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Istvan Deak on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

The New Republic

The Charnel Continent

Istvan Deak

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin
By Timothy Snyder
(Basic Books, 524 pp., $29.95)

‘Now we will live!’... the hungry little boy liked to say ... but the
food that he saw was only in his imagination.” So the little boy died,
together with three million fellow Ukrainians, in the mass starvation
that Stalin created in 1933. “I will meet her ... under the ground,” a
young Soviet man said about his wife. Both were shot in the course of
Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, which claimed 700,000 victims.
“Two hundred thousand Polish citizens were shot by the Soviets or the
Germans at the beginning of World War II.” “Only Tania is left,” a
little Russian girl wrote in her diary in besieged Leningrad, where
the rest of her family and nearly one million other Leningraders
starved to death. “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so
afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass
graves alive,” a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in Belarus wrote to her
father. “She was among the more than five million Jews gassed or shot
by the Germans.”
So begins Bloodlands, a genuinely shattering report on the ideology,
the political strategy, and the daily horror of Soviet and Nazi rule
in the region that Timothy Snyder calls the bloodlands. In 1933, when
the murderous madness began, the bloodlands were made up of
independent Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as (within
the Soviet Union) Belarus, Ukraine, and some of Soviet Russia’s
western provinces. A glance at a map of the same area in 1941 shows
that in the intervening years the bloodlands had become two countries:
the German Reich and the Soviet Union. Acting in harmony, these two
countries swallowed the region’s other countries. Clearly, then,
Bloodlands is not only the story of hunger, war, and massacre, but
also of imperial conquest. And rather than satisfying the two monster
states, their imperialism caused them to turn against each other until
one disappeared from the map, if only temporarily, while the other
triumphed, only to disappear five decades later. In sum: the
bloodlands are the area, in Snyder’s view, where the two dictators
most effectively demonstrated their ability and their desire to kill.
At first the idea of these “bloodlands” strikes one as arbitrary, but
on reflection I have come to appreciate the justice of Snyder’s
notion. After all, many more people died in the bloodlands in the
1930s and 1940s—of hunger, typhus, frost, arson, forced labor,
torture, and murder—than in all the rest of Europe. The major victims
of one or the other killer, or of the two killers acting in unison,
were Jews, Poles, ethnic Germans, well-to-do farmers, members of the
intelligentsia, and religious and ethnic minorities.
One might object to Snyder’s thesis by arguing that other areas of
Europe were similarly affected—Germany, with its half-million
civilians annihilated in Allied bombings; or Greece, where 100,000
civilians died during the famine of 1941 - 1942; or the northern
Netherlands, where thousands starved to death early in 1945; or
Romania, where 300,000 Jews were wiped out in that country’s own
specific Holocaust; or Hungary, where, in 1944, the authorities handed
over more than 400,000 Jews to the Germans for extermination; or
Yugoslavia, where the civil war resulted in hundreds of thousands of
casualties; or elsewhere in the Soviet Union, where many ethnic
minorities living east of the bloodlands were deported and partly
annihilated at the orders of Stalin during and after the war. Those,
too, were unprecedentedly dark times and places. And yet one must
agree with Snyder that the doubtful honor of having lost the highest
proportion of their inhabitants during the war belongs to Poland, the
three Baltic countries, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of western Russia.
The tragedy of the other European states pales in comparison.
What made things worse for those in the bloodlands was that while all
countries in German hands had to suffer a German military invasion and
then, three or four or five years later, another military campaign
bringing about their liberation, the people of the bloodlands suffered
through three occupations, none of which can really be called a
liberation. In 1939, the German army conquered the western half of the
bloodlands, and the Soviet Red Army the eastern half. Two years later
Germany seized the entire bloodlands. And three years later the
Soviets returned, conquering or reconquering the whole territory. Each
occupation brought about a complete political, economic, and social
reversal. What had been legal and even mandatory in the Polish
Republic, for instance, became a crime in German-occupied western and
central Poland, as well as in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland; only
that in the latter people were punished in the name of principles that
were the exact opposite of the principles enunciated in the western or
German sector. In 1941, inhuman Nazi laws replaced inhuman Soviet
laws, which were again reversed with the expulsion of the German army
from Poland in 1944 - 1945.
Despite their antithetical ideologies, Nazi and Soviet rule in Poland
bore many similarities, mainly because both the Nazis and the Soviets
aimed at the fatal weakening of the Polish nation through the
elimination of its military and administrative elite, its clergy, its
intelligentsia, and its bourgeoisie. For the purpose of ridding the
country of all elements potentially inimical to German and Russian
supremacy, it mattered little whether a Polish-speaking merchant in
Lwów (Lviv) was deported for being a bourgeois or for being a Jew, or
whether a Polish peasant in the Białystok region was shot for being a
kulak or for being a subhuman Slav.

