History of the 1930s-’40s shows the truth is darker than you thought
The horrors of the Holocaust are well-documented.
But what if they were actually worse than you think? And what if the Holocaust, when put in context, is only a fraction of the mass civilian slaughtering (14 million people in total) that took place in Central Europe during the middle of the 20th century?
Historian Timothy Snyder’s latest book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin details the murderous barrage in Eastern Europe during the 1930s and 1940s by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Some parts of the region saw themselves conquered three separate times by these regimes during a relatively short period. The Holocaust forms a part of these horrors, but so does the often overlooked Holomodor – the Stalin-induced famine in Ukraine during the early 1930s.
Consider the following juxtaposition (which Snyder also summarized in a July 2009 article in The New York Review of Books) as a sampling of how this book will revolutionize how any reader thinks about the mid-20th century.
Everything you know about the Holocaust likely comes from stories of survivors. You know about the horrors of Auschwitz because in addition to being a death camp, it was a work camp, and there were survivors. Add to this that Auschwitz was primarily a destination for West European Jews, who after the war returned to places where they were free to write and say what they wished.
Now consider that the bulk of Holocaust deaths occurred before 1943 and 1944, when most of the West European Holocaust victims died. By 1942, more than two-thirds of the Jews who would die during World War II had already been killed. Soviet and Polish Jews make up the bulk of the actual Holocaust fatalities, and about 1.5 million of them died at death camps (not work camps) like Treblinka, Bełzec and Sobibor – names you have likely never heard.
Add to this that as many Jews were killed by bullets during the Holocaust as by gas – more Jews were shot in Poland and the Baltic states in 1941 than died at Auschwitz during the entire war – and you understand how distorted the mainstream historical view of the Holocaust has become.
To cap it all off, even Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe (and there were few) were likely to return to a Stalinist state at the end of the war, making them unable to share their stories in the same way as survivors from Holland, Belgium or elsewhere.
But Bloodlands is not focused on the Holocaust alone, and Snyder’s detailing of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 – in which 3.3 million people died – is shocking. The period has been recounted before, but often inadequately and out of context with contemporaneous events. Snyder rightly makes the point that in addition to the secrecy of Stalin’s regime, Western Europe’s distraction with the rise of Hitler diverted attention away from these mass killings.
Snyder also rather conclusively shows that it was an intentional and conscious Soviet policy to starve the peasant farmer class and isolate them from the rest of society. A telling statistic from this period is that a boy born in Ukraine in 1933 had a life expectancy of seven years.
In this book, Snyder manages two difficult tasks at the same time. He examines a frequently investigated period and casts it in an entirely new light. He also sheds light on underexamined historical events while putting them through the prism of a region – Eastern Europe – where history frequently produces few witnesses while it unfolds.
The subject matter is dour, and Snyder is an academic, but Bloodlands reads well, as its author has a bit of the writer in his historian’s blood. The occasional rhetorical flourish, such as “Local party officials found themselves between Stalin’s red hammer and the grim reaper’s sickle,” and insightful, well-placed statistics – of the 139 members of the Soviet central committee that attended the 1934 Party Congress, 98 were shot – make a moving narrative from what could otherwise be laborious. Nearly every page contains something that makes the reader raise an eyebrow.
Bloodlands is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in 20th-century history, and even more so for those interested in how historical narratives are established and maintained.
Snyder’s examinations of the past will be worth following in the years to come.
Bloodlands: Between Hitler and Stalin
By Timothy Snyder
The Bodley Head 2010