The Murderous Twins and the Central Tragedy of Europe’s Modern History


Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Basic Books, 524 pp.

Since 1945, genocide and other forms of mass killing have been thoroughly analyzed, interpreted, defined, and even explained by scholars. The main interest was with the Holocaust, while other cases, such as the Armenian Genocide, the Ukrainian Holodomor, and the Gulag at large receiving less attention up to the 1990s. Most scholars (and politicians) urged the necessity of comparative studies only in the aftermath of the gruesome events in Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and once they realized that the world we live in not only produced but also keeps producing mass murder for various political uses.

Understanding genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass killing as extreme and yet characteristic outgrowths of modernity is no ease task. Collective psychology, ethnic and racial hatred, ideology, the nature of the regime can offer us some clues. Yet, the strategic logic of the perpetrators has to be summonsed to explain why powerful leaders use mass murder as a tactic of state power, a powerful political tool, a mean to achieve other ends.

Needless to say that, from this perspective, not even the Holocaust exhausted his meaning. With archives closed behind the Iron Curtain, and the issue turned into a taboo, little is still known about the role of Romanian, Hungarian, Slovak, Croat, Baltic, Ukrainian perpetrators and the attitude of the bystanders at large. Moreover, the competing marthyrology of Fascism and Communism, Holocaust and Gulag respectively, was to blur the complex process of understanding the events, and coming to terms with the recent past.

Hitler’s war of destruction in the East, the Final Solution, and the vast racial revolution and colonization project outlined in the Generalplan Öst, an invitation to serial genocide in itself made the attention of reputed scholars such as Christopher Browning, Wendy Lower, and Robert Gellately. Robert Conquest, Norman Naimark, and Anne Appelbaum have analyzed Stalin’s collectivization, Great Terror, Gulag archipelago, deportation and exile of mistrusted minorities, and rapid sovietization of newly-annexed territories on the western border. Robert Gellately analyzed all the above cases in one of his recent books, bringing them together as to reveal and compare the politics and decision-making processes of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, in the age of social catastrophe. What was missing from the picture up to Tim Snyder’s book was the fate of the victims of the lethal policies of Hitler and Stalin, of the „greatest man-made demographic catastrophe and human tragedy in European history” as Browning puts it.

„The Nazi and Soviet regimes tur­ned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision. It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity”. Writing for the American and West European public, Timothy Snyder is trying to persuade them to look at, and understand the war of 1939-1945 in a broader perspective. Disputing popular assumptions about victims, death tolls, and killing methods, nonetheless dates and geography, Bloodlands forces the gaze of the reader into the „borderlands” of Eastern Europe that experienced multiple occupations and whose people endured the worst physical destruction at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler. In between the two dictators and their madness these lands suffered from the 1930s to the 1950s each time power shifted in the aftermath of battles, sieges, and massacres, the region being the site of most of the politically motivated killing in Europe. Between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million people died there, not in combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them. The Murder was not a gratuity; it was the way to implement visions of radical transformation that took shape far away, in Berlin and Moscow.

In the 1930s, Stalin conducted his utopian agricultural experiment in Ukraine, where he collectivized the land and conducted a „war” for grain with the kulaks. His campaign rapidly evolved into a war against Ukrainian peasant culture itself, culminating in a mass famine in 1933. The same year, Hitler came to power and began dreaming of creating Lebensraum for German colonists in Poland and Ukraine while eliminating the people who lived there. Later on, with 1941, the Nazis turned the Fuhrer’s dream into policy. They devised the Hunger Plan, a scheme to feed German soldiers and civilians by starving Polish and Soviet citizens. „Socialism in one country” was thus replaced by the „Socialism of the good blood.” Hatred and fear of Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians endorsed the political, economic, and demographic schemes of the two modern tyrants resulting in no less than fourteen million victims. To this, the clash of Nazism and Stalinism added millions of German and Soviet POWs that were treated with deadly utilitarianism. In total more than three million Soviet POWs perished, and so did 2.3 million German soldiers and about a million of their allies. Both Stalin and Hitler proved the cruelest of all Slave Masters in human history.

Scholars will find nothing brand new in Bloodlands. Except, maybe, for the way Snyder treats all of these episodes – the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust, Stalin’s mass executions, the planned starvation of Soviet POWs, postwar ethnic cleansing – as different facets of the same phenomenon. Instead of studying Nazi atrocities or Soviet atrocities separately, as many others have done, he looks at them together. His intention is not to compare as to elicit differences and create hierarchies, but to show that the two systems committed the same kinds of crimes at the same times and in the same places, that they aided and abetted one another, and above all that their interaction with one another led to more mass killing than either might have carried out alone. He also takes from us the luxury of discussing the two systems in isolation, comparing and contrasting, judging and analyzing, engaging in theoretical arguments about which was worse. To the Western readers the book nonetheless points that people living in Poland, the Baltics, and Ukraine, experienced both Nazism and Stalinism as part of a single historical moment. The atrocities carried out by one power eased the way for the other. The conquering Germans, and than the Soviets, were welcomed by some as „liberators” who might save the population from a genuinely murderous regime. Yet, both totalitarianisms simply instrumentalized hate and mobilized popular anger against their foes.

