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Timothy Snyder looks east
By Adam Hochschild
Discussed in this essay:
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. Basic Books.
524 pages. $29.95.
Adam Hochschilds books include The Un-
quiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin.
His seventh, To End All Wars: A Story of
Loyalty and Rebellion, 19141918, will be
published in May.
hen we think of mass
deaths in the 1930s and
1940s, apart from the bat-
tles of World War II, certain images
come to mind: show trials in Mos-
cow, smoke rising from the chimneys
of Auschwitz. But answer these two
questions: During those two murder-
ous decades, which country on the
map of Europe today saw fully half its
population killed or deported? And,
even while flames flickered in the
Auschwitz crematoria, what group of
3.1 million people was not gassed
and burned but either shot (roughly
half a million)

or deliberately starved
to death?
The answer to the frst is Belar-
us; to the second, Soviet POWs
held by the Nazis, often penned in
so tightly by barbed wire that they
could only stand. These are among
the many striking facts Timothy
Snyder assembles in his meticu-
lously researched Bloodl ands, the
story of how what is today Poland,
Belarus, Ukraine, the three Baltic
vance, or capacity to represent and
address a wider collective. It is
worth noting how markedly Coss-
erys account differs from that of his
Egyptian compeers, those writers
who remained at home and lived
through the Nasserist revolution.
For it was precisely when Cossery
was asserting the right to laziness
that Sonallah Ibrahim and his gen-
eration of artists were engaged in a
kind of hand-to-hand combat with
the new, postcolonial statea
struggle that generally ended in
cooptation, prison, or exile. Under
such circumstances, mutual incom-
prehension might have seemed like
a blessing. Such realities have no
place in Cosserys fction. The fable-
like atmospheres of his work are due
in part to the distance they take
f rom hi stor y. Hi s slackers and
saltimbanques float with a kind of
contemptuous serenity above the
forces and events that have disfg-
ured so much of modern Egyptian
life. It is not surprising, then, that
local artists and readers have mostly
turned a deaf ear to Cosserys Ori-
ental philosophy of idleness.
ne of The Jokers heroes, a
shabby aristocrat named
Heykal, at one point en-
counters the local governor at a par-
ty. He is struck by the mans vulgari-
t y, hi s f at uous s peeches and
unembarrassed hypocrisy. It is above
all the openness of this imposture
that convinces Heykal it would be
futile to oppose such a man, and the
regime he represents, using tradition-
al means: Thats what the pighead-
ed revolutionaries who fought [the
gover nor] outright didnt get,
Heykal thinks. The crimes of power
were so obvious there was no need to
shout them in the streets. Even a
child could see. But obviousness, as
Ibrahim notes, can also confer a
kind of invisibilityLook harder.
The dilemma of so many writers in
Egypt (and not only Egypt) is just
this: How to create an oppositional,
truth-telling art when ones enemies
dont bother to hide their abuses.
Here, despite radically different re-
sults, Cossery and Ibrahim may sug-
gest a common answer or strategy. It
is for the writer to adopt a habit of es-
Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front during
Operation Barbarossa, July 1941 INTERFOTO/Alamy
trangement, a voluntary exile (wheth-
er real or imagined) from the subject
matter of his art. Observed from a dis-
tance, or through the lens of literary
form, these everyday materialsthe
shopworn commodities of Zaat and
Stealth, or the time-polished idioms of
Cosserys Cairenescan be seen and
heard anew. So even in the most un-
promising circumstances, with poli-
tics at a standstill and daily life mired
in routine, the novel can reawaken
our perceptions, force us to attend
once more to the real worldthe one
that is easiest to ignore, if only be-
cause it lies so close.
February Reviews final3.indd 79 12/16/10 11:32 AM
states, and a narrow strip of Russia
became, between the early 1930s
and 1945, a killing ground almost
without precedent.
By Snyders careful and conserva-
tive calculations, a minimum of
14 million people altogether were de-
liberately murdered there during that
period: those POWs, almost all the
Jews who perished in the Holocaust,
at least 3.3 million inhabitants of
Ukraine who died in the famine
caused by the Soviet collectivization
of agriculture, civilians starved or
shot by Nazi occupying troops, and
people from a variety of ethnic
groups targeted by Hitler or Stalin or
both. This appalling total does not
even count the many millions of
combat deaths in this region, on the
bloodiest front of the bloodiest war
in history.
Snyder, a Yale historian of East-
ern Europe who is evidently prof-
cient in several of its languages,
has made abundant use of archives
that have opened up i n recent
years, particularly in Poland and
Ukraine. His is an unusual kind of
historical revisionism, for it is not
really about culture or politics but
about geography. This is not a
graceful, suspenseful work of narra-
tive; t here are few char acter
sketches of any depth, and at times
the relentless cascade of death sta-
tistics feels repetitious and over-
whelming. But as a corrective to
our usual picture of the period,
Bloodlands is immensely valuable.
Fervent about putting this territo-
ry at the center of twentieth-century
European history, Snyder is less in-
terested in examining why Ameri-
cans, when we talk about those
years, almost entirely ignore it. The
reason for that, I believe, has to do
with whose are the voices, the sto-
ries, the lives through which we have
learned about the era.
irst of all, there is Anne Frank,
a German Jew arrested in Hol-
land, whose Diary introduced
tens of millions of teenagers to the
Holocaust. A person who reads fur-
ther will likely go on to the works of
someone like Primo Levi, an Italian
Jew. Long after the war, newly discov-
ered literature by Holocaust victims
or survivors that attracts American
attention has almost all come from
Western Europe: the novels of Irne
Nmirovsky (France), or the diaries of
Victor Klemperer (Germany) or Etty
Hillesum (Holland).
Similarly, our image of Stalins
victims has been shaped by certain
works of literature. We think of high
party offcials, like the central fgure
of Arthur Koestlers Darkness at
Noon, of dissenters like Alexandr
Solzhenitsyn, or of free-spirited,
doomed poets like Osip Mandelstam.
No part of this picture is wrong;
it is only woefully incomplete. Jews
living in Western Europe were in-
deed among those killed in the Ho-
locaust, though they constituted
only a tiny share: German Jews,
Snyder points out, accounted for
less than 3 percent of the total, as
most were able to emigrate before
the killing began. Likewise, poets,
di ssidents, and Old Bol shevi ks
were certainly among those shot in
the Soviet purges, but their num-
bers were mi nuscule compared
with the Ukrainian peasants forced
to starve. Even though the execu-
tions of Red Army marshals and fa-
mous revolutionaries were what riv-
eted the worlds attention during
Stalins show trials of the 1930s, of
the eras Soviet death sentences for
which there are written records
(nearly 700,000, although the real
number is almost certainly far high-
er), more than nine tenths were car-
ried out against people from border-
l and et hni c gr oups . Vi ct i ms
included Soviet Poles, who were
about forty times more likely to die
during the Great Terror than Soviet
citizens generally, Latviansone
of several ethnic groups Stalin was
paranoid aboutand kulaks, the
better-off peasants, who were over-
whelmingly Ukrainian.
During that fatal decade and a
half, Snyders bloodlands were oc-
cupied partly by the Soviets, then
entirely by the Nazis, then entirely
by the Soviets. Each occupier de-
pendably took vengeance on who-
ever had cooperated with the previ-
ous one. People livi ng i n thi s
unlucky swath of Europe were
caught between two ruthless em-
pires that wanted, in large part, to
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get rid of them and seize their
landa desire evinced most dra-
matically in 1939, when the two
countries simply divided Poland be-
tween themselves. Stalin greatly
feared Ukrainian nationalism and
was happy to let the kulaks die.
Hitlers original blueprint for mov-
ing east involved something called
the Hunger Plan, which aimed to
let 30 million Slavs fee or starve so
that the Nazis could take over their
farmland as far east as the Ural
Mountains, 850 miles east of Mos-
cow, at which threshold German
troops would supposedly guard Eu-
rope against Asiatic barbarism.
In refocusing our view of those
years on Eastern Europe, Snyder
brings out additional parts of the
eras history that are less familiar. For
example, the frst people to be mass-
murdered by gas were not Jews but
Poles. And when Eastern European
Jews were killed, they were almost as
likely to be shot as to be gasseda
full million having been shot in the
last fve months of 1941 alone. Nor
was it only SS death squads who car-
ried out these shootings; they were
aided by German police, local col-
laborators, and units of the German
army, the Wehr macht. Such authors
as Daniel Goldhagen and Christo-
pher Browning have paid attention
to these matters, but few Western
historians have bothered to study
the Wehr macht-run camps where
more than 3 million Soviet POWs
met their end. Some were reduced
to cannibalism. At one camp, con-
ditions were so bad that prisoners
organized a written petition asking
to be shot.
There was a deadly synergy be-
tween Nazi and Soviet depreda-
tions. Hitler and Stalin, for exam-
pl e, each t a r get ed Pol a nd s
intelligentsia for elimination. For
both Nazis and Soviets, this meant
mass shootings of Polish profession-
als and intellectualsand, for the
Soviets, of captured Polish offcers, a
massacre powerfully remembered in
Andrzej Wajdas recent flm Katy n.
Polish offcers in Soviet prisons were
allowed to correspond with their
familiesso that the Soviets could
identify these people to be arrested
or deported. This preceded the freez-
ing February night in 1940 when So-
viet secret police rounded up 139,794
Poles and shipped them off in un-
heated freight cars to Siberia and
other points east. This and other de-
portations left half-starving groups of
survivors, both inside and outside
the gulag, scattered across the Soviet
Union all the way to the Pacifc. At
a desolate, windswept cemetery in
Kazakhstan some twenty years ago, I
remember seeing a cross above the
grave of a Polish offcer; nearby were
graves of people from another of the
bloodlands, Lithuania.
hy are we aware of so little
of this history? The west-
ern half of Europe, of
course, has always been far more
comfortable and familiar ground for
Americans than has the eastern half,
with its bewildering jumble of lan-
guages, alphabets, ethnicities, and
changing borders; we more readily
empathize with the introspective,
upper-middle-class, Montessori-
schooled Anne Frank than the name-
less Ukrainian peasant. But there are
two other reasons why we fnd it easi-
er to look at this period as it unfolded
in, say, Holland or France than in
Ukraine or Belarus.
