Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin is a monumental, heavily detailed, ground-breaking and deeply humane look at the political murder of 14 million people by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany from 1932 through 1945.
Published in 2010, it is a bludgeon of a book, brutally direct and honest and unflinching.
It is also a keening elegy for the dead whose tragedy it was to find themselves inside a portion of Europe that was occupied by invaders from the Soviet Union or Germany or, worse case, both.
It is an elegy for the millions of men, women and children who were starved to death so food could be exported to boost the Soviet balance of trade or to feed German soldiers, and shot to death as they stood at the edge of body-filled pits, and gassed to death in one of the five death factories, or killed in a multitude of other ways for a multitude of policy reasons.
Killed for the sin of being where they were. and being Jewish or Polish or Ukrainian or a prisoner of war or a farmer or just handy to serve as a target for a reprisal for a resistance attack.
This was mass murder on a scale that the world had never before seen, carried out individually and together by two states that had built into their politics a belief that killing was an acceptable administrative strategy to achieve administrative goals.
Those who lived in this section of Europe that Snyder calls the bloodlands found out what it meant to be under the thumb or one or the other or both of these totalitarian systems. Some areas were invaded by the Soviets, then invaded by the Germans, and then “liberated” by the Soviets. As one Polish partisan wrote about the second approach of the Soviet army:
We await you, red plague,
To deliver us from the black death.
The killing was personal
Each system was very deadly. By Snyder’s conservative accounting, here’s the death roll:
—– 3.3 million Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians deliberately starved by the Soviet government (1932-1933)
—– 300,000 Soviet citizens, mostly Poles and Ukrainians, shot by the Soviet government as part of the Great Terror (1937-1938)
—– 200,000 Polish citizens shot by German and Soviet forces in occupied Poland (1939-1941)
—– 4.1 million Soviet citizens, mainly Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, gassed or shot by the Germans (1941-1944)
—– 5.4 million Jews, mostly Polish and Soviet citizens, gassed or shot by Germans (1941-1944)
—– 700,000 Poles and Belarusians shot by the Germans in “reprisals” (1941-1944)
NOTE: The figure above for the number of Jews killed by the Germans does not include the 300,000 Jews killed by their Romanian allies.
Each of those numbers is explained by Snyder with great rigor and specificity. Yet, Bloodlands is not a book about gruesome arithmetic.
On every page, amid all the numbers, are insights into the personal, individual, human toll that was being exacted:
No matter which technology was used [Snyder writes], the killing was personal. People who starved were observed, often from watchtowers, by those who denied them food. People who were shot were seen through the sights of rifles at very close range, or held by two men while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull. People who were asphyxiated were rounded up, put on trains, and then rushed into the gas chambers. They lost their possessions and then their clothes and, then, if they were women, their hair. Each one of them died a different death, since each one of them lived a different life.
Each death was far from simple. Consider the result of Stalin’s decision to take food out of Ukraine to sell to other nations in order to have money to build the nation’s industrial might.
Millions went hungry, each in his or her own way. Starvation led to cannibalism as a Ukrainian children’s song explained:
Father Stalin, look at this.
Collective farming is just bliss….
No cows left, no pigs at all,
Just your picture on the wall…
There’s no bread and there’s no fat.
The party’s ended all of that.
Seek not the gentile or the mild.
A father’s eaten his own child…
Indeed, Snyder notes that countless parents killed and ate their children — and then starved to death anyway. “One family killed their daughter-in-law, fed her head to the pigs, and roasted the rest of her body.” He also writes:
More than one Ukrainian child had to tell a brother or sister: “Mother says that we should eat her when she dies.” This was forethought and love.
“Be so kind…”
In Germany, answering the question of how to get rid of Jews from German and German-occupied lands — deportation or some other method — was one of several war aims. But, after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union fell short, the other goals were unreachable. Ridding Europe of Jews by killing them, however, was still feasible so the Germans and their agents went at it with great gusto (except when it was necessary to keep Jews alive for slave labor).
Some Jews, such as midwife Sofia Elzenshtayn, were saved by non-Jewish spouses or family members. Eizenshtayn’s husband hid her in a pit in the back yard.
He led her there dressed as a beggar; and visited her every day as he walked their dog. He talked to her, pretending to talk to the dog. She pleaded with him to poison her. Instead he kept bringing her food and water.
In many places, local people helped the invaders. Their motivations were varied, and many did so in the hope of keeping themselves and their families alive. That was the case with Jewish policemen in the Warsaw ghetto where they were given quotas to meet for deportation:
Policemen took the old and the young to Umschlagplatz on carts. Jewish policemen took a small girl from her home when her mother was away running an errand. Her last words before deportation to Treblinka were recorded:
“I know that you are a good man, sir. Be so kind as to not take me away. My mama left for just a moment. She’ll be back in just a moment, and I won’t be there, be so kind as to not take me away.”
In the end, the Jewish policemen and their families were also deported to the death factories.
“The ash of each man”
Later, the location where the Warsaw ghetto had stood became an execution camp for captured Polish partisans.
They were executed by machine gunners, and, then, Jewish slave laborers — it is amazing any Jews were still alive in Warsaw — stacked the bodies in a large heap and, after pouring on gasoline, set the heap on fire.
Once the heap was flaming, the Germans shot the Jewish laborers and threw their bodies onto the pile.
Milosz’s poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” written in 1943, speaks of an unearthly power able to undo the grey of rubble and soot and distinguish “the ash of each man.” No earthly agent could sort the Jewish ashes from the Polish ones.
“The moral danger”
Yet, Bloodlands is as much a book about the killers as it is about the victims. Yes, it is important to understand that each individual 1 that, added together, make up the 14 million was a human being. So too were each individual 1 among the tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands? — of killers.
Today, various governments and movements use the victims of the Germans and Soviets to make political points. Nonetheless, while it’s attractive to identify with the victims, Snyder argues:
It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim, but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander…
To dismiss the Nazis or Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them.
Bystander or perpetrator?
Could I be a bystander? Could I be a perpetrator?
Could I write home to my wife and describe how I was occupied shooting Jews?
“During the first try [one German policeman wrote to his wife] my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse. The death we gave them was a beautiful quick death, compared to the hellish torments of thousands and thousands in jails of the [Soviet secret police].
“Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water.”
“Infants flew…” — could I write that sentence?
Could I, like the Soviet secret police, deal with a shortage of bullets by forcing several people to sit together with their heads in a line, and fire a single bullet through all their skulls?
Could I, like the people running one death factory, celebrate the 10,000th cremation by decorating a corpse with flowers?
Could I, like the Jew-hunting Dirlwanger Brigade, burn down hospitals with patients inside? And kill and rape and hang thousands?
The massacres in Wola [Snyder writes] had nothing in common with combat. The Germans lost six dead and killed about twenty Home Army soldiers while murdering at least thirty thousand people.
Human beings did all of this to 14 million other human beings.
I could be a victim.
I could be a perpetrator.
I could be.
Patrick T. Reardon