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A Very Considerable Achievement
on 10 October 2010
Timothy Snyder defines the Bloodlands in today's terms as Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, Petersburg, the western rim of the Russian Federation, and most of Poland. Between 1930 and 1945, the region saw the murder of more than 14 million people. The famine associated with farm collectivisation took more than three million lives, mostly in Ukraine. The Great Terror (/Purge/Yezhovshchina), also pre-war, took 700,000. The Nazis and Soviets then invaded Poland and the Baltic States, and both set about eliminating the educated classes; 200,000 dead. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and starved to death a million or more Leningrad residents and three million prisoners of war. More than five million Jews living in Poland, the Baltic States and the occupied Soviet Union were shot or gassed. After the tide of war turned, the Soviets encouraged partisans to harry retreating German troops (but gave them little support) and a further half million civilians were killed in Belarus and Warsaw.
As the 700 plus entries in the bibliography of this volume demonstrate, there is a vast scholarship that falls within or overlaps this subject area. Timothy Snyder's achievement, and it is very considerable, is to bring it all together, presenting data, narrative and a selection of first-hand accounts as a coherent and digestible whole. The horror and the scale of the slaughter are hard to comprehend - staggering numbers of people rounded-up, transported, killed, and bodies disposed of in very short spaces of time, even a single day, or night. They are also hard to take, especially when a few last words reach us from a victim, such as from a child who knows she is about to be killed, and how.
But Timothy Snyder has a bigger purpose than merely to shock us. After rather more than 300 pages detailing the crimes, the last two chapters become extended essays addressing wider issues, invoking and seeking to take further the analyses of commentators such as Vasily Grossman, Hannah Arendt and Anna Akhmatova. He pleads with us not to fall into the moral trap of dismissing the Nazis or the Soviets as inhuman, for that is how they viewed the people they killed. Like their victims, they were indeed human, and we must persist in endeavouring to understand them.
One `by-product' of the book was entirely new to me and, as such, particularly interesting - Nazi plans for the newly-conquered territories post-war. Additional to total removal of the Jews (not necessarily by killing them), a large proportion of the indigenous population was to be starved to death, or terrorised into fleeing East, beyond the Urals. The rest were to be enslaved in a purely agrarian economy presided over by immigrant German farmers. Existing cities and towns were to be razed and a new network of small (German) towns established. When capitulation of the Soviet Union was not immediately achieved in autumn 1941, Generalplan Ost was largely put on hold. Jews were in any case virtually eliminated from the occupied territories and millions of Slavs starved to death, but those actions were not directly in fulfilment of the plan.
The book is well written, and there are only a couple of points where the American English might obscure the intended meaning for the user of British English. Some repetition, especially of lists of locations and numbers, suggests the book is expected to be prescribed to students one chapter at a time, and not necessarily sequentially, but the occasional re-cap can be helpful and does not become irritating. The book is well supplied with useful maps illustrating changing boundaries and the locations of key events, and well indexed.