Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mass Murder in the Bloodlands

I was initially a little reluctant to read Timothy Synder's Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. First, I don't generally spend much time on either German or East European history.  Second, it sometimes seems as if I've spent too much time dwelling on some of the more sensational aspects of Stalin's reign of terror.  I’ve read books about collectivization, the man-made Ukrainian famine, the gulag, the deportations, the Great Terror, and World War II.  What more was there to know about Stalin’s brutal method of governing the country?  The originality of Bloodlands is that it links Europe’s most egregious mass killings into a single coherent narrative.  This is comparative or even regional history at its finest. How can this tale of interwar suffering be contained by any single national memory or history?  Synder's bloody narrative revolves around a specific geographical location centered in Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, and the Eastern Baltic.  In this broad area, Nazism and Soviet Communism interacted with one another, and sometimes conspired with one another, to produce an unprecedented human catastrophe.

The author is at pains to correct some common historical myths about what actually happened in this area before and during the Second World War.  For instance, Synder's reminds us that Stalinism actually killed far more of its own citizens than Hitlerism did prior to the advent of the war.  The man-made Ukrainian famine is only one of the policies of mass murder inflicted on a vulnerable civilian population.  But Stalinism inflicted countless deaths to various other populations.  By an order of magnitude, Communist Russia proved to be far more deadly even than its fascist counterpart, at least in peacetime.  Synder also proves that Stalinism did have an ethnic or genocidal component,and that the Soviet Union's campaign of murder wasn't entirely random.  More than anything, Synder demonstrates that the Soviet Union targeted and decimated the Polish population, and this decimation included ethnic Poles who always lived under Soviet rule, as well as ethnic Poles who lived under sucessive governments.  Stalinism had many victims, but ethnic Poles suffered very acutely in comparison with most other devastated ethnic or political groupings.  

The author's main argument is that Nazism seemed in some sense to work in tandem with Communism to produce humankind’s worst tragedy in history.  Although the book makes complicated arguments about the nature of this period of mass killings, both regimes clearly used one another to justify their most horrific crimes against humanity.  For instance, both regimes intentionally starved prisoners of war to death on a massive scale, and justified these horrific actions by referring to the bloodiness and alleged inhumanity of the enemy.  

Bloodlands also sheds some light on the Holocaust.  We know of course that Jews suffered more than any other group who occupied the “bloodlands.”   When we examine the tragedies which occurred in both Poland and Belarussia, for example, Jews a far smaller chance of surviving than non-Jews.  It’s unpleasant business to compare the relative suffering of various ethnic groups.  However, the author of Bloodlands helps us to understand that historical accuracy matters.  Take the memory of the modern Russian people as a case in point. While it is certainly true that Russians suffered tremendously from Nazi villainy, the Russian government rarely reminds its citizens of how many of the official “20 million deaths in World War II” figure died at the hands of the Soviet government.  In fact, this figure includes many people who were killed by Russia after it briefly allied itself to Nazi Germany and invaded the Baltic republics as well as Eastern Poland.  And of course the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian governments have almost always tried to submerge the unique stories of Ukrainian, Polish, and especially Jewish suffering in the overall story of Soviet suffering. 

The author of Bloodlands makes a subtle (but well-documented) arguments about tremendously controversial topics. However, the book’s central argument is that we shouldn’t try to analyze twentieth century brutality without acknowledging how Hitlerism and Stalinism worked together, either intentionally or intentionally, to eliminate millions upon millions of people in Eastern Europe.  Certainly Nazi Germany ultimately killed many more innocent people than Soviet Germany did, but both regimes were guilty of mass murder on an unprecedented scale.  Thus to analyze either regime, we must acknowledge that an international phenomenon of mass cruelty was at work.   This being so, Synder reminds us that we shouldn’t forget the specificity of the Eastern European geography of murder.  European mass killing sometimes happened outside of the bloodlands, but the total numbers of victims can scarcely compare to killings that took place in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. 

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