Why Bloodlands is still one of the books of the year.

Richard J Evans is wrong about Timothy Snyder's recent book.

If you have read Lucian Robinson's post, "When historians fall out", about Richard Evans' onslaught on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands in the London Review of Books (4 November), you may be a little puzzled. How could I have written a rave review for the New Statesman website of a book which has been subjected to such an onslaught by the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge? Why did I get it so wrong?

I didn't. I still think Bloodlands is "an outstanding book". It is "a formidable work of scholarship, shattering many myths, and opening up a fascinating new history of Europe." I am not the only person who thinks this. The Economist called it "revisionist history of the best kind." Anne Applebaum in the New York Review of Books called it "a brave and original history". Antony Beevor wrote that it was "the most important work of history for years." And the Atlantic, the Independent, the Telegraph, and the FT joined John Gray and myself in the New Statesman, in choosing Bloodlands as one of the books of the year.

Here are ten reasons why Bloodlands is one of the best history books in recent years:

1) It is well-written and accessible, often moving.

The book is full of terrifying statistics but the use of individual stories (see the opening page, the first page of the conclusion and the final two pages) gives a powerful sense of the human realities of these figures.

The writing is lucid and clear, free of jargon. For example, the opening paragraph of the introduction (p1) is a superb summary of the origins of the Nazi and Soviet regimes in the catastrophe of the First World War. The paragraph ends: "No adult European alive in 1914 would ever see the restoration of comparable free trade; most European adults alive in 1914 would not enjoy comparable levels of prosperity during the rest of their lives." (p1)

Or this on the western sense that "the living skeletons at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler." Snyder goes on:

"As the Jews and Poles of Warsaw knew, and as Vasily Grossman and the Red Army soldiers knew, this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar. The Red Army liberated all of these places, and all of the bloodlands. All of the death sites and dead cities fell behind an iron curtain, in a Europe Stalin made his own even while liberating it from Hitler. Grossman wrote his article about Treblinka while Soviet troops were paused at the Vistula, watching the Germans defeat the Home Army in the Warsaw Uprising. The ashes of Warsaw were still warm when the Cold War began." (p312)

2) Snyder has a tremendous mastery of languages and recent scholarship.

Following the revolutions of 1989/1991 new archives have opened up in east Europe and the former Soviet Union. Some of the best new history of central and east Europe in the mid-20th century is being written by historians like Snyder and Mark Mazower who can read these findings and the flood of new monographs and academic articles being written in these languages. As Snyder makes clear, "This study involved reading in German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, and French, as well as English." (p420) Exactly. This is where the next generation of modern European history writing is going to come from.

The bibliography consists of almost forty pages. There are over forty pages of footnotes. This is pulled together into a clear and accessible book, where a flood of statistics and details never obscures several overarching themes.

3) Facts and statistics ...

Bloodlands is packed full of extraordinary statistics and facts. I listed some (perhaps too many) in my original review, but they bear re-telling. The Nazi and Soviet regimes "murdered some fourteen million people" (p vii); "not a single one of the fourteen million murdered was a soldier on active duty" (pviii); the number of German Jews murdered by the Nazis made up "fewer than three per cent of the deaths of the Holocaust" (p ix); "The Germans murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war" (px); "in the first six and a half years after Hitler came to power, the Nazi regime killed no more than about ten thousand people. The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of a million" (px-xi); Ninety per cent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive (pxiii); "the tremendous majority of the mortal victims of both the German and the Soviet regimes never saw a concentration camp" (pxiii); "of the fourteen million civilians and prisoners of war killed in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, more than half died because they were denied food" (pxiv), etc, etc. And we are still in the preface.

4) ... and details and anecdotes

When the Germans took Danzig, 38 men were sentenced to death and shot for defending the post office -- one was the uncle of Gunter Grass (p120); Shostakovich was "a volunteer for a fire brigade (during the siege of Leningrad) when he wrote the third movement of his Seventh Symphony" (p173); "The invasion of the Soviet Union was supposed to resolve all economic problems, which it did not. In the end, occupied Belgium ... was of greater economic value to Nazi Germany" (p185); "On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire" (p227); "Women, with more fatty tissue, burned better than men" (p271); when the Red Army invaded Germany and raped countless German women Gunter Grass's mother "offered herself so that his sister might be spared" (p317).

These are not mere facts. It is the range of victims - and therefore the range of sympathy - that is important. Poles, Russians, Jews, Germans were all among the victims. And then there are the Ukrainians and Belarussians, starved by Stalin, shot by German soldiers, and the Soviet minorities deported to godforsaken parts of the Soviet Union.

