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Between Hitler and Stalin | The Nation

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Between Hitler and Stalin

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In mid-April 1945 American GIs entered Buchenwald while their British compatriots marched, horrified, into Bergen-Belsen. There they found scenes of unimaginable suffering, men of bones and skin standing, somehow, on spindly legs, amid piles of emaciated corpses. In those dark days at Buchenwald, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower postponed the burial of the dead so that journalists could be brought to the scene to tell the world what the fight had been about. Even as thousands of typhus-stricken survivors died, witnesses to a liberation that came too late for them, Edward R. Murrow filed reports and Margaret Bourke-White made chilling photographs that documented what must have seemed the nether pole of human depravity, the worst an inhuman regime could achieve. A picture of evil was set; yet that picture, it has long been clear, was distorted and mistaken.

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

About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn teaches history at Columbia University. His Human Rights and the Uses of History, a book collecting...

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A little over a year ago, as he put the finishing touches on his important new work of history, Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder published a much remarked-upon piece in The New York Review of Books titled—somewhat portentously—"The Holocaust: The Ignored Reality." As in the finished volume, Snyder offered a powerful reminder that the true killing fields of the Holocaust were in German-occupied territories in the east, where first with mass shootings and then at killing centers like the hellish Treblinka the Jews were put to death as Jews—most of them immediately, without staying the night. "The fate of the concentration camp inmates, horrible though it was, is distinct from that of those many millions who were gassed, shot, or starved," Snyder writes in his book. "American and British forces," he continues, "saw none of the major killing sites."

But everybody, more or less, knew that much. A half-century ago Raul Hilberg published the first edition of his classic The Destruction of the European Jews, in which he found fault with "the constant emphasis" in the popular and scholarly perception of the war on "'concentration camps,' often including the epitomization of Dachau and Buchenwald but rarely embracing any mention of Auschwitz, let alone the faraway camps of Treblinka and Sobibór or Belzec." He was crying in the wilderness, but a few years later a potboiler with the title Treblinka sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Western Europe and the United States, finally putting that dastardly name into wide circulation. Still, perhaps Hilberg's distinction needs to be reasserted, and Snyder—a walking encyclopedia of arresting facts and conclusive figures—has done so better than anyone.

In his article Snyder further claimed that Auschwitz, a concentration and labor facility that incorporated a death camp, Birkenau, is now so well-known because it allowed survival, both of non-Jews and Jews, perhaps 100,000 people (by comparison, fewer than 100 survived Treblinka, a "pure" death facility). True, but Auschwitz is also renowned as a site of Jew-killing, not simply for the Arbeit macht frei that made it far preferable to Treblinka's horrors, on average. Thanks to the decades of research and memorialization that have made the Holocaust so familiar, and Auschwitz iconic, it is now the concentration camps, not the extermination camps, that are "ignored." If you ask anybody in the street what happened at the concentration camps, they will tell you—wrongly—that the Nazis put the Jews to death in them. Whereas Buchenwald once left Treblinka in the shadows, the reverse is now closer to the truth.

It turns out, then, that much of what Snyder calls "the ignored reality" of the Holocaust is tolerably well-known; by appealing to it to justify his new project, he is really gathering momentum for a rather different and essentially separate historical undertaking. His goal is to connect the true geography, and the detailed unfolding, of the Holocaust to a wide variety of other crimes, perpetrated both by the Nazis and the Soviet Union, in what he dubs a "history of political mass murder." Though it took many years for the Holocaust even to be named as a separate event, it has also been decades since historians began to call for "historicizing" it, by which they meant finding the proper framework for explaining it, so that it is no longer a mysterious black box into which explanation cannot intrude. In Bloodlands Snyder locates the Holocaust alongside other atrocities in an all-embracing single scheme. And unlike his claim that the Holocaust's grim reality is poorly known, his attempt to link it to a syndrome of political killing endorsed by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin is new and compelling, at least in many of its specifics.

