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Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin Paperback – October 2, 2012
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"A startling new interpretation of the period ... a stunning book."―David Denby, New Yorker
"A superb and harrowing history."―Financial Times
"Genuinely shattering.... I have never seen a book like it."―Istvan Deak, New Republic
"A brave and original history of mass killing in the twentieth century."―Anne Applebaum, New York Review of Books
"A magisterial work.... Snyder's account in engaging, encyclopedic."―Foreign Affairs
"Gripping and comprehensive.... Mr. Snyder's book is revisionist history of the best kind: in spare, closely argued prose, with meticulous use of statistics, he makes the reader rethink some of the best-known episodes in Europe's modern history."―Economist
"Snyder...compels us to look squarely at the full range of destruction committed first by Stalin's regime and then by Hitler's Reich.... A comprehensive and eloquent account."―New York Times Book Revew
"A superb work of scholarship, full of revealing detail, cleverly compiled...and in places beautifully written.... Snyder does justice to the horror of his subject through the power of storytelling."―The Sunday Times (London)
About the Author
Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1997, where he was a British Marshall Scholar. Before joining the faculty at Yale in 2001, he held fellowships in Paris, Vienna, and Warsaw, and an Academy Scholarship at Harvard.
He has spent some ten years in Europe, and speaks five and reads ten European languages. Among his publications are several award-winning books, all of which have been translated: Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (1998, revised edition 2016); The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (2003); Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist's Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (2005); The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke (2008); On Tyranny (2017); and The Road to Unfreedom (2018). He has written for publications including the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, the Times Literary Supplement, Nation, The New Republic, the International Herald Tribune, and the Wall Street Journal.
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One such number is 33,761. That is the number of Jews shot at Babi Yar, near Kiev, in the Ukraine. On numerous occasions throughout this monumental and essential history, Timothy Snyder uses very precise figures such as 33,761. Admittedly, it rubbed me the wrong way, since in the world of much uncertainty, as Heisenberg and others have proclaimed, it is impossible to know such a number, with that type of certainty and precision. But on the very last page of his account, the author, a Yale historian, explained fully why it is so important to use the “odd” number. It is the humanity that is revealed in the “1”, which can be multiplied by a million or more. It is the fragments of the stories of individuals who once had a real name, that have been preserved in diaries, or the memories of others, or simply a departing sentence scratched on a wall.
Snyder does also use “round” numbers, as in 14,000,000. That is his estimate of the number of CIVILIAN deaths in an area he defines as the “Bloodlands,” between 1933 and 1945. It is an area that stretches from St. Petersburg in the north, encompasses the entire eastern shore of the Baltic to Danzig, all of Poland, and on, down to the entire Crimea, and touching the Don River in the east. One of the many strengths of this book is the numerous excellent maps set within the narrative. His contributions to our understanding of what happened in that space and time are numerous. Central is his examination of the disparate motives behind these numerous deaths, and to present a “balanced” account, in a world of madness. Snyder starts in the Ukraine, with Stalin’s efforts to collectivize agriculture, which lead to the death, by starvation, of millions. Many others were deported to the “Gulag.” Next there was the “Terror,” in the late ‘30’s, in which Stalin purged many in the leadership ranks of the Soviet Union, with a particular focus on the Poles. In fact, the “Polish Military Organization” was simply invented for the purpose of justifying the terror. Though the Soviet Union promoted an image of their tolerance towards minorities, which many in the West, probably at one time including myself, accepted, with the “you can make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” rationalization, Snyder concludes otherwise, to a stark degree. Next there was the brief period that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, which, in part, resulted in the partition of Poland between them, and the calculated decimation of the Polish leadership.
