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Customer Review

on January 19, 2014
Bloodlands is an important history that focuses on the state sponsored mass murder that took place mainly in what is now Poland, Ukraine and Belarus, at the hands of Hitler and Stalin between 1933 and 1945. There are numerous excellent histories of the period and the horrific crimes of both the Soviet and the Nazi regimes, both of which created incalculable suffering and carried out murder on an unimaginable scale. Timothy Snyder's account adds little that is new to the collective knowledge of these events, but he very successfully illustrates how these regions were subjected to successive waves of horror over the 12 year period in question and tells the story from the level of international politics right down to the level of the personal tragedies of individual men, women and children. In this respect this is a worthwhile and important narrative. He corrects common myths and misunderstandings, such as: the tendency to underplay or marginalise Stalin's occupation of his western neighbours; the frequent error on the part of westerners who grossly underestimate the scale of the suffering in this area, particularly when compared with the (relatively much smaller scale) suffering in Western Europe from 1939 to 1945. He points to the common belief that all Nazi Concentration Camps were the same, whereas even though they were all horrific, the nature and purposes of them varied; for example Dachau was primarily a prison camp, Sobibor was an extermination camp, and Auschwitz was a unique hybrid. But I found myself being frustrated by flaws in this book. Firstly, it would benefit enormously from being revised by a first class editor; the narrative frequently jumps around from sentence to sentence and there is considerable repetition. Secondly, and more importantly, I found some of Snyder's propositions to be odd, bordering on the bizarre. One example relates to the Nazi - Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 23rd 1939 and results in Snyder describing Hitler as "betraying his ally" Stalin, whereas Hitler was in fact duping and manipulating his sworn enemy as a merely temporary tactical expedient, one can argue that it's a moot point, but it seems to me an important historic distinction. The book also contains puzzling contradictions, for example, at one point he states there is no evidence that Stalin deliberately held up his advance on the Vistula to allow the tragedy of the Warsaw Uprising to play out to his advantage, but then immediately proceeds to explain in considerable detail how that was precisely what Stalin did indeed do. Some claims I merely find surprising and arguable, such as the idea that Hitler only ordered the ultimate destruction of the Jews because he realised he was losing the war, whereas his attitude to the Jews was clear long before he came to power and the "Final Solution" was launched when he was still confident of victory. Then there is the bizarre, examples of which include, "... people who had collaborated with the Soviets in 1939 - 1941 knew they could cleanse themselves in the eyes of the Nazis by killing Jews." And even more extraordinary: "Stalinism was a moral as well as political system, in which innocent and guilty were psychic as well as legal categories and moral thinking was ubiquitous." This book is well worth reading, it provides a valuable and important perspective on what is arguably history's most tragic period in one particular geographic area; it's final two chapters are worthy as standalone essays in their own right. But it really does need a revised second edition before it can attain the status it deserves.
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