Europe’s Darkest Hours

Europe between Hitler and Stalin
Timothy Snyder
Basic Books, $29.95, 524 pp.

The Devil, C. S. Lewis once remarked, “always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking about which is the worse.” In Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder does not spend a lot of time worrying about which of the twentieth century’s two most murderous errors—Stalinism and Nazism—was worse. Instead he is interested in how they were alike and how they acted together, first as allies and then as antagonists, to perpetrate political mass murder. From the victims’ perspective—and it is this perspective that Snyder insists on—the moral and ideological distinctions between Stalinism and Nazism were largely irrelevant. What mattered to them (and what matters to Snyder) was the two regimes’ insatiable appetite for killing.

The “bloodlands” in Snyder’s book extend from central Poland to western Russia, including Ukraine, Belarus, and the three Baltic states. Between 1933 and 1945, 14 million people were murdered here for political reasons; that is, they were not casualties of war, but died because those in power regarded them as enemies or as expendable impediments to some larger political purpose. There is always an element of contingency in killing on such a massive scale, but certain groups were targeted by both sides for systematic slaughter: Jews, Poles, prisoners of war, and many others. The killing was deliberate, relentless, and remorseless, driven by utopian visions of the future and an apparently impenetrable disregard for the life of others.

Snyder opens his book with the famines induced by Soviet collectivization, whose “heartless campaign of requisitions” began the era of mass killing in 1933. The disaster of collectivization was followed by Stalin’s class terror against the “kulaks,” supposedly peasant exploiters but actually anyone who seemed to stand in his way, and by his national terror against the regime’s alleged ethnic enemies, especially Soviet Poles. Then came the great purges, that extraordinary spasm of self-immolation in which Stalin turns Bolshevism against itself. (Of the 139 members of the Communist Central Committee in 1934, Snyder points out, 98 were eventually shot.) With the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Germans enter the bloodlands, at first as the Soviets’ allies. On either side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, drawn by the Soviet and German foreign ministers on the eve of the war, the two unlikely partners set out to destroy Poland’s state and society. After Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Germans became responsible for a disproportionate share of the killing: in the next four years, they murdered more than 10 million people, including 5 million Jews, 3 million other civilians, and 3 million Soviet prisoners of war. As the peoples of the bloodlands learned, to be occupied was a terrible misfortune, but to be occupied twice, by one regime and then another, was far worse, because it opened the way for reprisals and revenge.

The Germans and the Soviets shared a willingness to kill, but there were profound differences in how and where they did it. Soviet terror was usually furtive, hidden, concealed behind lies and evasions; in their occupied territories, by contrast, the Germans killed brazenly, eager to display their power. Stalin’s killing grounds were at home, his victims frequently Soviet citizens and, in the case of the purges, his own associates. For the Germans, the bloodlands were foreign territory, inhabited by inferior peoples. The Nazis murdered relatively few Germans (the number of German Jews was, of course, quite small in comparison to the millions of Jews in the East). Moreover, compared to Stalin, Hitler dominated his people with a rather small repressive apparatus: in the mid-1930s, German concentration camps had about twenty thousand political prisoners, the Soviet gulag, a million.

Bloodlands is based on quite extraordinary scholarly labor, carried out in sixteen archives and a half-dozen languages. The result is a meticulous description of mass murder presented in restrained, almost clinical prose whose power comes from the gradual, relentless accumulation of horrific detail. From the opening lines, in which a starving Ukrainian child hallucinates about a barren field that will never be harvested, until the final chapters on postwar ethnic cleansing, Snyder fills his pages with harrowing images of individual suffering and breathtaking statistics about the numbers involved. We catch glimpses of the murderers, but they are usually faceless men who have somehow grown accustomed to pulling the trigger or standing by as thousands perish from starvation. Snyder’s attention is almost always on the victims, whose voices, often violently silenced by a bullet or a blow, he constantly seeks to reproduce: “They asked for my wedding ring, which I...” are the final words of a Polish officer’s diary, written as he was about to be murdered by the Soviet secret police in 1940.

In comparison to the compelling density of his descriptions, Snyder’s explanations seem tentative and incomplete. The “bloodlands” are no more than a geographical expression that describes the physical site of the killing, not a geopolitical category with interpretative power. And while Snyder is—quite correctly in my opinion—skeptical about efforts to root mass killing in the pathologies of modernity, his own attempt to link the killing with “the possibilities of imperialism,” while potentially interesting, seems to me analytically and empirically underdeveloped. Nor am I convinced by his argument that the murder of Europe’s Jews was a substitute for military victory, a proposition for which there seems little evidence.

Snyder has been criticized for undermining the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its claim to being the twentieth-century’s central tragedy. This is, I think, unfair. He recognizes that the Nazis’ murder of Europe’s Jews was distinctive, and he does not doubt its special place in the terrible story of mass killing. But his goal is to place Jews within a community of victims, whose suffering in the bloodlands was part of the same historical tragedy. Snyder wants us to imagine the full magnitude of this tragedy and at the same time to retain our sympathy for the individual lives it destroyed. For him, the historian’s most important task is to “unite the numbers and the memories,” to record with precision how many died, without losing sight of the fact that they died as individuals, each with a unique past, each with a future to be lost.           

Snyder’s intended audience are those who approach the history of the Second World War from the West, and especially from across the Atlantic, and who can imagine it as “the last good war,” when good ultimately triumphed over evil. He wants us to realize that in the East, around the mass graves at Babi Yar or amid the ruins of Warsaw, the war was the culmination of a decade of death, in which one of the mass murderers ended up on the winning side. His final two chapters capture the painful ambiguities of wartime memories in the East, first under the Communist regimes that occupied the bloodlands and now under their successors.

Timothy Snyder’s book leaves a great many questions unresolved—indeed it leaves a great many unasked. It is, nonetheless, a monumental work, the product of a scholar’s humane and tireless efforts to recapture what remains of those millions of men, women, and children who were murdered during Europe’s darkest hours.

About the Author

James J. Sheehan, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, among other books.

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