Between Hitler and Stalin
The "bloodlands" in which political murder took place is a historical reality but also a historian's construction. It is a prism through which to view a refractory landscape—in Snyder's case a literal one—in order to understand it better. Constructions help see things in relation to others, but always on pain of exclusion. As one chooses one's insight, one chooses one's blindness.
Of course, like genocide, "the Holocaust" is also a construct devised to make sense of the past. It came into widespread circulation as late as the '70s, disengaging the spectacular killing of Jews from the wartime scene and distinguishing their destruction from the suffering of "humanity" that ideologies like antifascism presented as the truth of the twentieth century. Different constructions of the Holocaust continue to vie for supremacy even today; a new book by Dan Stone, Histories of the Holocaust, provides a state-of-the-art analysis of the different current approaches. So the real question is how to compare the rival constructions and use the comparison to see what is valuable and problematic about each one.
Snyder doesn't note the stress that his treatment of partisans places on the notion of "civilian atrocity." He shows vividly that in and around Minsk, and in the horrific occupation of Warsaw, Jews and others were real (not imagined) insurgents, and the Nazis responded in classically brutal fashion. Those Jews and other Belarussians and Poles were not "civilians," and their very prominence unsettles the framework in which civilian depredations are the focus. For that matter, Snyder doesn't pause to defend his premise that noncombatant depredations should be isolated, historically and morally, from the legitimate violence of warfare. Despite the staggering tote board of death Snyder erects, most of the blood spilled during World War II in these bloodlands came from soldiers' bodies. Yet the war is present in his history of them only as context for the death of civilians (or of those Soviet POWs, whose killing is illegitimate according to the law of armed conflict). Focusing on so-called political murder—as if war were not political—makes sense given the conventional assumption that when soldiers die it is simply a part of the cost of states' doing business, whereas civilian atrocity falls into a different category. But a dead body is a dead body, and if geography is to provide the framework it is hard to understand why these hecatombs of young men don't count too.
Similarly, Snyder's worry that Auschwitz gets too much press compared with the Aktion Reinhard camps like Treblinka is persuasive, but only up to a point, and it may not justify the relegation of the vast Auschwitz complex to a kind of afterthought on the grounds that it does not snugly fit the geographical framework. Situated on the western fringes of the bloodlands, on territory the Soviets never touched until they liberated it, Auschwitz faced not only west but south, toward the Hungarian Jews who would die there en masse in 1944, with no experience of Soviet occupation. In a somewhat perfunctory three pages on the site, Snyder spends more time minimizing it—relatively few Polish Jews died there, lots of others survived—than acknowledging its climactic significance, beyond any qualifications and rectifications.
Observing that 90 percent of the fatalities in the bloodlands had occurred before Birkenau came online in the spring of 1943, Snyder beautifully calls Auschwitz "the coda to the death fugue." But for a historian who so frequently cites facts and figures as dispositive, it still matters that more Jews died in Auschwitz—about a million—than in any other camp. And much more important, Auschwitz, more than any other site, revealed the continental scope of Hitler's hatred of Jews, which far transcended the bloodlands even if the suffering there was worse, both relatively and absolutely. In this sense, Auschwitz marks the limits of Snyder's revisionism, for choosing Auschwitz as a synecdoche of the whole Holocaust is far less an error than making the Gulag the symbol of Stalinist crime.
Ultimately, Snyder's main achievement is his juxtaposition of two homicidal regimes to make a point so well as to make it unanswerable, when not long ago it still elicited howls of outrage for trivializing the unique fate or special honor of particular victims. "Attention to any single persecuted group," as Snyder says, "will fail as an account of what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945." This does not mean that connections among the various spasms of killing can be easily established; and noting their geographical proximity, as Snyder does, provides a series of local insights that may not add up to a comprehensive explanation. Still, by any measure Bloodlands is a remarkable, even triumphant accomplishment.