Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book Review 371: Bloodlands

BLOODLANDS: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. 524 pages. Basic paperback, $19.99

“Bloodlands” has enjoyed wide, even extravagant praise, and in many ways it deserves it; but reading it is something like coming into a performance of “Hamlet” at the fifth act: There is plenty of gore, drama and treachery, but the discerning playgoer will suspect that something went on before.

And indeed it did.

However, for what it does cover, “Bloodlands” is outstanding. It is directed towards readers generally unfamiliar with eastern Europe and its history and so deliberately simple and direct. It also has a moral dimension, engaging (gently) with other commentators like Hannah Arendt. In the end, Snyder says, he is trying to restore the individuality of the people done to death – all 14,000,000 of them.

Memory and memorials that lump them all together are, he says, a trap, tending to confirm the Hitlerian or Stalinist vision of guilty groups. No, says Snyder, the liberal and humanist view must be that each was a life and each deserves (but cannot get) its own story.

He also emphasizes the interaction of the two dictatorships, which allowed or drove each to actions that neither would have taken on its own. Most dramatically, the German Final Solution was not originally eliminationist (in the sense that Daniel Goldhagen uses that term) but exclusionist: Hitler wanted to ship Jews away. Stalin and the USSR declined, in peace and in war, to become that place, so by late 1941 the policy of dliberate and total mass killing was resorted to.

This does not mean that Germans were driven to mass murder by outside forces. They had already resorted to it many times, against the mentally handicapped and against Jewish women and children in the territories of western USSR they had just invaded.

As it happened, the death toll was much lower than the German plan had forecast. Before the Holocaust there was the Ostplan, which envisaged the death (by starvation and overwork) of 30 million to 40 million people, mostly Slavs, to make room for German farmers. This is a spectacular number, although Snyder says he has used conservative counts and estimates for the various killing actions.

This is true. For example, he gives the death total for the construction of the White Sea Canal as around 600,000. A.J.P. Taylor thought it was 2 million.

The two regimes killed extravagantly but for different reasons. The Soviets generally went after class or national enemies (or imagined enemies), while the Germans went after subhuman races. There ended up being a great deal of overlap, and a man or woman could be murdered for any of several reasons – if reason is the correct term.

Snyder emphasizes that the killing regimes declared categories (kulak, wrecker, spy, partisan, Jew) that were often arbitrary and in any case applied carelessly.

Still, while it was dangerous to live anywhere in the Bloodlands (the area comprising Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and eastern Poland where both Hitlerian and Soviet governments were in power at various times from 1933 to 1945), it was probably most dangerous to be an educated Belarussian nationalist or a Polish communist – most of all to be a Jew.

The scale of death was unimaginable. More Poles died in the bombing of Warsaw than in the bombing of Dresden or in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and that was a minor component of the total.

Snyder comes up with 14 million, divided about 10 million by Germans and 4 million by the Soviets, with another 8 million or 9 million deaths as a direct result of battle. These latter are not the subject of “Bloodlands,” which is focused on deliberate murders as a result of policy.

And because he limits himself to the area where the Germans and Soviets alternated control, he does not include the 300,000 Jews murdered in Croatia, an impressive total – 5% of the total victims of the Holocaust of the Jews by a government with far less than 5% of the power and capacity of Germany or the USSR.

And here is where I find “Bloodlands” lacking. The killing did not start in 1932-33; nothing that was done had not been done in the same place before.

The famine in Ukraine, in which 3 million starved while trainloads of grain moved to Odessa for export, had happened under the tsar, exactly the same way, in 1892.

For that matter, a million Irish had starved during the Potato Famine of the 1840s while food was shipped from Ireland to England.

The Ostplan, in which 30 million to 40 million Slavs were to be enslaved and worked to death to make room for racially superior farmers, was exactly what Americans had done in order to colonize what is now the state of Tennessee.

Snyder mentions that Hitler thought of the Ostplan – the use of starvation and slavery to build a prosperous colony – as no different from what the United States had done, and he was right.

Snyder does not ask, was there a difference? There was, but not as much as Americans would like to think, if they were capable of thinking about it.

However, it is doubtful Hitler had more than a vague notion of American history; and besides he had a closer model. From about 1200 the crusade of the Teutonic Knights against the pagan Prussians (and Livonians etc.) was exactly the Ostplan: extermination and enslavement of non-Germans to occupy their land.

It did not take the emergence of supposedly modernizing regimes to turn that part of the world into Bloodlands. They had been for nearly a millennium.

(Other parts of Europe were also Bloodlands and, proportionately, more dangerous to the targeted peoples than even Poland or Belarus in the ‘40s. Few know of the extermination of the Muslims by Christians in western Sicily but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.)

The scale of the killing was so monstrous that anyone confronting it has to ask, what caused it, what could prevent it in the future? In a thoughtful coda Snyder does not really say.

In this coda is the one point upon which I seriously disagree with him. People in the Bloodlands had limited choices. In the end, for many, the only possible fate was to be murdered. By collaborating, that fate might be postponed but not avoided.

Others collaborated for lesser but weighty reasons. Snyder says, “it is hard to find political collaboration with the Germans that is not related to a previous experience of Soviet rule.”  This is not true of Ukraine where, in the short period after the withdrawal of the kaiser’s armies there was an independent Ukrainian state. It had many difficulties to face but instead made a priority of murdering Jews. Offered a chance again to murder Jews, Ukrainians were eager to help. The same probably applies to some Lithuanians.

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