Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.
While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not. After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.
The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland. Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.
Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow. Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them. When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.
As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.
The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally. Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back. Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.
There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.
This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach. Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape. Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.
The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer. The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other. Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping. The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.
The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.
The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.