Timothy Snyder did archival research in English, German, Yiddish,
Czech, Slovak, Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Russian, and French.
His learning is extraordinary. His vivid imagination leads him to see
combinations, similarities, and general trends where others would see
only chaos and confusion, and this inevitably invites heated debate.
While Snyder writes with great verve and to highly dramatic effect, he
also likes statistics, and his frequent citation of casualty figures,
no matter how well researched, leaves him vulnerable: as he himself
knows, statistical data on Eastern European or Soviet war deaths are
often mere guesses, and tools to bludgeon political adversaries.

Snyder operates with the fundamental statistic that in the bloodlands,
between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million civilians fell victim to the
rage of soldiers, bureaucrats, policemen, and fellow civilians. Snyder
also claims that one-half of all the soldiers killed in World War II
died in the bloodlands, which in my view is an exaggeration. (Think,
for instance, of the uncounted Chinese soldiers who perished during
the war.)
The three main groups of civilian victims of comparable size were Jews
killed by Germans, non-Jews killed by Germans, and Soviet citizens
killed by their own government. To this, Snyder might have added the
Jews and non-Jews killed by Germany’s allies. After all, without
non-Germans in German service, far fewer Jews, or Poles, or Russians,
would have perished. And as Snyder shows, without the Jewish police,
who made sure that no Jew would escape the ghetto, more Jews might
have been able to avoid deportation to the death camps.
Individual wartime adventures could be incredibly complex for those in
the bloodlands. It is not difficult, for example, to conjure the image
of a young Ukrainian patriot in what used to be eastern Poland who,
just before the outbreak of World War II, is drafted into the Polish
army, but following the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September
1939 automatically becomes a Soviet citizen and is drafted into the
Soviet army. Captured by the Germans in 1941 and confronted with the
choice of starving to death in a POW camp or becoming a policeman in
German service, he chooses the latter, and in the next few years he
fights Soviet partisans and shoots defenseless Jews. In 1943 or 1944
he goes over to the partisans, as so many other Ukrainian policemen
were doing. Soon we find him in a Soviet uniform again, serving in a
combat unit. He makes it across Central Europe, fighting against the
Germans, but at one point he deserts, joining the countless other Red
Army deserters who are indistinguishable from bandits, and who drift
behind the combat units. Finally caught and accused of desertion, he
ends up in the Gulag. (Let me record here, for what it is worth, that,
in January 1945, when the Red Army liberated the great ghetto in
Budapest, Jewish survivors urged each other to shed the yellow star
because it was rumored among them that the Soviet troops included a
great number of Ukrainian former policemen and nationalist guerrillas
whose hatred for Jews and Communists continued unabated.)

