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Truth in Numbers
on 23 February 2014
Truth in Numbers
Having admired Timothy Snyder's reviews in NYRB, I looked forward to reading Bloodlands. I knew most of what would be in the book (MA thesis on the subject), but I was unprepared for his startlingly original analysis, which had me reading uninterrupted, huge chunks of this book in a sitting. It all comes down to the numbers - no one has ever related the numbers killed by the Germans and the Russians so intently to reveal the truth about the murder of 14 million people - not in combat, but in a specific part of Eastern Europe.
Snyder unearths data and human stories which reveal the uncanny similarities between Stalin and Hitler, and some uncomfortable truths. It was Stalin who set the killing machine going in the Ukrainian collectivization in the 1930's, starving over 3 millions, then moving on to the Great Terror, shooting over 700,000. Stalin killed his 'own' people in peace time, Hitler killed 'lower races' in wartime. Then, after the war, Stalin took up murder again, albeit on a smaller scale. That the two were partners between September 1939 and June 1941 and split the Bloodlands between themselves for a brief period - no relief to the locals, of course, is well known, but even in the episode, the revelations come thick and fast, particularly over Poland. When Hitler starts killing, his numbers went over 10 million - 5.7 million Jews, millions of Poles and so many others.
Stalin killed to control the vast Soviet Union, mainly minorities who might object to his forced collectivization and industrial push. Hitler killed to expand his empire, and the Jews were his favourite victims. Hitler planned to kill over 40 million people in push east, but had to change tack in 1941 when it became clear that he would not defeat the Soviet Union - as early as November, 1941. Then the Final Solution for the Jews became annihilation.
Snyder is in control of a vast body of material, writes sparingly and well, and his anecdotes always add colour and humanity. But it is his command of the big picture which makes this a great history book, one that changes perspectives - the more you learn, the more you feel you didn't know before. Snyder is at his best when he shows how nations use numbers to justify policies, past and present, to write and re-write history. After the war, Stalin had to distance himself from the Jewish suffering, as Russian suffering had to be his focus - Russians were the victims and the winners - no room for the Jews in the Great Patriotic War.
This is a great, purposeful work that others will be studying for many years to come. The madness of Stalin and Hitler is not discussed in great detail - it is their behaviour and its consequences that fill these pages. Top drawer for historians.