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Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands contextualizes the story of Eastern European Jewry’s sad fate without relativizing it

Adam Kirsch
November 30, 2010
The Soviet siege of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), April 1945.(Getty Images)
The Soviet siege of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), April 1945.(Getty Images)

In the 20th century, two factors above all were predictors of violent death: living in a war zone and living under a totalitarian government. America, which fought wars but was never fought over and which enjoyed unbroken democratic rule, was one of the best places to be born; China, which experienced civil war, Japanese invasion, and Mao-sponsored famine and massacre, was one of the worst. But the very worst place, by this logic, was the region of Eastern Europe that includes Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. This area, caught between Germany in the west and Russia in the east, was the battleground for two world wars and suffered occupation by two tyrants. From 1920 to 1939, Ukraine and Belarus were part of Stalin’s Soviet Union. When the Second World War began, Poland was partitioned between Stalin and Hitler; then in 1941, when Hitler turned on his accomplice and invaded the USSR, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus all fell under Nazi control. This lasted until 1944, when the Red Army returned, bringing a liberation that was also a new imprisonment.

Each change of regime, each military campaign, brought death on a massive scale—from combat, but still more from imprisonment, massacre, deportation, and deliberate starvation. Between 1933 and 1945, 14 million civilians and prisoners of war were killed in this region. As Timothy Snyder emphasizes in his important new history, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, $29.95), this fantastic figure does not include combatants, even though half of all the soldiers killed in the Second World War, on all fronts around the globe, died in Eastern Europe.

What it does include, of course, are the 5 to 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, which took place exactly in the region that Snyder designates “the bloodlands.” Something like 40 percent of the civilians killed in the bloodlands were Jewish victims of the Germans and their collaborators. Or, as Snyder writes in another attempt to put the Jewish experience in perspective, “Jews were less than two percent of the population [of the USSR] and Russians more than half; [yet] the Germans murdered more Jewish civilians than Russian civilians in the occupied Soviet Union.”

“Jews were in a category of their own,” Snyder goes on to write. The language of history reflects this: We speak of the Holocaust as a unique event, in some way different from the mass killing that took place all around it. One of Snyder’s major achievements in Bloodlands is to preserve this sense of the singularity of Jewish experience, even while showing its complex relationship to the terrible experiences of the peoples among whom Jews lived. This is notoriously a very difficult thing for historians to do, and the ground Snyder covers in this book has often been the source of controversy and recrimination. To Jews, any attempt to put the Holocaust “in context” can sound like an attempt to diminish its importance, to relativize it.

Jews have also been troubled by any emphasis on the suffering of other nations under Hitler—of Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Lithuanians—because collaborators of all these nationalities played a crucial role in the murder of the Jews. Indeed, the Holocaust could not have happened without the participation of the Slavs. To take just one of the countless illuminating statistics in Bloodlands: In Lithuania, the German unit (Einsatzkommando)in charge of killing the Jews of Kaunas “numbered only 139 personnel, including secretaries and drivers, of which there were forty-four.” Yet between June and December of 1941, such small units managed to kill 114,856 Lithuanian Jews. Clearly, the work of killing was done mainly by native Lithuanians: The Nazis “had as many helpers as [they] needed,” Snyder writes.

Yet Snyder also does justice to the experiences of the Slavic peoples, which were often as terrible as the fate suffered by Jews. The first chapter in Bloodlands is titled “The Soviet Famines,” and it centers on Ukraine in 1932-33, where more than 3.3 million people died of starvation. This is half as many as died in the Holocaust; and while they died of hunger, rather than gassing or shooting, they were deliberately killed by Stalin just as surely as the Jews were by Hitler. Snyder explains why and how, “facing no external security threat and no challenge from within, with no conceivable justification except to prove the inevitability of his rule, Stalin chose to kill millions of people in Soviet Ukraine.”

The reason was, first, economic. Intent on industrializing the Soviet economy, the Communists seized food from the peasants of Ukraine—the Soviet Union’s “breadbasket”—in order to sell it abroad, thus earning the money to pay for foreign technology and industrial equipment. In other words, there was never really a food shortage in the USSR; Stalin could have stopped the famine simply by stopping food exports. Adherence to Marxist ideology—which saw the urban proletariat as a more revolutionary class than the rural peasantry—led Stalin to make war on one section of his own population. In this way, Snyder shows, Communism led to the same kind of ideologically inspired killing as Nazism, though the victims were defined more by class than by ethnicity.

