How Stalin and then Hitler turned the borderlands of Eastern Europe into killing fields
The story of World War II, like that of most wars, usually gets told by the victors. Diplomatic and military accounts are set largely in the West and star the morally upright Allies—the U.S., Britain and Soviet Union—in battles against fascism. The Holocaust gets its own separate history, as a case apart in its genocidal intent and human tragedy.
Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” forces a dramatic shift in these perceptions. First, there is the setting: the flat and marshy eastern borderlands—inhabited by Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others—that Stalin and then Hitler turned into what Mr. Snyder calls the “bloodlands.” No GIs fought on or liberated this soil, so the fate of its people never entered the collective Western imagination. Yet this was the true heart of the European conflict. By Mr. Snyder’s “conservative” reckoning, 14 million people were shot, deliberately starved or gassed while Hitler and Stalin were in power. All these dead were noncombatants. Mr. Snyder puts a third of the total on Stalin’s account.
Both Hitler and Stalin dreamed of a new European order, one in the name of a master race, the other of a master class. Their visions met in the borderlands. In his use of political mass murder to achieve it, Stalin was the trailblazer, an elder statesman of terror. The Soviet-made famine of 1932-33, which killed more than three million Ukrainians, launched an era of horror that ended only with the end of the war.
Among his other goals in “Bloodlands,” Mr. Snyder attempts to put the Holocaust in context—to restore it, in a sense, to the history of the wider European conflict. This is a task that no historian can attempt without risking controversy. Yet far from minimizing Jewish suffering, “Bloodlands” gives a fuller picture of the Nazi killing machine. Auschwitz, which wasn’t purely a “death camp,” lives on in our memory due in large part to those who lived to tell the tale. Through his access to Eastern European sources, Mr. Snyder also takes the reader to places like Babi Yar, Treblinka and Belzec. These were Nazi mass-murder sites that left virtually no survivors.
Yet Mr. Snyder’s book does make it clear that Hitler’s “Final Solution,” the purge of European Jewry, was not a fully original idea. A decade before, Stalin had set out to annihilate the Ukrainian peasant class, whose “national” sentiments he perceived as a threat to his Soviet utopia. The collectivization of agriculture was the weapon of choice. Implemented savagely, collectivization brought famine. In the spring of 1933 people in Ukraine were dying at a rate of 10,000 per day.
Stalin then turned on other target groups in the Soviet Union, starting with the kulaks—supposedly richer farmers, whom Stalin said needed to be “liquidated as a class”—and various ethnic minorities. In the late 1930s, Mr. Snyder argues, “the most persecuted” national group in Europe wasn’t—as many of us would assume—Jews in Nazi Germany, a relatively small community of 400,000 whose numbers declined after the imposition of race laws forced many into emigration at a time when this was still possible. According to Mr. Snyder, the hardest hit at that time were the 600,000 or so Poles living within the Soviet Union.
Convinced that this group represented a fifth column, Stalin ordered the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB, to “keep on digging out and cleaning out this Polish filth.” Mr. Snyder writes that before World War II started, 111,091 Soviet Poles were executed. This grim period is little known in Poland itself, but its detailed recounting here shows how a determined totalitarian machine could decimate a national group. Apologists for Stalin, in the West and elsewhere, have insisted that his Great Terror was needed to prepare the Soviets for a coming showdown with Hitler. Mr. Snyder destroys this argument.
Barbarism reached new lows after the Wehrmacht and the Red Army invaded Poland in 1939. The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, signed in August a week before the blitzkrieg, had split sovereign Poland between the Nazi and Soviet allies. The invading Germans obeyed orders not to spare the civilian population. But the Soviets were more experienced then at brutality. In the spring of 1940, Stalin ordered the murder of 21,768 Polish officers in what came to be known as the Katyn massacres. Hundreds of thousands of other people from “enemy” classes and nationalities were deported to the east, where many died.
Plans for the Holocaust fell into place after Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 failed to produce the quick victory that the Nazis expected. The killing began east of the Ribbentrop-Molotov line. Most of the victims were shot over pits. Nearly half of the millions of Jews killed by the Germans died in lands taken from the Soviets. In territory that the Nazis occupied in 1939, the extermination started later. The innovation was the gas chamber in the main “death factories” at Treblinka, Chelmno, Belzec, Majdanek and Sobibor, which took in Jews only to kill them. By the time the sixth death camp came on line at Birkenau, near Auschwitz, in early 1943, more than three-quarters of the Jews killed in the Holocaust, and most Soviet and Polish Jews, were already dead.
In the grim postscript to World War II, millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Germans were ethnically cleansed from lands they had occupied for generations. Churchill and Roosevelt let Stalin redraw Europe’s borders, and all the bloodlands fell into his hands. Unlike Hitler, Stalin realized his dreams of a global empire. His last murderous act was to launch another anti-Semitic purge, in late 1952, before he himself died in early 1953.
“Bloodlands” manages to clarify as well as darken our view of this era. “To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond . . . historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap,” Mr. Snyder writes. “The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them.”
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.
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