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The killing fields of Europe

by Mark H. Teeter at 24/01/2011 19:54

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is not a book whose time has come; it is a book whose time is long overdue. The sooner this volume is absorbed by a wide East European readership, the more likely real headway will be made in “resetting” some of the region’s most enduringly acrimonious bilateral relationships – Poland-Russia, Russia-Ukraine and Russia-the Baltic States come immediately to mind, as these joint histories have long been blurred and politicised by slanted and self-serving recitations of the tragedy of eastern Europe’s “killing fields” from 1933 to 1945.

Taken as a distinct geographical entity, the Bloodlands – a great swath extending west-to-east from central Poland to western Russia and north-to-south from Leningrad to the Crimea – formed an unprecedentedly lethal environment. Some 14 million souls were murdered there over three distinct periods: as the Stalinist regime and Germany’s National Socialist state consolidated themselves in power (1933-1938); during the German-Soviet division and occupation of Poland (1939-1941); and over the course of the German-Soviet conflict of 1941-1945.

Snyder dispassionately leads the reader through these three cycles, employing an impressive command of the region’s languages and historical sources (pre- and post-Cold War) to produce a new composite picture that is largely or entirely unfamiliar to received opinion east or west. Consider a few arresting points:

On the state-enforced Soviet famines. In Ukraine, the Stalinist line in 1933 became “starvation [is] resistance”; those who succumbed to it were anti-Soviet “saboteurs” who “hated socialism so much that they intentionally let their families die”. A boy “born in 1933 had a life
expectancy of seven years”.

On (ethnic) Polish peacetime mortality
. “The most persecuted European national minority in the second half of the 1930s was not the 400,000 or so German Jews…but the 600,000 or so Soviet Poles”. By a conservative estimate, “one-eighth of the 681,692 mortal victims of the Great Terror were Polish”, though Poles were “fewer than 0.4 percent of the general population”.

On the fate of Soviet POWs. “As of the end of 1941, the largest group of mortal victims of German rule in occupied Poland was neither the native Poles nor the native Jews, but Soviet prisoners of war.” Put otherwise, “As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American…over the course of the entire Second World War.”

As excerpts like these demonstrate, Snyder’s skill involves not just collating the numbers but presenting them in perspectives and contexts that make us rethink various familiar and related notions that have become largely abstract: that the Hitler and Stalin regimes were bad, for one (How bad were they? Did their asocial natures compete or complement each other – or both?); and that the Holocaust was a uniquely evil enterprise, for another (How and to what can its origins, mechanics and denouement be compared?)

It is just as important, in any case, to point out what Bloodlands is not. It is not sensationalistic and it is not partisan. Snyder does not proffer great discoveries and retains a scrupulously scholarly detachment throughout. The book is also not a case of western scholarship trumping Russian historians and historiography. Snyder is an American, yes; but he incorporates both Soviet and Russian sources, and does not shy away from comparisons that reflect badly on the United States – including connections with the Third Reich. “[Colonisation of Ukraine] would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States,” he observes, “another hardy frontier state based on exterminatory colonialism and slave [labour].”

Nobody comes out of Bloodlands unscathed – which is wholly fitting – and that includes victimised states and peoples who aspire to outdo each other in victimhood: “Competitive martyrology,” Snyder warns, “can end with martyrological imperialism.” Our job as humanists, he concludes, is not to assign blame but “to turn the numbers back into people”.

This book is about 14 million people who should be recalled not together but – insofar as we are capable of it – as individuals. As 14 million times one. For any of us could have been that one. And, of course, could be again.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow

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