What more can be said about the Holocaust and the Jews? Actually, quite a lot, I found. Once again, Snyder condemns best in measured, factual analysis. He deals with the “big picture,” and demonstrates how, after the German failure to take Moscow in 1941, that the destruction of European Jewry became a wartime German objective. He names numerous concentration camps I had never heard of, because they were taken by the Red Army. Prior to reading Snyder’s account I was under the impression that the gas chambers had to be constructed because there was some natural “limit” whereby soldiers could not be ordered to shoot and kill unarmed men, woman and children, and be expected to obey. The soldiers themselves would simply rebel and refuse to participate in these heinous crimes. Not so, apparently, as the author documents how so very many were simply shot, including all those at Babi Yar.
Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist once proclaimed that “the dead of the Six Day War belong to all of us; the dead of the Lebanese War belong only to their mother’s.” Snyder posits a similar issue concerning a Soviet Ukrainian Jew who had once lived in an area considered to be Poland. She can be claimed by four different national entities; who does she belong to? And to what political purpose today will these entities use her death? And like Bernard Schlick’s principle character in The Reader, who is accused of war crimes, but asks the Judge: “What would you have done?” and receives no reply, Snyder cautions against assuming the identity of the victim, and raises the issue of what people who are just “trying to get by” will do in order to stay alive… including being Jewish policeman in the ghetto.
My first efforts to obtain a different vantage point on the Second World War, other than the one I was brought up on, as an American, that is, Pearl Harbor and D-Day, was reading Alexander Werth’s Russia at War: 1941-1945, in the ‘60’s. William Shirer proclaimed it to be “the best book we probably shall ever have in English on Russia at war.” I found it strange therefore that in Snyder’s extensive 37 page bibliography, it is never mentioned. Of course, some of Werth’s information and opinions, as set forth in 1964, are outdated and have been superseded. For example, Werth had left it an open question as to who killed the Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, the Soviets or the Nazis. We now know for certain it was the former, and Snyder details this.
I also compared accounts concerning the doomed Warsaw uprising of 1944. I found Snyder’s account less rigorous, with the implicit assumption that the Russians had simply stopped, for no particular reason, and allowed the Poles to be slaughter as a result. Werth seemed to be much more explicit and detailed, clearly condemning “…the awkward questions of the Moscow radio appeals at the end of July to the people of Warsaw to ‘rise’… and the Russian refusal to let supply planes from the West land on Soviet airfields.” Also, it was clearly in Stalin’s interest to allow the Polish elites again to be decimated. Nonetheless, Werth quotes the German general, Heinz Guderian on the inability of the Russians to take Warsaw, cites the failure to cross the Vistula in July, with a loss of 30 Russian tanks, and Werth concludes: “The only conclusion this author, at any rate, has been able to reach is that in August and September, 1944, the available Red Army forces in Poland were genuinely not able to capture Warsaw, which Hitler was determined to hold.” At a minimum, I think Snyder should have at least addressed this issue, and Werth’s knowledge of the matter.
Despite the above one flaw, I consider this an essential historical work. 6-stars.
The author defines the Bloodlands as the lands between pre-war Nazi Germany and the western edge of the Russian Republic, predominantly Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States and Ukraine. I was unaware this book would not focus on the military action(s) and instead focus on the ordinary citizens in these areas as I had not read any reviews prior to starting this book. I have to say, this is one of the best books I've read in quite some time, and the fact it covers a subject I've avoided has opened my mind to wanting to learn more.
The author recounts how first Stalin and then Hitler undertook various programs/campaigns against the Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian and Baltic populaces, as well as against those of the Jewish faith. In a combined campaign of extermination, over 14 million people were killed essentially because of where they lived, what religion they practiced, or if for some reason they were viewed as a threat. Along the way, author Snyder does a really good job of explaining the rationale behind the murderous schemes of Stalin and Hitler and how they fit into the grand plans/ideals of the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Along the way, the reader will encounter multiple personal vignettes about those who there, many of whom did not survive. The story is truly horrifying and the sheer numbers staggering, yet Snyder has woven together an excellent narrative which doesn't get bogged down in either horror or numbers. I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more the events in the Bloodlands from the late 1920's through the early 1950's--it truly is an excellent read.