The first is that in the blood-
lands, Snyder makes clear, it is
sometimes f rustratingly hard to
draw the line between victim and
victimizer. Many people were both.
The Nazis killed enormous numbers
of Lat vi ans, Lit huani ans, and
Polesone half the population of
Warsaw, for instance, by the time
the Wehrmacht crushed that citys
valiant but hopeless 1944 uprising.
But all three of these societies had
powerf ul undercurrents of anti-
Semitism, and, once the Germans
arrived, many of their citizens en-
thusiastically joined in the killing
of Jews. It was Latvian collabora-
tors, for instance, who burned Jews
alive in a Riga synagogue in 1941,
and Lithuanian death squads, driv-
en to execution sites by German SS
units, who shot more than 100,000
Jews. And in the 1941 massacre of
some 1,600 Polish Jews at Jedwabne,
recounted in Jan Grosss chilling
book Neighbors, local townspeople,
laughing and cheering, needed no
February Reviews final3.indd 81 12/16/10 11:32 AM
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encouragement from the Germans.
Many Polish patriots who fought
bravely to keep their country free of
German or Russian invaders were
just as eager to make it free of Jews.
We Americans prefer historical
characters who can be separated
into heroes and villains, but in
Eastern Europe that distinction is
often hard to make.
Another American tendency
and in this we are not aloneis that
we like to imagine ourselves always
making the right moral choice; hence
we prefer to hear about times and
places when people could do so. And
in Western Europe people sometimes
had that chance. If you were living in
Vichy France or its territories, for
instance, and were not Jewish, you
might have had real choices. You
could collaborate with the Nazis as
an informer; you could, at great risk,
join the Resistance or shelter a Jew;
or you could, usually, lie low and re-
main uninvolved and unharmed.
Similarly, British or American POWs
in German camps could heroically try
to escapebut if they chose not to
they were reasonably certain to sur-
vive the war on Red Cross food par-
cels. From these moral forks in the
road have sprung a thousand flms,
plays, and novels.
But the essence of living trapped
between Hitlers Germany and Stalins
Soviet Union is that your choices were
indescribably grimmer than those dis-
cussed over the piano music of Ricks
Caf. When I think of the bloodlands,
I think of my friend the late Janusz
Bardach, who grew up in Poland be-
tween the wars, lost his parents, sister,
and wife to the Nazis, then almost lost
his own life to the Soviets. Captured
by the Germans in 1939, he escaped
from a freight car that was carrying
Jews west, by ripping up the foorboards.
After making his way to Soviet-
occupied eastern Poland, he was draft-
ed into the Red Army. When a tank he
was ordered to drive across a river got
mired in the mud, in a draconian but
typical punishment, he was sentenced
to ten years in the gulag. Bardach, mi-
raculously, lived to become a world-
renowned reconstructive surgeon, but
at least 14 million other inhabitants of
this region whose fate Snyder chroni-
cles did not survive. Man Is Wolf to Man
is the frst volume of Bardachs remark-
able autobiography; its title seems far
more likely to have come from Eastern
Europe than Western.
he possibility of uninvolve-
ment kept receding, Sny-
der writes.
For the Belarusians who ended up
fghting and dying on one side or the
other, it was very often a matter of
chance, a question of who was in the
village when the Soviet partisans or
the German police appeared on their
recruiting missions, which often sim-
ply involved press-ganging the young
men. Since both sides knew that their
membership was largely accidental,
they would subject new recruits to
grotesque tests of loyalty, such as kill-
ing friends or family members who
had been captured fighting on the
other side.
Often, those who didnt immedi-
ately accede to whoever was trying
to recruit them were shot. And not
only were there few chances for her-
oism, there was little inherent no-
bility in being a survivor. In the
POW camps, as the war went on
and Germany needed labor, Soviet
prisoners could choose between cer-
tain starvation or going to work for
minimal rations for the Germans
which often meant staf fing the
death camps. This was not the raw
material for Casablanca.
Aside from a greater awareness of
Americans blind spots in looking
at Europe, what else can we take
away from Snyders forceful and im-
portant lesson in historical geogra-
phy? A deeper sense, I think, of the
heritage that still weighs heavily on
much of that continents eastern
half, more than sixty-fve years af-
ter the defeat of the Nazis and
twenty after the collapse of Com-
munism. With so many corpses, po-
lice raids, and shots in the night in
the memories of people still alive, is
it any wonder that several of the
countries in the bloodlandsnot
to mention Russia itselfare still
saddled with strongmen, repression,
and political violence today? Per-
haps another American illusion is
that once you start allowing elec-
tions and private investment, all
such problems disappear.

February Reviews final3.indd 82 12/16/10 11:32 AM

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