Home » OL Weekly

Now in Paperback: Bloodlands

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

by Timothy Snyder

Basic Books, 2012 (paperback)

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, one of the most powerful and disturbing works of history to appear last year, is now in paperback from Basic Books. The work, which details the destruction of over fourteen million people between 1939 and 1945 in the vast stretch of land comprising Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western edges of Soviet Russia, has lost none of it ability to harrow the reader, an effect achieved almost exclusively through a remorseless piling-up of facts and numbers.

Largely because of the way subsequent historical narratives have been shaped, several of Snyder’s conclusions feel counter-intuitive. When he writes that “Ninety percent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive,” we want to doubt him, and that’s nothing compared to the reaction to his follow-up, “Most of the people who entered German concentration camps (as opposed to the German gas chambers, death pits, and prisoner-of-war camps) also survived.” Roughly a million people died as a result of their time in the Soviet Gulag system between 1933 an 1945, whereas in what Snyder describes as “the Soviet killing fields and the Soviet hunger regions,” six million people died. Likewise in Nazi Germany, where the admittedly infirm distinction between concentration camps and death-camps literally meant the difference between death and at least a chance at life. The artificial neatness of the standard Holocaust narrative is discreetly challenged in these pages, to thought-provoking effect. As Snyder writes, “Most of the Jews who arrived at Auschwitz were simply gassed; they, like almost all of the fourteen million killed in the bloodlands, never spent time in a concentration camp.”

Some of this perception is due to the happenstance of reconquest:

The Germans carried out all of their major killing policies on lands subsequently occupied by the Soviets. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz, and it liberated the sites of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno, and Majdanek as well. American and British forces reached none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites. It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed, leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives. It is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long. The photographs and films of German concentration camps were the closest that most westerners ever came to perceiving the mass killing. Horrible though these images were, they were only hints at the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they were not even a introduction.

In these four hundred grim pages (and a further hundred pages of sources and notes), Snyder provides far more than an introduction – a second reading of Bloodlands only further confirms its status as a modern classic of killing history. Snyder reminds readers that “Like the vast majority of the mass killing of civilians by both the Nazis and the Soviet regimes, the Holocaust took place in the bloodlands.” The point of such reminders is to highlight the fluidity of the historical narrative itself, the way that narrative can shape our perceptions. On this front Snyder is particularly insightful in his examination not of Nazi anti-Semitism but of its Soviet counterpart – and its distorted legacy:

After the war, the traditional homelands of European Jewry lay in the communist world, as did the death factories and the killing fields. By introducing a new kind of anti-Semitism into the world, Stalin made the Holocaust something less than it was. When the international collective memory of the Holocaust emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it rested on the experiences of German and west European Jews, minor groups of victims, and on Auschwitz, where only about one in six of the total number of murdered Jews died. Historians and commentators in western Europe and the United States tended to correct that Stalinist distortion by erring in the other direction, by passing quickly over the nearly five million Jews killed east of Auschwitz, and the nearly five million non-Jews killed by the Nazis. Deprived of its Jewish distinctiveness in the East, and stripped of its geography in the West, the Holocaust never quite became part of European history, even as Europeans and many others came to agree that all should remember the Holocaust.

These contentions about what Snyder calls “the competition for memory” have had their share of detractors since his book first appeared, and this new paperback is likely to revive some of the debates inspired by the hardcover. It should do so, since those debates are vital. Almost lost in the furor has been the fact – perhaps unimportant in the scale of the facts being assessed here, but important to mention just the same – that Snyder has written not just a powerful book but a very good one, at times stubbornly eloquent in the face of the horrors it must relate. It’s to be earnestly hoped that the paperback reaches many new readers.