Bloodlands challenges history, me­mory (and amnesia) and the politics of memory, reductionist and often monocausal explanations of the mass killings in the East, popular images and perceptions of World War Two etc. Yet, it main contribution stays with the manner in which Snyder complicates the debate over the pro­per use of the word „genocide.” Coined by Raphael Lemkin, advanced to the Nuremburg prosecutors and than the United Nations, who drafted the Convention on Genocide and passed it in 1948, the concept was deliberately narrowed to „…acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Soviet diplomats had demanded the exclusion of any reference to social, economic, and political groups, and succeeded, thus avoiding any potential prosecution of the USSR for the murder of social, economic, and political groups. The result: to these days the term is mainly used almost exclusively to refer to the Holocaust, the One, unique, more recently unprecedented „genocide”. Politics and politicians dogged the debate from the beginning, and latter on turned it politically incorrect in the West. Snyder reopens the discussion with one simple question: who knows, or better say cares, that the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty condemned the inhabitants of western Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in slave labor camps, and the inhabitants of eastern Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in Soviet exile? Or, that the responsibility for the Katyn massacre goes to Germany as well.

The risk of not researching and remembering the Dark side of the twentieth century for what it actually was, and the misuse of history for national political purposes might easily push us into a new Danger Zone. To accept the Soviet and than present Russian state talks of victimhood, martyrdom, and liberation, ignoring that millions of civilians died before, during, and after the war because of decisions made by Stalin, would mean to kill them once more. Easterners understand that. Most Westerners do not, as they would have to admit that when fighting for democracy in the lands of Western Europe, they ignored and then forgot what happened further east. In other words, that half of Europe was liberated at the cost of enslaving the other half for fifty years. The happy end, Snyder warns, should not obliterate the fact that the war against one genocidal dictator has been won with the help of another. Otherwise the moral ambiguity of WWII will be perpetuated and even celebrated with each and every year, on the 9th of May. Instead, Snyder stresses, we should remember 23rd of August 1939.

Snyder’s critics accused him of revisionism, and for deflecting and downplaying the murderous intentions of the Nazi regime, and Hitler’s responsibility for the second world. Yet, unlike Nolte, it shows that the Nazi genocide was part of a larger complex of state-organized mass murder, by both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, without even questioning the uniqueness and incomparability of the Holocaust. He only points out that Hitler also destroyed and enslaved tens of millions of Slavs. When it comes to the Holocaust he reminds us that the „Shoah by bullets”, and the rationale behind it, are as important as the rapid industrial killing in Treblinka and Birkenau. The methods used at the German and Soviet killing sites are less relevant for Snyder, who considers them all (starvation, slave labor, shooting, gassing) as primitive. What really matters is the driving force, the trigger of the countless atrocities, that is ideology, both fascism and communism.

Sixty years have passed since fascism died in the ruins of Berlin. Twenty years ago, communism passed away, also in Berlin. In the West, with its democratic political climate, anti-fascism stands at the core of the historical consciousness, while eastern European experiences of subjugation under communism are often glossed over. They are not yet common European history. The eastern enlargement of the EU excludes the eastern narrative as they jeopardize the comfortable historical consensus reached by the western European societies. Bloodlands reminds us of the unwanted common European history, of the twin warnings and lessons of the recent past. It is a new kind of European history, assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, a must, at least for those seeking to understand the central tragedy of modern history.

Mihai Chioveanu
[The University of Bucharest]



MIHAI CHIOVEANU – Doctor în istorie al Universităţii „Al.I.Cuza” din Iași (2005) și master în istorie al Central European University din Budapest (1999). În prezent este conferenţiar universitar la Facultatea de Știinţe Politice, Universitatea din București. Din 2004 este membru al delegaţiei României la Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. Este autorul lucrării Feţele fascismului. Politică, ideologie și scrisul istoric în secolul XX, Editura Universităţii din București, București, 2005 și a numeroase alte articole și studii pe holocaust și fascism publicate în publicaţii academice precum Studia Politica, The Romanian Political Science Review, Studia Hebraica, Sfera Politicii, Xenopoliana. Domeniile de cercetare acoperă fascismul European, Holocaustul și studiile pe genocide, politica Orientului Mijlociu.




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