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.

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist