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Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder
Basic Books, 2010

No one chooses to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it happens and the

unhappy consequences follow for those who must live in tragic circumstances thrust upon them

at their birth. No one chose to be born in the Bloodlands during a time they would be under the

police powers of two of the bloodiest regimes in the history of mankind. Yet tens of millions of

people found themselves living in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Balkans, and western Russia

from 1932 to 1945. About fourteen million of them were brutally murdered during this time by

either the Soviet Union or Germany. Others died in the savage fighting of WWII.

Timothy Snyder tells the history of this unfortunate part of the world during this

unfortunate time in his book, “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.” He defines the

Bloodlands as the territory under control (subject to the “police power”) of the USSR and

Germany for different periods from 1932 to 1945. The main elements of this history have been

told from different perspectives and prisms. Robert Conquest’s wrote about the Ukrainian mass

starvations of 1932-33 in his book “Harvest of Sorrows: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-

Famine” (19886) and about Stalin’s 1936-37 purge in “The Great Terror: Purge in the Thirties”

(1968). His work has been updated and expanded as new archives opened following the

dissolution of the Soviet Union. The extensive literature on the Holocaust powerfully documents

the German efforts to eliminate Jews from Europe. Biographies of the Hitler, Stalin, and their

lieutenants, plus some histories of World War II, describe the mass murders occurring in the

thirties and forties in Europe.

The value of this book is that it focuses on a defined territory in Europe – a killing field --

during a specific time, demonstrating the cumulative effects of the murderous policies of Stalin

and Hitler on the people living in these territories. With this focus, Snyder estimates that 14

million political murders were carried out in the Bloodlands from 1932 to 1945. The deaths were

the result of policies of the USSR and Germany. They do not include deaths resulting from the

battles and related actions of war. Nor do they include deaths that occurred because of or

following the deportation of groups of people to the Soviet Gulag or German work camps.

According to Snyder, the 14 million murders include:

 3,300,000 Soviet citizens (most Ukrainians) deliberately starved to death in 1932 and

 300,000 Soviet citizens living in the western part of the USSR (mostly Poles and
Ukrainians) who were shot as part of the Great terror in 1937-38.

 200,000 Poles, mostly the best educated, shot by Germans and Soviets from 1939 to
1941 to reduce resistance to their rule of the country they invaded.

 5,400,000 Jews shot or gassed by Germans as part of their extermination policy.

 4,200,000 captive soldiers of the Soviet Union starved to death in German prison camps.

 700,000 citizens (mostly Belarusians and Poles) shot by Germans as reprisal for attacks
on Germans

Of the fourteen million murders, Snyder estimates that the Soviet regime killed one-third

of the total and the Germans two-thirds. Roughly half were starved to death (mainly Ukrainians

and captive Soviet soldiers). Most of the others were shot (Poles, retribution killings, many

Jews). Others, mainly Jews, were gassed at killing stations in the territories.

Other than the starving Soviet soldiers, most of the murder victims were women,

children, and the elderly. Snyder notes that the murders were personal. The killings were like

those that take place in a slaughterhouse, not in the battles of war. They were carried out by

people who took deliberate actions to shoot, starve, or gas people they could see and hear, and

in many cases, touch.

Of course the killings were personal not only for the murderers but also for the victims.

As Snyder makes clear in his narrative, fourteen million is more than a just a number: it

signifies the agony and tragedy of fourteen million individual deaths of human beings who were

deprived of life because of policies adopted by two nations, justified by the USSR as necessary

to achieve a utopian communist state and by Germany as necessary to provide a superior race

with the land it needed to build its transcendent society.

The power of the book is Snyder’s balancing of the accounting (how many were

murdered in what way?) with the individual stories that turn the numbers into the experiences of

those chosen to die. This element of the book is difficult to read, as is much of the holocaust

literature, because it evokes powerful images that transform intellectual dismay and disgust into

feelings of deep sympathy and helplessness as the unrelenting unfairness of the situation

overwhelms the reader. I certainly had difficulty getting a good night’s sleep during the times I

was reading this book.

Consider the pain embedded in Snyder’s Conclusion to the book, entitled “Humanity.”

Each of the living bore a name. The toddler who imagined he saw wheat in the fields
was Jozef Sobolewski. He starved to death, along with his mother and five of his
brothers and sisters, in 1933 in a famished Ukraine. The one brother who survived was
shot in 1937, in Stalin’s Great Terror. Only his sister Hanna remained to recall him and
his hope. Stanislaw Wyganowski was the young man who foresaw that he would meet
his arrested wife, Maria, “under the ground.” They were both shot by the NKVD in
Leningrad in 1937. The Polish officer who wrote of his wedding right was Adam Solski.
The diary was found on his body when his remains were disinterred at Katyn, where he
was shot in 1940. The wedding ring he probably hit: his executioners probably found it.
The eleven-year-old Russian girl who kept a simple diary in besieged and starving
Leningrad in 1941 was Tania Savischeva. One of her sisters escaped across the frozen
surface of Lake Ladoga; Tania and the rest of her family died. The twelve-year-old
Jewish girl who wrote to her father in Belarus in 1942 of the death pits was Junita
Vishniatskaia. Her mother, who wrote alongside her, was named Zlata. They were both
killed. “Farewell forever,” was the last line of Junita’s letter. “I kiss you, I kiss you.”

Snyder’s history of the Bloodlands documents a terrible time and place in history. The

numbers and accounting of the murders dismay us. The individual stories of Jozel Sobolwski,

Stanislaw Wyganowski, Adam Solski, Tania Savischeva, and Junita Vishniatskaia – and all of

the others – shake the soul. They were born in a time and place that they did not choose, and

the consequences were certainly tragic for them.

Dan Durning, January 2011