnieszka, remained in the German zone, joined a resistance organization, and was herself arrested by the Nazis in April 1940, around the time her sister was killed. She was executed in the Palmiry forest a couple months later. As Snyder writes, “Both sisters were buried in shallow graves, after shame trials and shots to the head.” A history textbook might see their murders as very distinct, carried out by different armies in the service of opposing ideologies. To a Polish family at the time, their fates would have looked nearly identical.

This sensibility infuses the larger story Snyder tells. It begins with Stalin’s attempt to impose his vision of utopia — namely, the collectivization of the Soviet Union. Stalin wanted the state to own and control everything that was produced on every farm in his dominion — breaking the age-old tradition of small subsistence farming on which these provincial economies had been based. Ukraine in particular was expected to provide the grain to feed the whole empire and fuel an accelerated attempt at industrialization. But it soon became obvious that there was no way Ukraine’s farms could meet the Kremlin’s production quotas.

By the summer of 1932, there was starvation, but Stalin would not relent. Instead, he saw in the starving Ukrainians traitors and saboteurs who were trying to undermine the Soviet Union. Stalin increased the pressure on the Ukrainians, demanding everything until they had to hand over their last chicken. Widespread cannibalism ensued and over 3 million died. The book includes a children’s song from the time: “Father Stalin, look at this/ Collective farming is just bliss/ The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged/ All the horses broken nags/ And on the hut a hammer and sickle/ And in the hut death and famine/ No cows left, no pigs at all/ Just your picture on the wall.”

Snyder draws a direct line from Stalin’s totalitarian scheme to the Holocaust. Hitler’s utopian vision involved conquering the Soviet Union in nine to twelve weeks, enslaving Slavs, and turning the Ukraine into his people’s breadbasket, providing Germans with their “Lebensraum” (living space). With the Jews, Hitler had originally planned — after first envisioning shipping them all to Madagascar — to deport them east beyond the vast lands he would conquer. When his eastern front faltered and it became clearer that he was losing the war, solving the Jewish problem became a more significant, realizable goal, one which also accorded easily with blaming the Jews for Germany’s failure to take the Soviet Union. By the end of 1941, the “final solution” was in place.

Both Hitler and Stalin, Snyder writes, “brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

Indeed, Snyder makes much of Nazi propaganda that envisioned Jews as the force pulling the strings of the Soviet Union, England, and the United States. This becomes a sort of a political explanation for why Germans decided to kill Jews — a way of seeing the Holocaust that places it on par with, for example, Stalin’s decision to kill Poles and other potentially disloyal ethnic groups as a preemptive national security measure. For some, though, this equation — even when Snyder does not make it explicit — is dangerous.

“Snyder flirts with the very wrong moral equivalence between Hitler and Stalin,” said Dovid Katz, a historian of Lithuanian Jewry who is also research director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and a cofounder of the Litvak Studies Institute. “None of these incidents besides the Holocaust involved the willful massacre of a whole race. There is something very different going on, beyond politics, when people try to murder all the babies of a race.”

But, as Snyder sees it, we lose our full ability to understand this history if we don’t allow ourselves to consider the Holocaust as an event with precedents and echoes in other killing policies of the time. According to him, for example, it’s impossible to contemplate the decision of the Germans to set in motion their extermination policy against Jews without first examining what they had just done to Soviet prisoners of war on the very same lands. In each crude POW camp, tens of thousands of these captured soldiers were crammed together behind barbed wire without shelter or food. Their guards watched while they starved without any room to even sit. Hundreds died every day (and eventually a total of nearly 3 million). In one Belarussian camp, prisoners submitted written petitions asking to be shot. The first victims of gassing at Auschwitz in September 1941, using the pesticide Zyklon B, were these Soviet prisoners. Later, of course, a million Jews would be killed there in the same way.

Even if one thinks that Snyder’s treatment of the Holocaust doesn’t capture the particular passion that fired the killing of Jews, there are a few things that are clear. At one point or another, the people of these unfortunate lands, whether they were Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, or Belarussians, stopped being seen as human beings. Each person who stood on the edge of a mass grave waiting to be shot, or lay in a hut starving to death, had become one more paving stone on the road to a future being built by a dictator. There will continue to be intense arguments about the extent to which the crimes of Hitler and Stalin can, or should, be seen in the same light. But there is one thing we can know unequivocally: For the victims, there was no difference.

Gal Beckerman is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. His first book, ”When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was published in September and recently won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award.