5) Revisionism

Numerous myths do not survive the book. Anyone who still thinks the Soviet Union was a humane or decent state will not think so after they have read Bloodlands. The millions of victims, starved, shot, deported, raped. Similarly, anyone who still thinks the Wehrmacht were just decent soldiers while the SS and Einsatzgruppen did the dirty work, should read pp 121-3, 166-, 175-182 (esp. p179) and on and on. Many still think that the suffering on the western front is comparable to what happened in east Europe and the non-Russian periphery of the Soviet Union. Snyder demolishes this assumption. For decades, the Soviet Union proclaimed that it was the Russians who suffered in their millions during the German invasion; Snyder makes clear that it was non-Russian populations - Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic Republics - where most of the killing happened. Many in the west still think that the vast majority of Jews were killed in concentration camps. They were not. Most Jewish victims of the Holocaust were shot, starved or gassed in vans and death camps.

Some reviewers have argued that little of this is original. Original to whom? We can't assume that all readers of a non-academic publication are professional historians or specialists. These myths, many of them sixty years old and counting, have a tenacious grip, especially in the west, and many of them have been sustained by nationalist and government propaganda in the east (as Snyder makes clear in his conclusion).

6) From West to East

Much of the historiography of the Second World War and of 20th century Europe in general, has focused on the great powers of west and central Europe and then the Soviet Union. By and large, the small countries of south-east and east Europe have been missed out or at best marginalised. Snyder's emphasis on the countries caught between Germany and the Soviet Union - Poland, the Baltic Republics, Belarus, the Ukraine - shifts our focus. He corrects a serious imbalance, continuing a process that started with the work of Norman Davies in the 1980s and '90s.

7) Food and agriculture

Historians have tended to focus on the importance of the industrial revolution, the industrial working class and revolutions which happened in cities, rather than on the countryside or what Snyder calls "the peasant question" (p18). Snyder shifts our attention to the countryside: to those who were starved in their millions and to the central importance of food and agriculture to the catastrophe of the 1930s and '40s. Ukraine mattered to Stalin and Hitler because it was the breadbasket of east Europe and its wheat fields mattered to their different utopian visions.

8) Empire

We tend to think of the Soviet Union as a country (many of us still call it "Russia"). It wasn't. It was an empire, largely built between the 17th and late 19th centuries. Snyder is very good at separating out the different histories of the Ukraine and Belarus from the history of Russia. They are centre-stage in his narrative, along with Poland and the Baltic Republics. These are the "bloodlands". This is where Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians and shot hundreds of thousands of non-Russian Soviet citizens in the Terror, where the great land battles of the eastern front were fought, where the Germans starved three million Soviet prisoners of war, where the Einsatzgruppen shot two million Polish and Soviet Jews, where the Nazis gassed millions of Jews, and where, in total, fourteen million civilians were killed.

The Germans were not just fighting to defeat the Soviet Union, but to build their own empire, fired by visions of the empires built in America and Russia during the 19th century. Snyder suggests a fascinating connection between the 19th century genocides outside Europe (for example, in America) and the 20th century genocide in the centre of Europe.

9) Totalitarianism

Rather than just see Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union as comparable totalitarian regimes, Snyder suggests new ways of seeing their relationship. For example, most of their victims in east Europe lived in countries that were occupied both by Germany and by the Soviet Union. This was not a coincidence or a random aspect of a war with a front moving between invaders and the invaded. For example, the role of Jews in the Soviet apparatus added to the intensity of the anti-Semitism in the local population which was then exploited by the Nazis when they invaded.

Both regimes have been called utopian. Snyder points out that they had different utopias. Stalin's regime killed millions in the name of an industrial utopia. The Nazis killed millions, and would have killed tens of millions more, in the name of an agrarian utopia.

10) The Holocaust

Snyder makes a number of telling points about the Holocaust: the Holocaust is often thought of as modern - using bureaucracy and modern technology to murder millions. But many of the victims died in very old-fashioned ways: starved, shot, beaten; the concentration camps westerners know from newsreels at the end of the war were not representative of the Holocaust: most victims never saw a concentration camp and many were killed within a few hours of arriving at a death camp or within a few days of German soldiers arriving in their village or town.

But the most disturbing implication of Bloodlands is that the Holocaust, far from the being the worst civilian atrocity of the Second World War, would have been dwarfed by Nazi plans to starve and kill tens of millions of non-Jews in east Europe and the Soviet Union, to make way for a new German empire in the East. We have not yet started to absorb the implications of this.

Some of these points are not original, but nevertheless urgently need making. Others are original or are making accessible new thinking that has not yet found a mainstream audience. They take on big issues of modern history and by shifting our focus or by making different kinds of connections, create an exciting new history. Our understanding of 20th century European history is changing and Bloodlands plays an important part in this new history.

Claire Denis. Credit: SARAH LEE/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA LTD
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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge