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Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin Paperback – 1 Sep 2011
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"A hugely important historian of this nightmarish era. Nobody has explained it this way before" (William Leith Evening Standard)
A magisterial history of the lands that lie between Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany - where 14 million civilians were murdered during the years 1933-1944See all Product description
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So, when I started reading Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands" my first impression was "There is nothing new here". I'd heard it all in one place or another. But what Snyder does do is take all those evils and puts them together in his Pandora's Box - only one thing is missing, Hope. Because there was no hope, only fear and death. The depressing bleakness hollows out the soul. One has to pause to take stock, to look away, to absorb the evil and hear the dead cry out for justice, and an understanding that what happened there, on the "Eastern Front", in the "Bloodlands", actually exceeded anything the West could understand: "...The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler...this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar." Timothy Snyder is the conscience of us all.
Snyder fills his Pandora's Box and then he reveals its contents to us. He deals with the real terrors of Stalinism; the tragedy of the Great Famine of the Ukraine, the nightmare of the Great Terror, and the cold-blooded elimination of the educated classes and all forms of potential resistance in Poland. He goes on to deal with Nazism; once more, the elimination of educated Poles, the attempts to depopulate Belarus, and the Final Solution. He looks at Post-War Cold War anti-Semitism in a very knowledgeable manner that makes the era clearly understandable. He does a wonderful job of sorting the truth out from the "false history" we have in the West by reminding us (for example) that "by the time the gas chamber and crematoria complexes came on line in spring 1943, more than three-quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead." The name of Belzec is less well known than that of Auschwitz because it was a death camp - those who survived it were highly lucky and could be counted on the fingers of one hand. "The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp."
Snyder debunks the modern attempts to "balance" out history: the Nazis and the Soviets were not inhuman beasts - they were ordinary men and women like you and me. These men and women had ideals which they tried to live up to. They saw themselves as victims of other groups and their actions were a form of self-defense. They forced others to collude in their plans by giving them a choice between that or death. He reminds us of the real atrocities carried out in the war, for example, "About as many Poles were killed in the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 as Germans were killed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945. For Poles, that bombing was just the beginning of one of the bloodiest occupations of the war... " and that "German journalists and (some) historians ... have exaggerated the number of Germans killed during wartime and postwar evacuation, flight, or deportation..."
Snyder's "Bloodlands" are, for me, the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth partitioned between 1772 and 1794. The horrors that took place here are just a continuation of the policies of the Germans and Russians to control those lands. Perhaps I fall into that category of historians who try to understand the horrors in nationalistic terms - he debunks the Russian myth of the "Great Patriotic war" and points out that most of the "Russian" dead were "Soviet" and came from Belarus, the Ukraine and Eastern Poland - themselves victims of Stalinism in 1939 (and earlier).
I said there was nothing new here - that isn't completely true. Snyder's research is so broad as he brings the strands together that there will always be a fact that will surprise you, no matter how much you think you know the history. I never knew that the invading Germans, in 1939, tended not to treat captured Polish soldiers as prisoners-of-war but simply shot many of them as they surrendered. Snyder filled his history with facts and figures throughout. One simple fact stands in for so many in the book: "On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire."
There's nothing new in this book. The story and the facts have always been available. In this post-Cold war era the truth about what went on in the East has been slowly revealed to the West: all the "false" history is been revealed as another version of the West's anti-Communist propaganda, a Big brother version of history in which Polish troops, for example, were not allowed to partake in VE celebrations because the country was Communist (albeit sold out by the allies at Yalta). Snyder brings the true history of this era to the attention of the West. Everyone should read it - but then I would say that, wouldn't I, I was raised amongst survivors of the great horror that was the War in Eastern Europe.