Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder

When the Soviet Union invaded east Poland in 1939, many Poles and Jews panicked and fled to the Nazi-occupied west. Nothing, they thought, could be worse than Stalin. At one bridge an SS-officer watched this in disbelief. "Where on earth are you going?" he exclaimed."We are going to kill you."

It wasn't just Poland. Millions of east Europeans were trapped between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two most murderous regimes in European history. Their story is at the heart of Timothy Snyder's outstanding book. What he calls "the Bloodlands", that huge area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is "where Europe's most murderous regimes did their most murderous work".

For Snyder, this period of violence begins in 1933 not with Hitler's rise to power but with Stalin's decision to starve more than three million Ukrainians to death. Then came the killing of 700,000 Soviet citizens, shot during the Great Terror of 1937-38. At this point, the Soviet Union was "the only state in Europe carrying out policies of mass killing". Before 1939, the Nazi regime "killed no more than ten thousand people. The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of a million."

200,000 Polish citizens were shot by the Soviets or Germans at the beginning of the Second World War. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the atrocities escalated. Four million Soviet citizens were starved to death by the Germans, including three million Soviet prisoners of war. More than five million Jews were gassed or shot by the Germans. In total, Snyder concludes, in the middle of Europe in the middle of the 20th century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people. This doesn't include soldiers killed on the Eastern Front. The Bloodlands were the site of the Nazi death camps, mass shootings by the NKVD and the Einsatzgruppen, campaigns of mass starvation by both the Soviet Union and the Nazis, and the scene of the worst fighting of the war. And it could have been worse. If the Nazis had won, tens of millions of Slavs would have been killed, creating a living space in the east for German colonist-farmers.

We think of the Germans as the main perpetrators. Snyder has none of this. The point is, he argues, that murdering was most intense in the countries which were occupied first by the Soviet Union, then by the Germans and then, again, by the Red Army. That dynamic is crucial. Ukrainians and Latvians welcomed Germans because they couldn't believe anything could be as bad as Stalin. Two inhuman utopian visions clashed and for those caught in between the result was catastrophe.

In addition to the mass killings, there were huge deportations. In Soviet Belarus about two million people were killed, but two million were also deported and a million more fled from the German invasion. "By the end of the war," writes Snyder, "half of the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved." Nor did it stop in 1945. Then came the ethnic cleansing and mass population movements of the post-war years. Snyder takes the story up to Stalin's death in 1953.

Bloodlands is well written, clear and accessible. The book is packed with up to date statistics -- many simply astonishing -- but there are also moving accounts of individuals. Stories like that of Jozef Sobolewski, a toddler, starved to death with his mother and five of his brothers and sisters in 1933 in the Ukraine. The one brother who survived was shot in 1937, in Stalin's Terror.

Some of this is familiar. A great deal, however, isn't. Snyder is a key figure in the new thinking about eastern Europe which is transforming the way we think about Stalinism, Nazism and the Holocaust. Any illusions you might have about the decency of the Wehrmacht or of Stalin's regime will not survive reading this book. We think of German concentration camps and the Gulag as the worst symbols of totalitarianism, but most of those who entered German concentration camps survived. 90 per cent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive. Most of the killings went on in pits, forests, death camps and "starvation zones", some gassed, most shot or starved, in east Europe and the west of the Soviet Union. Not, Snyder is emphatic here, in Russia. But in the non-Russian periphery of the Soviet Union, above all, the Ukraine, Belarus and formerly Soviet-occupied east Poland. Even Stalin's Great Terror was not concentrated in Russia. Of nearly 700,000 executions carried out for political crimes in 1937-38, few were poets or old Bolsheviks. More than 625,000 were kulaks or members of non-Russian minorities.

Snyder has pulled together a huge amount of new thinking and research, much of it not yet translated. It is a formidable work of scholarship, shattering many myths, and opening up a fascinating new history of Europe.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Timothy Synder

Bodley Head, 544pp, £25


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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis