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Between Hitler and Stalin | The Nation

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Between Hitler and Stalin

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But there is a sticking point. For all the commonalities rooted in geography, and sometimes ideology, between the Nazi and Soviet killing campaigns, the Soviet Union did not perpetrate the Holocaust. Snyder, however, contends that the larger framework of political atrocity in the bloodlands still matters for grasping the Jewish fate, and he bolsters the case by making a series of microscopic arguments as he turns his attention to Operation Barbarossa and beyond.

Bloodlands
Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.
By Timothy Snyder.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

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Snyder attributes Barbarossa to contending imperialisms: whereas the Soviet Union had established its economic realm, Hitler could not do the same without trespassing beyond his share of Polish territory. And in the expanding domains cleared by the Wehrmacht (and the trailing Einsatzgruppen executing Jews as partisans), German plans called for copying the macabre Stalinist food policies that had led to ruin before. According to the Hunger Plan of May 1941, there really was a choice between who would get to eat: the German Volk at home or the occupants of newly conquered territory. The latter would have to die by starvation. This did not happen, certainly not comprehensively: an occupation in the midst of war is no easy thing to run according to schemes on paper. But hunger killed millions, most pitilessly in the case of the Soviet POWs, more than 2 million of whom starved to death (the Nazis simply shot half a million more).

When it comes to the Holocaust proper, Snyder's best insight is that zones occupied by the Germans after the Wehrmacht's invasion of the Soviet Union were not a blank slate but were often double scenes of crime, with one deadly occupation and security apparatus giving way to another and with the Jews suffering most. In a fascinating passage, Snyder emphasizes less the murderous collaboration of Poles and Ukrainians in Nazi projects than their victimhood under Hitler and Stalin—or rather, explains the one as a result of the other.

Snyder's point is not only that the Nazis claimed that prior Soviet misrule justified brutal corrective measures. In addition, the Nazis cemented local hatred of the Jews by scapegoating them for communism and the violence it had brought to the area. The Germans could appeal to the prior occupation to confirm "the Nazi worldview," as Snyder puts it, in which the Soviet Union was a "Judeo-Bolshevik" regime. "This psychic nazification," Snyder supposes, "would have been much more difficult without the palpable evidence of Soviet atrocities." The pogroms against Jews, after all, "took place where the Soviets had recently arrived and where Soviet power was recently installed, where for the previous months Soviet organs of coercion had organized arrests, executions and deportations. They were a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text." It is a counterfactual guess, though a plausible one given the scope of the violence. Of course, collaboration happened in zones where no prior occupation had occurred, just as Jews who had never lived under Soviet rule died—in Auschwitz, chiefly. But Snyder is clearly onto something very important.

Snyder is especially interested in Belarus, whose special circumstances he treats as a showcase for his argument, in which geography mattered even more than in the geographically determined bloodlands as a whole. The Belarussian capital of Minsk and its environs, rife with Soviet partisans (many of them Jewish) after the German advance, was the site of the most significant overlap of Nazi and Soviet ideology and activity at the same time. Millions died. Consecutive occupation thus serves to explain both collaboration and resistance.

No matter how convincing, Snyder's reoccupation thesis can be only one piece of a general theory of the bloodlands. Snyder never equates Nazi and Soviet brutality or ideology. His chapter on the death camps is a minor masterpiece of synthesis, though his argument about the supreme relevance of successive occupations necessarily wanes in it: the death camps, including the hell of Treblinka, on which Snyder dwells with especially moving care, were nearly all situated in the lands of the so-called General Government, the new colony comprising Polish zones the Soviets had never seen.

In his portrait of the region, Snyder is keen to emphasize widespread suffering, including interethnic cooperation among Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Nazi rule. Correspondingly, he downplays—albeit in the most thought-provoking way—the indigenous Jew-hatred and local reasons for collaboration that historian Jan Gross has heroically brought to light. "Poles would yell at the trains going by," Snyder pauses to note. "The gesture of a finger across the throat, remembered with loathing by a few Jewish survivors, was meant to communicate to the Jews that they were going to die—though not necessarily that the Poles wished this upon them." I am not sure how comforting this last proviso is—or how true. Ascribing so much significance to the wartime clash of external totalitarian regimes in causing hatred and collaboration slights the earlier sources of regional anti-Semitism, notably during the crisis of 1918–19, when the Judeo-Bolshevik myth took root across the area. Snyder says that "almost none" of the collaborators in Jew-killing helped the Nazis "for ideological reasons." But if earlier and continuing anti-Semitism isn't an ideology, what is?

Snyder underlines the significance of reoccupation and interethnic ties again when he turns to the terrible depredations and the consecutive bouts of resistance in Warsaw, where ghettoized Jews revolted in 1943 against German oppression and Poles (including many Jews) followed suit in 1944. The difference in Snyder's account of the Polish Home Army, which first helped the Jews and then rose up itself, is that this time it is not simply the past Soviet occupation but a prospective one that explains outcomes.