* * *

Snyder is perhaps the most talented younger historian of modern Europe working today. Astonishingly prolific, he grounds his work in authoritative mastery of the facts, mining tomes of information in multiple languages and brilliantly synthesizing his findings. At the very least, Bloodlands is valuable for its astounding narrative integration of a gruesome era of European history. Following in the footsteps of his mentors, Timothy Garton Ash and Tony Judt, Snyder adopts an anti-totalitarian perspective. (In the depths of his terminal illness, Judt, thanks to Snyder's selfless assistance, completed what will be his posthumous intellectual history of Europe in the twentieth century.) The upshot of this perspective is that Snyder generally avoids high-flown theoretical propositions in order to give individuals their due, even if just to record their agony and demise. A preternaturally gifted prose stylist, he strives for a moral urgency appropriate to his depressing topics, and he rarely succumbs to bathos.

The narrative of Snyder's book does offer an argument: political atrocity in the era had a highly specific geography, the "bloodlands" of its title, which stretched from central Poland to western Russia, including Ukraine and the Baltic regions. There, Snyder calculates, 14 million people—not including the fighting soldiers who trampled the same ground—lost their lives in an extended paroxysm of state-organized violence. If you were a victim, it was most likely because you were living in the wrong place, not just at the wrong time.

By choosing a geographical approach to how death undid so many "between Hitler and Stalin," Snyder courts two contending risks. One is that he is simply spelling out on the ground the familiar thesis that totalitarian regimes and despots are uniquely evil. Is it any surprise that in the zone where such titans clashed, and the most massive war in human history took place, there was a lot of civilian carnage? A second risk is that a geographical focus could dislodge the wide variety of explanations historians have offered to put the Holocaust in some sort of context, ones focusing, for example, on the circumstances of the war, notably its economics, and food policy behind the lines, or on the imperial aspirations of the contenders in a common space. Snyder avoids the second risk by integrating many of the existing arguments into his own.

The litany of death begins with three bloodcurdling chapters on Soviet policy in the 1930s. As Snyder usefully points out, Stalin killed civilians in peacetime and within his empire, whereas Hitler by and large waited until the war to conduct his malfeasance, and did so on the periphery of newly conquered territory. Recently another historian, Norman Naimark, discussed under the heading Stalin's Genocides the bloody episodes of Stalin's peacetime reign, especially the policy-driven Ukrainian famine of 1933 and the campaigns against kulaks (landowning peasant farmers) and other political enemies that culminated in the so-called Great Terror a few years later. But as Snyder points out, "historians who discuss genocide find themselves answering the question as to whether a given event qualifies, and so classifying rather than explaining." Snyder, by contrast, is right to want an explanation, and he is at pains to demonstrate that the sickening death toll depended first of all on geography.

His approach works particularly well for the Ukrainian famine, especially since Hitler's expansionist racial utopia would come to rely on Ukraine as its "bread basket." Snyder also emphasizes the "national terror" Stalin visited on Eastern European elites; after all, targeting Polish elites—in Soviet Belarus and Ukraine before Poland itself was gobbled up—was a project to be joined with gusto by Hitler in due time. Snyder's attitude toward the Gulag is much the same as toward Auschwitz: it is too well-known. The Gulag was tough to endure, although when the civilian death toll mounted obscenely in the Soviet Union it was not in its camps but in collectivization zones and during campaigns of political terror that disproportionately targeted Eastern Europeans (and Poles especially). As Snyder notes disquietingly, "it was Stalin's Soviet Union that undertook the first shooting campaigns of internal national enemies."

Originally a Poland specialist, Snyder has made a valuable contribution with his identification of what he calls "Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe." He has in mind the era between the dismemberment of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 and the Nazi invasion of its erstwhile ally in 1941, and has named it appropriately enough after the gash torn down the center of Poland by the Nazi and Soviet foreign ministers in order to divide the spoils. Polish suffering, most notoriously with the massacre of the Polish officer corps at Katyn but also on the Nazi side of the line, was a common project, Snyder shows. The line also had considerable relevance later, not least because, though the Germans broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Operation Barbarossa, on one side Jews were to be asphyxiated in camps while on the other they were to be gunned down en masse. Only the Jews of Galicia, with their territory reassigned by the Nazis for administrative reasons from one side of the original line to the other, suffered both fates.

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