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.
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.