There were moments reading this book when I was forced to shut it closed, an experience utterly alien to me. Like any reasonably historically-aware individual, I considered myself familiar with the carnage that overtook Europe in the earlier half of the 20th century: the gas chambers and the gulags, the mass shootings and show trials, the wanton disregard for human life and the heinous ideas which compelled people to, actively or passively, play a part in the deaths of tens of millions of fellow human beings. Reading about this period, there comes a point when the sheer scale and horror of the events which took place — the instant incineration of tens of thousands of civilians, for instance — desensitizes one from appreciating the sheer terror and physical pain that individuals endured.
Even with the knowledge of these attrocities, there is still little than can prepare a reader for the grisly accounts of the Ukrainian Famine that Timothy Snyder details in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Of course, I knew something about the widespread starvation that afflicted Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933. This mass culling was directly caused by Josef Stalin’s collectivization policies, which were comprised of seizing private farms and exporting whatever food was grown to the rest of the Soviet Union and beyond. Those who have studied the event in-depth will not find anything new in Snyder’s account. But most readers, I imagine, will reevaluate their conception of the depths of human depravity when they read, in particular, about the widespread cannibalism that became rampant in what Robert Conquest has referred to as “one vast Belsen.” These are tales that one imagined lay only in the realm of zombie films: parents cooking and eating their own children, children in a nursery eating each other, a starving toddler literally eating himself.
With its ferocious attention to detailing the crimes of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Bloodlands has inevitably become a new entrant into the long-running debate about the comparative evil of Nazism and Stalinism, though Snyder, a scrupulous historian who shies away from polemic (an exemplar of this increasingly rare breed), does not consider himself a partisan in this particular battle. Contrary to some of his critics, Snyder has not minimized the horror or unique evil of the Holocaust by writing a book that studies it alongside the array of atrocities carried out by Stalin in the years leading up to, during, and after the Second World War. Rather, Snyder’s aim is to place the Holocaust within the context of this era of mass killing. He does so by focusing on the region he terms the “bloodlands,” the territories that fell under both German and Soviet occupation between 1933 and 1945 and were the main theaters of those regimes’ policies of non-combat-related mass murder. The era of the bloodlands commences with the Ukrainian famine, is followed by Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937–1938, continues with the combined German and Soviet mass murder of Poles during the short-lived period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the German starvation of Soviet citizens across present-day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and ends with the German “reprisal” killings of Belarusians and Poles. All told, some fourteen million people are estimated to have died as a result of these atrocities; to put this number into context, it is two million more than the total number of German and Soviet soldiers killed in battle and over thirteen million more than American losses in all of its foreign wars combined.
I’ve had Bloodlands on the bedside table for a while, and started reading it in earnest last week. My reaction has been much the same; there are times you just lay the book aside and stare off into space, trying to absorb the immensity of what you’ve just been told. But Snyder does a commendable job of providing enough humanizing details to ground the reader’s attention amid all the hellish, impersonal statistics. Just to pick one passage at random that I read last night:
They waited, not knowing what would come next, probably not suspecting until the very last moment. An NKVD officer asked one of the waiting prisoners, alone then with his captors, how old he was. The boy was smiling. “Eighteen.” What did you do? Still smiling. “Telephone operator.” How long had you worked? The boy counted on his hands. “Six months.” Then he, like all of the 6,314 prisoners who passed through this room, was handcuffed and led to a soundproofed cell. Two men held him by his arms as a third shot him from behind in the base of the skull.
Some of my friends have thought me slightly bizarre for reading things like this willingly and have not hesitated to say so. But integrity, I think, compels us to remember that these people were just as sure of their own importance as we are of ours. I hear so many people prattle on about how the most jejune coincidences in their life are proof positive that the universe itself is favorably disposed toward them, and it offends and irritates me, that blinkered lack of rudimentary awareness and the accompanying conviction that any challenge to it is perversely morbid. That eighteen year-old boy was no less important in the big scheme of things than any of us, living our comfortable lives, sure that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world and everything happens for a reason. He was just as motivated by all the joys and fears that anyone else is, and his life ended pointlessly and anonymously in a prison cell, before being deposited in a mass grave. He and millions of others. At just this one particular, recent, point in history.
Memento mori. Don’t be complacent.