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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin - Timothy Snyder This is history that deserves to be read, if for no other reason, to acknowledge the individual lives of so many innocent people deliberately murdered. We’re not talking war casualties or so-called collateral wartime deaths. We’re talking civilians sentenced to death by deliberate national policy. Sometimes they were targeted because of national, political, or ethnic reasons. Sometimes they were targeted for no particular discernible reason.

The author does a good job of balancing the numbingly huge numbers with the firsthand accounts from letters and diaries of victims, recorded memories of survivors, and written records of the perpetrators. One example I found especially horrific were the words from a letter written by an Austrian soldier to his wife telling of how he is repeatedly shooting, on a daily basis, large numbers of Jews including women and children. He even includes details such as throwing babies into the air and shooting them before they fall into the pit or water. Can you image admitting such behavior in writing to a spouse? Presumably, his wife approved. One wonders if these stories were shared with this couple’s children. (He specifically mentions in his letter that he thinks of his own children.)

After reading about millions of Ukrainian peasants starved because of an artificial famine created by Soviet collectivization, my heart was rent by the following simple story:

"... Garth Jones met a peasant who had acquired some bread, only to have it confiscated by the police. "They took my bread away from me," he repeated over and over again, knowing that he would disappoint his starving family."

Soviet police assumed that whenever they saw a peasant with some food it must have been stolen, so they would take it away. The logic of Stalin's thinking was that the peasants deserved to die because they were being anti-revolutionary by starving instead of being happy in a Communist paradise. Anybody on Stalin's staff who couldn't understand this logic was eliminated (i.e. killed).

There were times I felt the stories in this book were too awful to read. But I felt it my duty to keep on, if for no other reason, to honor the memories of those who perished. These are stories that are not widely known in western circles. A detailed tally of the numbers involved could not be studied by western historians until the Soviet Union fell and the records of the Communist era opened. This book brings the Nazi and Soviet regimes together, and Jewish and European history together, and the national histories together. It describes the victims, and the perpetrators. It discusses the ideologies and the plans, and the systems and the societies.

The "bloodlands" referenced in the title of the book consists of those territories subject to both German and Soviet police power and associated mass killing polices at some point between 1933 and 1945. It consists generally of the areas within the following counties: Ukraine, Belarussia, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The book contains discussions of the motivations of nations that led to these deaths. Germany was quite clear that they considered the bloodlands to be a frontier for German civilization to expand into. The German settlers moved into the area would deal with native populations in a manner similar to the way American settlers pushed (and killed) the Indians out of the way. (Himler, head of the German SS, actually referenced the American example.) The Soviet actions were somewhat disguised by Marxist rhetoric, but the author shows a clearly nationalistic and racist aspect to the mass killings by the Soviet Union. He shows that the Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarussians were statistically much more likely to be killed than the ethnic Russians and Georgians (Stalin was Georgian).

"Whereas Hitler turned the Republic into revolutionary colonial empire, Stalin translated the poetics of revolutionary Marxism into durable work-a-day politics."

When the narrative finally reached the end of WWII, I thought the killing had finally stopped. But no, Stalin was still alive and many thousands of people were dislocated. Germans were moved out of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and Polish boundaries were moved toward the east with subsequent moving of the population.

The book also discusses the deliberate changing of the numbers of people killed by post-war nations to fit their political agendas. It seems that after the war every nation had a motive the adjust, inflate or ignore the numbers in different ways. The recent Yugoslavian experience is a reminder that mass killings can still happen. Need I mention Cambodia or Uganda?

The wars for Yugoslavia in the 1990's began, in part, because Serbs believed that far larger numbers of their fellows had been killed in the Second World War than was the case. (pg 406)

The author suggests that people today who identify with the victims and find the behaviors of the killers incomprehensible, could probably learn more by trying to understand the motivations of the killers. The book hints that most readers would behave in the same manner if placed in the same circumstances.

I found it particularly interesting to learn why the author used the term "mass killings" instead of "genocide" in this book. When the word "genocide" was written into international law the Soviet Union made sure that it excluded mass killings of "political" groups, and it also does not include destruction of a social group through the forcible removal of a population. In doing so the Soviets made sure that the mass killings under Stalin could not be defined as genocide. I suppose these are some of the technicalities that Turkey uses to insist that the killing of the Armenians after WWI was not genocide.

Thus far in this review I have refrained from mentioning the numbers of people killed. Once you start mentioning numbers they take over. This book contains lots of numbers, big numbers that are hard to fathom. If you want numbers you can read the following excerpts that I have taken from the book. I have made the text bold that compares those killed to the total of American battlefield losses in all foreign wars because I'm assuming most people reading this are from the United States.

" Fourteen million is the approximate number of people killed by purposeful policies of mass murder implemented by Nazi Germany and the soviet Union in the bloodlands. (pg.409)

The count of fourteen million is not a complete reckoning of all the death that German and Soviet power brought to the region. It is an estimate of the number of people killed in deliberate policies of mass murder. (pg.410)

Fourteen million, after all, is a very large number. It exceeds by more than ten million the number of people who died in all of the Soviet and German concentration camps (as opposed to the death facilities) taken together over the entire history of both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. If current standard estimates of military losses are correct, it exceeds by more than two million the number of German and Soviet soldiers, taken together, killed on the battlefield in the Second World War (counting starved and executed prisoners of war as victims of a policy of mass murder rather than as military casualties). It exceeds by more than thirteen million the number of American and British casualties, taken together, of the Second World War. It also exceeds by more than thirteen million all of the American battlefield losses in all of the foreign wars that the Unites States has ever fought. (pg.411)

(The following tabulation of numbers has been abbreviated and edited from how it's shown in book, so it's not an exact quotation:)
3,300,000 Soviet citizens (mostly Ukrainians) deliberately starved, 1932-1933. (by USSR)
300,000 Soviet citizens (mostly Poles and Ukrainians) shot 1937-1938. (by USSR) (*)
200,000 Polish citizens (mostly Poles) shot by German and Soviet forces in occupied Poland (1939-1941). (by USSR and Ger.)
4,200,000 Soviet citizens (largely Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians) starved by German occupiers (1941-1944). (by Ger.)
5,500,000 Jews (most of Polish or Soviet citizens) gassed or shot by the Germans in 1941-1944. (by Ger.)
700,000 civilians (mostly Belarussians and Poles) shot by the Germans in “reprisals” chiefly in Belarus and Warsaw in 1941-1944. (by Ger.) (pg.411)
TOTALS: 3,700,000 by USSR, 10,500,000 by Ger.
(*) Total of 700,000 victims of the great terror in all of Soviet Union.

"In general, these numbers are sums of counts made by the Germans or the Soviets themselves, complemented by other sources, rather than statistical estimates of losses based upon censuses. Accordingly, my counts are often lower (even if stupefyingly high) than others in the literature. The major case where I do rely upon estimates is the famine in Soviet Ukraine, where data are simply insufficient for a count, and where I present a total figure on the basis of a number of demographic calculations and contemporary estimates. Again, my reckoning is on the conservative side. (pg.412) "