Yet Stalin did also practice what Snyder calls “National Terror,” in addition to “Class Terror.” He persecuted the Poles of the Soviet Union because of his fear of Poland, against which the USSR had fought a war in 1920, and the secret police fed these fears by inventing ludicrous conspiracy theories about Polish espionage. In 1937-38, during the Great Terror, almost 700,000 Soviet citizens were killed; of these, 85,000 were Poles, even though Poles made up less than one half of 1 percent of the Soviet population. Similar atrocities were directed against Lithuanians, Koreans, and other peoples who could theoretically look to a foreign state as a protector. Snyder convincingly argues, in the last chapter of Bloodlands, that the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism after 1948 can be seen as a late example of this kind of national terror. Once the Jews of the USSR could look to Israel as a homeland, Stalin began to see them as another potential threat. Before he died, in 1953, he encouraged the concoction of the “Doctors’ Plot,” which accused Jewish doctors of medically murdering high-placed Soviet officials—possibly as a prelude to another mass purge.

The relationship between Jews and Communism is probably the most explosive of all the subjects Snyder addresses, and here he benefits most from the strengths he shows throughout the book—deep learning, wide compassion, and clear, careful moral judgment. To this day, there are some in Eastern Europe who continue to minimize, or explain, or even justify the Holocaust by pointing to the atrocities inflicted on their own peoples by so-called Jewish Communists. Snyder shows the reasons why this line of argument has found adherents, especially in the war years. It was never true that most, or even many, Jews were Communists; but it is true that many prominent Communists were Jews. Maxim Litvinoff, the Soviet foreign minister during the 1930s, was Jewish—Stalin dismissed him in 1939 when he made his alliance with Hitler, in deference to Nazi anti-Semitism. Lazar Kaganovich was one of Stalin’s most loyal enforcers and played a major role in both the Ukrainian famine and the Terror.

Jews were also disproportionately represented in the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. There were historical reasons for this, which Snyder might have stated more explicitly: It was the experience of Tsarist anti-Semitism that led so many Jews to feel that Communism was their best hope. But in the 1930s, the association of Communism with Jews—fed by Hitler’s propaganda, which referred incessantly to “Judeo-Bolshevism”—made it dangerously easy for many Eastern Europeans to see patriotism, anti-Communism, and anti-Semitism as part of the same package. The fact that one of the last acts of the Soviet regime in Poland and the Baltics, before the Germans arrived in 1941, was to massacre political prisoners only added fuel to the flames. By the time the Nazis arrived, these conditions made many Balts and Slavs feel that killing Jews was somehow striking a blow for their national dignity.

While Snyder explains the feelings behind this view, he also scrupulously shows that it was factually baseless. There was, of course, no connection between massacring Jewish women and children and resisting Soviet power. What’s more, Soviet Communists were themselves active persecutors of Jews, especially in Poland. As Yehuda Bauer showed in his recent study The Death of the Shtetl, Soviet rule everywhere destroyed Jewish civilization: No one was more viciously opposed to Judaism and Jewish culture than Jewish Communists. And, of course, only a small fraction of Jews were Communists at any time, in any sense; more were socialists or Zionists. Still, the association of Jews and Communism lingered even after the war, when some of the Communist rulers imposed by Stalin on Eastern Europe were Jews.

Lithuanian or Ukrainian nationalists who helped the Germans kill Jews, hoping that it would serve their own causes, were quickly disabused. When Snyder turns from the Soviet to the Nazi side of the story, he shows that the Holocaust of the Jews was not the only genocide the Nazis had in mind. They had similar plans for the whole of Eastern Europe, involving the mass murder and starvation of Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. In accordance with Nazi racial theory, these peoples were to be reduced to slavery, in the service of German settlers who would turn the whole of Eastern Europe into an Aryan agricultural empire. If the German Army had captured Moscow in the fall of 1941, knocking the USSR out of the war as Hitler intended, the Nazis planned to starve 30 million people to death so the invaders could feed themselves.

When the invasion stalled, the Nazis decided to focus on the one aspect of their “utopia” it was still in their power to achieve: the extermination of the Jews. “The Final Solution,” Snyder writes, “was the one atrocity that took on a more radical form in the realization than in the conception. Soviet Jews were supposed to work themselves to death building a German empire or be deported further east. This proved impossible; [so] most Jews in the East were killed where they lived.” Four of Snyder’s 11 chapters are devoted primarily to the Holocaust, a measure of how central it was to the fate of the “bloodlands.” Indeed, anyone who wants to fully comprehend the Holocaust—at least, as far as it can be comprehended—should read Bloodlands, which shows how much evil had to be done in order to make the ultimate evil possible.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.