Sunday, 8 April 2012

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

This is not an easy book to read; it does not stray from the cataloguing and analysis of policies of terror, destruction and extermination between 1933 and 1945. But the analysis is new (to me)and there is much in the detail which I had simply not encountered before.

The analysis is new insofar as it places the Jewish Holocaust (six million dead) in the context of fourteen million dead from policies pursued by Hitler and Stalin in what Snyder calls "The Bloodlands" - Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, the Baltic States.

Big numbers to the death tally are contributed by Stalin's deliberate creation of famine in 1932-33 Ukraine (3.3 million, page 411), with which Snyder begins his narrative. More big numbers are added by the German treatment of Soviet Prisoners of War, captured in vast numbers as the Nazis swept into the Soviet Union in 1941 and either shot or allowed to die of starvation in horrific conditions (3.1 million, page 184):

"In late 1941, when [Soviet] prisoners of war were very likely to starve to death, some of them survived by fleeing - to the Minsk ghetto. The ghetto was still a safer place than the prisoner-of-war camps. In the last few months of 1941, more people died at nearby Dulags and Stalags than in the Minsk ghetto" (page 230; see also the figures at page 179)

In this connection, Snyder clearly has no patience with the distinction between a "good" Wehrmacht (professional soldiers doing their duty) and the Nazis: in the Bloodlands, the Wehrmacht were enthusiasts for killing.

The tally increases hundreds of thousands at a time from other policies of Stalin and Hitler:

- Stalin's Great Terror of 1937 - 38
- Stalin's selective executions and mass deportations of ethnic groups from Soviet border areas where they were thought likely to sympathises with an invader
- Hitler's and Stalin's joint actions in exterminating Polish elites, military and civlian. The Katyn Massacre of the Polish Officer class is the most familiar. The Soviets were responsible but it could equally have been the Germans.
- Hitler's "Reprisal" killings of civilians, notably in Belarus and Poland. In Belarus there was quite a lot of Soviet inspired Partisan activity and in Poland, there was both the Home Army of the Polish government in exile and Soviet-directed Partisans. After the Warsaw Uprisings, all of Warsaw was razed to the ground.
- The advancing Soviet Army's raping and killing spree in 1944-45

Snyder's list is longer than this summary.

New to me was his emphasis on the fact that Hitler did not want either the people or the cities of the occupied East: he wanted a tabula rasa on which to start again: new inhabitants and new infrastructure. What seems to an outsider wanton destruction was almost always part of a policy. The same is true of Stalin's Ukraine Famine.

Snyder does not write about acts of individual humanity or resistance to horrific policy and behaviour. The book is unremittingly bleak. Nor does he look at the role of institutions which still existed to some extent independent of Nazi or Communist control. He says nothing about the churches, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and (in the Baltics) Lutheran. Some of them were complicit in murderous policies and that should be analysed. Some of them housed individuals who risked their lives for others.

Snyder does emphasise that the Western allies - the USA, the UK - took little or no interest in what was happening in the European lands fought over between Hitler and Stalin, and declined to act on what they did know. I quote one story which was new to me:

'Shmuel Zygielbojm, the representative of the [Jewish socialist] Bund to the Polish government-in-exile in London, knew that the [Warsaw] ghetto was going up in flames. He had a clear idea of the general course of the Holocaust from Jan Karski, a Home Army courier who had brought news of the the mass murder to the Allied leaders in 1942....In a careful suicide note of 12 May 1943....he wrote: "Though the responsibility fro the crime of the murder of the entire Jewish nation rests above all upon the perpetrators, indirect blame must be borne by humanity itself" The next day he burned himself alive in front of the British parliament...' (page 292)[* but see my Footnote below]

In the shadow and the wake of fourteen million dead people, there were also those who survived, often Displaced, often Deported, often in Exile and almost inevitably traumatised. Their contribution to the post-war world often demonstrated an extraordinary ability to triumph over adversity. At times, their contribution was not constructive - so much so that in his book Political Journeys Fred Halliday concludes that the role of diasporas in the politics of their homeland is always negative. But the world of the survivors is another book.

I am glad I read Snyder's extraordinarily broad and detailed work, cover to cover. I recommend it.

Footnote added 19 May 2012: In his 1944 autobiographical book, Story of a Secret State,Jan Karski gives a detailed and moving account of his meeting in London with Zygielbojm. But the suicide is described as having been committed at home, by turning on the gas (page 366 of the 2012 Penguin edition). The Wikipedia entry for Zygielbojm makes no mention of a public suicide. It does, however, say that Zygielbojm's body was cremated at the time in symbolic solidarity with Polish Jews and that because this was contrary to Jewish burial traditions, it posed problems for the interment of his ashes, when they were located in 1959, and which were not resolved until 1961.

1 comment:

  1. Add to those figures the millions who died under Mao, genocide in Cambodia,Rwanda, Bosnia ..... you can go through the alphabet listing countries that have experienced unimaginable horrors within living memory. We tend to get blase about the state of the world because we are fortunate to live in such a relatively peaceful country.