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.
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.
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.
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.