Snyder’s book rightly traces the origin of the two tyrannies to World
War I, which “brought an obvious opportunity to revolutionaries.” When
Hitler’s revolution triumphed in 1933, the Communists had long been
governing the Soviet Union, but only simultaneously with Hitler did
they seize complete control, after politics and society, also of the
economy. Both Stalin and Hitler lived in dread of encirclement, one by
the capitalist powers, the other by Jewish capitalists and Jewish
Bolsheviks. This fear caused them to pursue economic self-sufficiency
for their respective countries: “Hitler and Stalin, for all of their
many differences, presumed that one root of the problem was the
agricultural sector, and that the solution was drastic state
intervention.” For Stalin, drastic intervention translated into forced
collectivization; for Hitler, it meant war, which would allow the
assimilation, deportation, and enslavement of the Polish and Russian
people, as well as the colonization of the eastern lands by armed
German farmers. While Stalin wanted to colonize his empire, Hitler
hoped to expand the German empire into Poland as well as deep into the
Soviet Union. Millions were to die in the effort to bring these dreams
to fruition.
The story of Stalin’s collectivization drive and the ensuing mass
starvation forms perhaps the most dramatic chapter of the book. The
description of the Holocaust is too well known to create the same
shattering effect. Yet unlike the Holocaust, the hunger in Ukraine of
the early 1930s—what the Ukrainians today call the Holodomor, “murder
by hunger”—aimed “only” at the partial extermination of the Ukrainian
The causes and the motivations of the collectivization drive, and of
the ensuing catastrophic starvation in Soviet Ukraine and elsewhere in
the Soviet Union, are still being ardently debated, but at least no
one would today pretend that the Great Hunger did not happen. This was
not always the case. In 1932 - 1933, and in some cases thereafter, all
Soviet leaders, and also such Western observers as the journalists
Walter Duranty and Louis Fischer, as well as the former French Prime
Minister Édouard Herriot, were in complete denial. The honest
reporting of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones and the British
journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was censored by the Western media, so
great was the world’s sympathetic fascination with the Soviet
experiment. And even those who admitted that there was hunger in many
parts of the Soviet Union generally advanced the appalling principle
of “you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs”—that is,
while hunger was regrettable, it was also an economic and political
necessity, an indispensable element of modernization.
Snyder rightly sides with those who believe that forced
collectivization was not meant to annihilate the Ukrainian population:
the atrocity was not a genocide. By reforming agriculture, Stalin
hoped to free masses of rural laborers for rapid industrialization.
But once hunger set in, due to administrative incompetence and peasant
resistance to collectivization, Stalin used the opportunity to crush
all real and imaginary enemies in order to prevent the rise of
Ukrainian nationalism. Hence the Moscow Party center’s violent attacks
on the Ukrainian Party bosses, who were alternately accused of being
too hard and too soft on the peasants. The Kremlin also blamed Polish
military counterintelligence for creating the famine.
Snyder demonstrates that instead of alleviating the suffering in the
Ukrainian countryside, the Soviet leadership did its best to aggravate
the consequences of the bad harvest and the ensuing starvation. The
peasantry as a whole was treated as a bunch of saboteurs and wreckers.
Since delivery quotas were impossible to fulfill, brigades made up of
mobilized industrial workers descended on the countryside to beat up
the peasants and to sweep their granaries clean. Those suspected of
slaughtering their livestock were shot or taken to concentration
camps. Having been denied internal passports, the starving peasants
were forbidden to enter the cities. They could not even go to a
hospital. Thousands died at railroad stations, on the roadside, or in
the villages. Historically, at times of hunger, producers have more to
eat than consumers, but in this instance the producers were worse off
then those in the cities, who received ration tickets denied to the
A part of the peasantry, usually but not always the more prosperous
among them, were branded “kulaks” and subjected to particular
persecution. In some ways, kulaks were treated like the Jews in Nazi
Germany—for example, the authorities publicly proclaimed that kulak
criminality was hereditary and could not be alleviated even by the
family’s surrendering its land to the state. Indeed, the idea of
hereditary kulak criminality thrived even after the war, encompassing
the entire Soviet bloc. In Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and
Romania, “kulaks and kulak brats” were sent to prison for failing to
feed their livestock, but also for trying to buy fodder or bread in
the cities in order to feed their livestock. They were accused of
sabotaging socialist production, and of conspiring with the Titoist
and American enemy.
The most terrible pages in Snyder’s account of the Great Hunger are
the ones that describe incidents of cannibalism. Ukrainian villagers
first ate corpses, but later some also killed and devoured their own
children, or children devoured their parents. Someone, a hardy soul,
ought to write a scholarly study of cannibalism in Eastern Europe
during the 1930s and 1940s, not only in Ukraine but also in besieged
Leningrad, among Soviet soldiers in German POW camps, and even,
occasionally, in Soviet POW camps for German and other soldiers.
Intriguingly, there seem to exist no reports on cannibalism among Jews
in German concentration camps. This must have been due to the fact
that such Jews who had not been shot or gassed were put to work, and
given some food. Death by hunger began in the German concentration
camps only in the last few months of the war, when the Nazi system of
semi-starving the inmates was no longer functioning.
In the first years of Operation Barbarossa, Soviet POWs in German
camps were given nothing. I recall, from 1944, the skeletal Soviet
POWs who were working on a railroad in Transylvania, to whom members
of a neighboring Hungarian Jewish labor company tried to pass some
bread—and were punished for their daring. It is, incidentally, one of
Snyder’s many theses that inmates in Nazi and Soviet concentration
camps had a much better chance of survival than Jews in the hands of
the German security police in Belorussian and Ukrainian towns, or Jews
expedited to such death camps as Treblinka, or the Soviet POWs in
German camps, or Ukrainian peasants during the great hunger.

What did Stalin achieve with his brutal collectivization drive?
Industrialization and modernization could have been more successful by
attracting peasants to the cities and the factories, rather than
killing them in the villages. As for the crushing of Ukrainian or
other minority nationalisms: in the summer of 1941, when the German
army raced through Ukraine, there was certainly no shortage of
Ukrainians who hailed the new arrivals as ushering in the dawn of
their freedom and independence.
The Soviet leadership proceeded, with almost no transition, from
killing off the peasants to killing off the Party members and the
elites in general. By the time the Great Terror started, in 1937,
Soviet diplomacy had changed from isolationism to a Popular Front
policy, favoring co-operation with all progressive patriots against
the fascist Hitlerite menace. Yet at home the terror campaign reached
its height at that time, including the Great Show Trials, a uniquely
nightmarish procedure. During its course, countless alleged
conspirators, saboteurs, wreckers, German, Polish, and Japanese spies,
Trotskyites, and Social Democratic traitors were tortured, tried, and
executed, or executed without a trial.
No doubt Stalin’s fear of a capitalist attack on the Soviet Union
played a role in this horrendous affair: after all, Japan and Germany
had signed the AntiComintern Pact in 1936, and they were soon joined
by other countries. Still, the Great Terror was madness. Snyder calls
the Great Terror the third revolution in the Soviet Union and argues,
convincingly yet controversially, that this “third revolution was
really a counterrevolution, implicitly acknowledging that Marxism and
Leninism had failed.” In other words, the Great Terror was a
recognition that people were defined not by class, by their place in
the socioeconomic order, but by their personal identities and their
cultural connections.
Snyder explains well how the original Bolshevik emphasis on class
struggle changed to an emphasis on fighting foreign infiltrators: even
kulaks were branded as foreigners or foreign agents, and so were the
foreign Communists who had sought asylum in the Soviet Union. The
principal victims of the Great Terror, however, were not Nikolai
Bukharin and other Soviet Communist leaders, and not even the Polish
or other foreign Communists, but ordinary foreign nationals, many of
whom had been living in Russia for generations. “In 1937 and 1938,”
writes Snyder, “a quarter of a million Soviet citizens were shot on
essentially ethnic grounds.... Stalin was a pioneer of national mass
murder, and the Poles were the preeminent victim among the Soviet
nationalities.” To be more precise, “of the 143,810 people arrested
under the accusation of espionage for Poland, 111,091 were executed.”
What could so many people have spied on? But the charge of mass spying
was no more absurd than the accusation raised against others that they
had conspired to assassinate Stalin. The renowned Hungarian-American
ceramicist and designer Eva Zeisel, who lives in New York and at the
age of 103 may be the last survivor of the Great Terror, was arrested
in 1936 while working in Moscow, and was accused of being among those
who plotted the murder of Stalin. After one and a half years of
interrogation and imprisonment, she was suddenly expelled from the
Soviet Union. In Paris, she met her old friend Arthur Koestler, to
whom the story of her experiences was of great consequence when
writing Darkness at Noon.
Besides the kulaks and the Polish, German, Finnish, Latvian, Japanese,
Korean, Chinese, Bulgarian, and other settlers, the Great Terror
targeted Communist political refugees so thoroughly that, after 1938,
only a fraction of the Polish and Hungarian Communist Party leaders
were still alive in the Soviet Union. Famously, foreign Communists had
a suitcase packed at all times in their Moscow hotel rooms while
awaiting and dreading their arrest.
Lastly, there were the purges carried out within the high and even the
highest Soviet leadership. No one will ever satisfactorily explain why
98 out of the 139 members of the Central Committee of the Soviet
Communist Party and one-half of the generals in the Soviet armed
forces were executed. It must be admitted that, at least with respect
to the military, Stalin’s madness was only temporary, and that the
German General Staff made a great mistake in interpreting the Great
Terror as a sign of the fatal weakness of the Soviet armed forces. In
part, Soviet officers released from the Gulag were the ones who,
between 1941 and 1945, defeated the Nazis.

Snyder makes the reader grasp the fundamental differences in how
Eastern Europeans perceived the Soviets and the Germans. At the start
of the war in 1939, the German invaders appeared as invincible
demigods, while the Soviet invaders often inspired ridicule: “The
Soviet citizens who ruled eastern Poland were falling off bicycles,
eating toothpaste, using toilets as sinks, wearing multiple watches,
or bras as earmuffs, or lingerie as evening gowns.” In Budapest in
1945 we had the same impression, and thus the same sense of
superiority over the “Mongols” of the Red Army. To which the soldiers
might have retorted that if they were so poor and so backward, why did
the Germans, the Hungarians, and others come to their country to steal
and to destroy what little they had?
The highly civilized Germans had no trouble with toothpaste; but their
soldiers stole with abandon in the occupied Eastern territories, and
they immediately began shooting Jews as well as captive Polish
soldiers and civilians. The killings and the expulsions were at first
sporadic, but gradually it became clear that both the Germans and the
Soviets were aiming at the decapitation of Polish society. Whereas the
Germans deported entire university faculties, the Soviets found a
harsher solution for getting rid of the Polish elite: at Katyn, and
elsewhere in Russia, they murdered at least 22,000 Polish reserve
officers (that is, civilians in uniform) and other members of the
middle class. Snyder writes: “The chief executioner at Kalinin.... was
Vasily Blokhin. He had been one of the main killers during the Great
Terror.... At Kalinin he wore a leather cap, apron and long gloves to
keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform. Using German
pistols, he shot, each night, about two hundred and fifty [Polish]
men, one after another.” None of his victims ever saw Blokhin because
he shot them from behind.
For the Soviet forces in Poland and the Baltic countries, Jews were a
useful prop, because in their fear of local anti-Semitism many Jews
were prepared to offer their services to the Soviets. Yet other Jews
were deported to the Soviet East as bourgeois capitalists, and
hundreds of them were shot at Katyn and elsewhere as officers in the
Polish army. For the Germans, the sudden presence of a huge number of
Jews represented an immediate dilemma. Snyder is persuaded that, until
1941, the Germans did not plan to annihilate European Jewry. Terror
and shootings, yes—but the main goal was to push the Jews outside the
continent, to Madagascar, or to Stalin’s empire. Only when it turned
out that the Madagascar solution was not practicable, and that Stalin
would not want them, and that not even Hans Frank, the Nazi governor
of central Poland, would accept any more Jews, did the Nazi leaders
begin to think of a more drastic solution.

And even then, Snyder says, the Nazis’ decision to murder all the Jews
of Europe was hastened by their inability, after June 22, 1941, to
defeat the Soviet Union. When the sacred goal of wiping out Bolshevism
proved impossible, the great task remaining was ridding Europe of the
Jewish menace. It is conceivable that if Hitler had been victorious
against the Soviet Union, then the Jews, the Poles, and millions of
other Eastern Europeans might not have been killed, but shoved instead
east into Soviet territories that the German agrarian interests did
not covet for themselves. According to Snyder, the same Wehrmacht
generals who at first were convinced that murdering the Jews would
somehow bring the war to a triumphant conclusion later decided that
“the killing of Jews was necessary, not because the war was about to
be won, as Himmler and Hitler could still believe in summer 1941, but
because the war could easily be lost.” Whatever the justification, the
Nazi Party bosses and the SS and Wehrmacht commanders in the East were
in agreement that the Jews had to die.
There could never be any doubt regarding extreme German brutality
toward the inhabitants of the Soviet Union. Nazi plans, conceived even
before Barbarossa, envisioned the razing of such great Soviet cities
as Leningrad and Kiev, and the starving or shooting of millions of
Slavs and Jews. Hitler, Göring, Himmler, and others were persuaded,
especially following the failure of the 1941 campaign, that the choice
was between feeding those in the occupied Soviet territories and
feeding Germans. As the Germans were the ones to be fed, the others
would have to die. Only late in the war did it occur to some Nazi
leaders that the millions of Jews and Soviet POWs represented an
invaluable labor force, and that many non-Jewish Soviet citizens would
even be prepared to fight on the German side. By the end of the war,
one million Soviet citizens were helping the Germans with arms. Many
more were working in the factories and the fields. Jews, too, were put
to work in huge numbers in the German war industry, such as at
Auschwitz. What the Germans never really understood was that in order
to make slave labor a success, slaves must be humanely treated and
decently fed.

With the start of Barbarossa, in Snyder’s account, the bloodlands
entered their third and last period. The first was between 1933 and
1938, when the Soviets alone did the killings; the second phase, from
1939 to 1941, was marked by Germans and Soviets sharing in the task;
and the third lasted from 1941 to 1945, when the Germans were mainly
responsible for the mass murders.

It is well known that the proportional distribution of Holocaust
casualties in Europe was very uneven. In Denmark and Bulgaria, almost
no Jews were killed; in Poland, the Baltic countries, and
(surprisingly) the Netherlands, almost all the Jews were killed. With
the exception of an extraordinary case such as the Netherlands, the
highest proportion of victims was concentrated in the bloodlands. The
German and Austrian Jews had emigrated to the West in their absolute
majority, and in Hungary and Romania, around forty percent survived
the war—but in the bloodlands the survival rate was much smaller. In
areas within the bloodlands that the Germans occupied in 1939, their
long presence made the “success” of the Final Solution inevitable.
While shooting was the fate of most Jews in the areas of the
bloodlands that the Germans conquered in 1941, gassing was the lot of
Jews from central and western Poland as well as from the rest of
Europe. It should be noted that the gassing started much later than
the shooting, and that its first victims were not Jews but mostly
Soviet prisoners of war.
In areas where the Germans arrived only in the summer of 1941, it was
their grim determination to do a thorough job—as well as the
assistance they received from the local population—that led to such
harrowing results. And the main reason for the pogroms east of the
Molotov-Ribbentrop line was that when the Soviets fled, in the summer
of 1941, the NKVD—the Soviet secret police—left behind the corpses of
thousands upon thousands of political prisoners, whom it had murdered
in the last moment. The local population, from Estonia down to
southern Ukraine, perceived the Soviet political police as a Jewish
institution and the NKVD massacres as the work of the Jews.
Following detailed and lucid analyses of the Eastern European events
in the last years of the war, especially of those in Poland (where the
author’s heart is), Snyder devotes a long chapter to the orgy of
ethnic cleansing that followed upon the Soviet victories, and in which
millions of German civilians but also Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians,
and others fell victim. As Snyder’s narrative nears its end it becomes
increasingly difficult to bear the avalanche of statistics on rape,
murder, bestiality, and arson. But this is the historical truth. In
the bloodlands and the rest of Eastern Europe, the story of the last
year of the war was not of Parisian beauties climbing on American
tanks to kiss grinning soldiers. In the East, the story of the last
year of the war and of the first postwar years was that of Red Army
soldiers raping German women, and not only German women; of refugees
freezing to death on the highways leading to Germany; of the Soviets
disarming and even arresting Polish anti-Nazi resisters; of Poles and
other East Europeans murdering Jews who had had the arrogance to
survive the camps and dared to ask for their belongings; of Jewish
survivors flocking into the Communist political police; of other Jews
being arrested by the Communist political police; and of still other
Jews fleeing Eastern Europe forever.

Snyder ends his unbearable tale with an eloquent plea. “The Nazi and
Soviet regimes turned people into numbers,” he writes. “It is for us
as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do
that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world but our
humanity.” That is exactly right. This is an important book. I have
never seen a book like it. But even Snyder does not broach the problem
of explanation. Why was there was so much savagery in the bloodlands?
The comportment of the Germans remains a mystery. When occupying
Western Europe in 1940, German soldiers tried to behave as perfect
gentlemen, and they committed occasional atrocities only after heavy
provocation by resistance groups. In Poland, by contrast, the German
soldiers acted as mass murderers from the very start, and they did so
in every Eastern European country they occupied in the following
years. The young Austrian policeman who in a letter to his bride
described how satisfactory it was to throw Jewish children in the air
in order to do target practice with his pistol was not typical, but he
was not a great rarity either.
One “understands” the fanatics who engaged in atrocities when their
ideology so demanded. But the majority of the Wehrmacht officers were
not fanatics, and not even Nazi Party members; in fact, hundreds among
them participated in the anti-Nazi resistance movement. And yet they
burned down villages and ordered the massacre of villagers without
hesitation. Perhaps the Germans (as well as the Romanians, Hungarians,
Slovaks, Croats, and even the Finns) acted in the old European
tradition of respecting international humanitarian agreements in the
case of similarly “civilized” enemies—and in disregarding the
agreements in the case of “natives.” For Central and Eastern
Europeans, everything to their east always seemed less civilized—a
territory worthy of colonization.
With regard to the Soviets, we have learned in an abundance of
scholarship how millions of Soviet citizens died under the peacetime
tyranny of Stalin; and how, during the war, Ukrainians and other
ethnic minorities greeted the German troops as liberators; and how a
huge number of Soviet citizens would have been happy to join the fight
against Stalin had Hitler allowed more of them to do so. But if this
was the case, then how do we explain the miracle of dedicated popular
defense against the German onslaught: the soldiers who attacked in
wave after wave while being mowed down by German machine guns, and the
civilians, mostly women, who transported entire factories beyond the
Urals and started production there while personally being without
shelter? All this could not have been the result of coercion: even the
NKVD could not have put a policeman behind every soldier, worker, and
peasant. Soviet troops could simply have gone home, as they had in
1917. Instead they fought and worked under physical conditions that we
in the West could never fathom. Nor can Russian or Soviet patriotism
be the solution to the puzzle, because only one-half of the Soviet
citizens were Russians, and because Soviet patriotism was nothing but
make-believe. And yet the Red Army utterly defeated the Germans. I
would have loved to have Timothy Snyder speculate on the incredible
contradictions in Soviet behavior.
István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia and the author,
most recently, of Essays on Hitler’s Europe. This article ran in the
December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.
17 grudzień 2010

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