Book Review – 14 million killed by Stalin and Hitler. Read this please.

A forgotten European horror

HISTORY: ROBERT GERWARTH Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin By Timothy Snyder Bodley Head, 524pp. £20

THE HISTORY of the second World War is hardly a neglected topic. Yet despite the more than 40,000 books that have already been published on the subject the general reading public in western Europe and America knows far more about the fall of France, the Battle of Britain and the Normandy landings than the infinitely more dramatic events that occurred in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine during this period.

In Bloodlands , an impeccably researched history of mass killings in the eastern part of mid-20th-century Europe, Timothy Snyder seeks to redress that balance. Snyder’s ambition is to draw his readers’ attention to those parts of eastern Europe that experienced the worst of Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness; indeed, the key argument of his book is that the escalation of mass violence was most extreme where the lethal policies of Hitler and Stalin interacted and overlapped.

Snyder’s so-called bloodlands extend from modern Poland to western Russia through the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus. This is the region in which, between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered an almost unimaginable total of 14 million civilians: Ukrainian peasants in the Soviet collectivisation of 1929-33; central and eastern European Jews between 1941 and 1945; Poles between 1939 and 1945; and Belarusians from Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937 to the retreat of the Germans in 1944.

Snyder’s vivid account begins in the early 1930s, when Stalin conducted his first “utopian” agricultural experiment in Ukraine, where he collectivised the land and conducted a “war” for grain against the kulaks, or “wealthy” peasants. His campaign rapidly evolved into a genocidal class war against Ukrainian peasant culture itself, culminating in the deliberately engineered mass famine of 1933, which cost the lives of more than three million Ukrainians. This famine was one of the worst of its kind ever to be inflicted and was only exceeded by Mao’s push for industrialisation in the 1950s, which led to the deaths of about 30 million Chinese peasants.

The Ukrainian famine coincided with Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s the Nazi leadership fantasised about creating living space for German settlers in Poland and Ukraine, a project that could be realised only by eliminating most of the original inhabitants of these areas. After their attack on western Poland in 1939 the Nazis began a “cleansing campaign” by arresting and murdering Polish priests, intellectuals and politicians. During their simultaneous invasion of eastern Poland the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, embarked on a similar policy of decapitating the Polish elites, most notoriously in the massacres that occurred in the Katyn forest, where some 20,000 Polish officers were shot on Stalin’s personal orders. Between them the Nazis and the Soviets murdered about 200,000 Poles in the first 21 months of the war. After 1941, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the “bloodlands” became the region where Nazism and Stalinism clashed in a historically unprecedented battle of life and death. Although they had signed the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, both Stalin and Hitler knew that their incompatible ideologies made war between Germany and Russia inevitable in the long run.

The war that erupted after the German invasion was accordingly fought with particular brutality on both sides. About half of the soldiers who died during the second World War were killed in the “bloodlands”, and both dictators treated captured enemies with deadly contempt. Soviet POWs were deliberately held in improvised camps without adequate food or shelter, and they died in extraordinary numbers. On any given day in the autumn of 1941 more Soviet POWs died than British and American POWs during the entire war. In total, more than three million perished, mostly within a period of a few months. Germans captured by the Red Army, particularly during and after the Battle of Stalingrad, fared only marginally better: about a million German POWs died in Soviet captivity, most of them through neglect. The original inhabitants of the “bloodlands”, however, were the ones who suffered most: of the nine million inhabitants of prewar Belarus, for example, one and a half million were murdered and another three million deported, most of them to their deaths.

Although Snyder leaves no doubt that Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia bear the responsibility for the mass atrocities that occurred in eastern Europe between 1933 and 1945, he also highlights the indifference of outsiders towards the fate of this region and its inhabitants. An escapee from the Warsaw ghetto, Szmul Zygielbojm, for example, campaigned in London for an Allied intervention in the Nazi extermination of the Jews. By May 1943, however, he had become so disillusioned that he burned himself alive in front of the British parliament in a desperate act of protest against what he perceived as the Allies’ hypocrisy.

The astonishingly high death figures quoted in Snyder’s book can blunt our sense of the individuality of the victims of the second World War. “I’d like to call you all by name,” wrote the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in her Requiem , “but the list has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.” One of the great strengths of Snyder’s book is that it brings back to life some of the forgotten voices of those who died in the “bloodlands”. The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, but Snyder reconnects the broad narrative of eastern Europe’s unparalleled tragedy with its intimate impact on the lives of individuals.