The destruction of Warsaw set the stage, there and elsewhere, for a Soviet conquest as the Nazi regime crumbled, one in which many German civilians were to meet their end in disorganized headlong flight. When the Soviets drove the Nazis back across the bloodlands, Snyder points out, they most frequently ushered in a re-reoccupation. Lands the Soviets had first taken, and had subsequently lost to the Wehrmacht, were theirs again, but to many civilians the apparent opposition was a single experience of victimhood by tag team. Of course, death, which Stalin's victory largely stopped in the very areas he had terrorized before Hitler came, is not the only indignity civilians can suffer. Germans, especially German women, became targets as the Soviets raped without compunction.

In the years of ethnic reordering that was only beginning as the war ended, Germans and others were forcibly relocated. Yet rather than make the ending of the Holocaust the justification for a Soviet new order—even though Stalin's troops had discovered all of its sites, and Soviet journalists like Vasily Grossman had done the most to publicize them—Stalin and his Eastern European allies continued the Jew-hatred. It was not comparable to Hitler's, Snyder acknowledges, though the threat of new mass purges was ever-present. The central truth is that while Hitler started the Holocaust, Stalin ended it. But Soviet anti-Semitism at the level of ideology and policy did make the true history of the bloodlands impossible to perceive later. "No Soviet account of the war," Snyder writes, "could note one of its central facts: German and Soviet occupation together was worse than German occupation alone."

* * *

Snyder writes in opposition to those who chalk up the era's violence toward civilians to the pathologies of modernity in a very "abstract way." In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt extrapolated her depiction of the Holocaust from accounts of concentration camps, and Snyder is right to indict her depiction of the totalitarian campaign against the "superfluous man" as quite simply mistaken. His essential contention is that a microscopic view is more productive than a macroscopic one, and if abutting and overlapping totalitarianisms is what occurred, then it was in a very specific region. Put bluntly, better to be a historian of Eastern Europe than a philosopher if you want to understand this evil.

Yet Snyder's account presupposes or implies the macroscopic and perhaps even the philosophical. Beyond the comparison of imperialism and occupation—itself necessarily broad, and, anyway, revealing dissimilarities as often as commonalities—Snyder's accumulation of facts may not permit any broad new explanation of political murder. "Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow, but their visions of transformation concerned above all the land between," Snyder notes. True enough, but if Hitler and Stalin remain the prime movers, then explaining what happened in these bloody colonies still ultimately leads back to the totalitarian metropole. In the end Snyder is a historian of totalitarianism who skirts offering a theory of it.

Even within the bloodlands, the variety of ways of explaining death stands out as the main conclusion of Snyder's project. In an unusual "abstract" he has appended to his narrative, Snyder permits himself to use the sort of big words that are absent in the text and on which explanation often depends. Sometimes, he says, the area was the scene of common projects by superficially opposed parties, like the "de-Enlightenment" visited on Poland after 1939 and the "belligerent complicity" that followed, in which many civilians died as armies clashed for what they thought were alternative ideological visions. Other times, however, the forms of death in the bloodlands were strictly different. The Soviets in the '30s sought the internal colonial "modernization" of Ukraine and elsewhere, in which kulaks were so many eggs necessary for the omelet. The Nazis in the '40s, by contrast, wanted a "colonial demodernization" that would lead to an agrarian paradise. The Soviets starved the countryside for the sake of the towns, whereas the Nazis aimed to destroy the urban resistance to realize a peasant utopia. Ultimately, Jews died as part of that latter vision. But then, at the level of explanation, there is no clear answer to what united the bloodlands except that they encompassed a region where totalitarians clashed and people died. Snyder is right to refer to the bloodlands in the plural.

When he turns to his conclusion, Snyder comes near to conceding that his study is therefore preliminary, and more corrective than it is constructive. It lays the foundation for some grand new explanation rather than providing one itself. Snyder is particularly hard-hitting about widespread accounts that attempt to extrapolate from the concentration camps of the west or even of Auschwitz in the east the inner logic of the Nazi regime or of totalitarianism as a whole. More generally, Snyder's book is an unanswerable criticism of a common intellectual syndrome in which a desire for majestic explanation proceeds without regard for the fine-grained details of what transpired. "For the time being," Snyder warns, "Europe's epoch of mass killing is overtheorized and misunderstood."

Four pages later, however, Snyder notes the insufficiency of facts and the necessity of theory. "The important question is: how could (how can) so many lives be brought to a violent end?" Overtheorizing is not the problem; mistaken theorizing is, at least in the long run. Repeating his findings about empire, reoccupation and collaboration, Snyder, however, finally turns mostly to wise reflections on memory and current European identity. And he concludes with the antitotalitarian humanist's interest in individuals, leaving aside for the future the search for explanation.

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