Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Timothy Snyder. Published in 2010.

I have been trying to finish the review of this book for over two weeks now. It is hard for me, because it is personal. I am Polish. I grew up in a small town which, like most towns in Poland, had a significant Jewish population before the war. I knew nothing about it at the time. For me the 'ghetto' was only a geographical location in the centre of the town, where the farmer's market was. There were no orthodox Jews anywhere to be seen and I did not know anybody who was Jewish.

I also lived in the eastern part of Warsaw, called Praga, which was not razed to the ground after Warsaw Uprising of 1944, because it was already under Soviet control. In Praga, even now, almost 70 years after the war, you can find pre-war buildings ridden with bullet holes from 1939 or 1944. In all of Warsaw, if you look, you will find plaques and monuments commemorating places where people had been executed or where battles had been fought. Every year on August 1st, the city stops for a minute to commemorate Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is remembered as well and Generalplan Ost is part of the national psyche. The last war is hard to forget if you live in Poland.

This book, however, is not really about the war. This book is about 14 million murders committed before and during the war, by the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, on the lands that they both controlled. Timothy Snyder wants us to think about the victims as 14 million "times one" so we don't forget that they were individuals, with names and stories to tell.

Bloodlands provides context and factual corrections to the national stories, which tend to be one-sided, skewed, or exaggerated. Hundreds of millions of children were "educated" about these events to fit the communist or national version of history.
"What begins as competitive martyrology can end with martyrological imperialism. The wars for Yugoslavia of the 1990s began, in part, because Serbs believed that far larger numbers of their fellows had been killed in the Second World War than was the case. When history is removed, numbers go upward and memories go inward, to all of our peril."
This book uses statistics extensively. For example, to illustrate the point that generalisations are often wrong, and context and individual circumstances are important:
"A non-Jewish Pole in Warsaw, alive in 1933 had about the same chances of living until 1945 as a Jew in Germany alive in 1933."
It is a balanced book, and it doesn't try to agitate one group against another. It tries to dispel some myths using hard historical facts. The above statement, for example, is quickly followed by:
"[...] a Jew in Poland was about fifteen times more likely to be deliberately killed during the war than a non-Jewish Pole."
Timothy Snyder in 500 pages describes so many stories of mass murder that the descriptions sometimes are very succinct. Longer works have been written, and movies made about events that take only a few sentences in Bloodlands - like the story of the Bielski partisans.

If you quickly divide people into good and bad, this book may slow you down a bit. For example, it explains that in the areas of the current Belarus, if you wanted to live, you often had to join Soviet partisans or German police, and you often did not have much choice about who to join - it could be a matter of which forces "visited" your village first. The extreme form of "collaboration" or negative opportunism, was the Judenrat and the Jewish police in the ghettos. Before you accuse somebody of "collaborating" with the enemy, think what you would do in the circumstances. But to do that, you need to know about the circumstances, and that's where Timothy Snyder helps.

14,000,000 x 1 is a well researched, but conservative number. Active soldiers, and others whose death cannot be attributed directly to a deliberate act of murder by Hitler's or Stalin's policies are not counted:
"I therefore generally exclude from the count the people who died of exertion or disease or malnutrition in concentration camps or during deportations, evacuations, or flight from armies. I also exclude people who died as forced laborers. I am not counting people who died of hunger as a result of wartime shortfalls, or civilians who died in bombings or as a result of other acts of war."
They are excluded from the main count, but their stories and numbers of victims, although not the main theme of Bloodlands, are noted. The count, in approximate chronological order, is as follows:
"[...] 3.3 million Soviet citizens (mostly Ukrainians) deliberately starved by their own government in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933; three hundred thousand Soviet Citizens (mostly Poles and Ukrainians) shot by their own government in the western USSR among the roughly seven hundred thousand victims of the Great Terror of 1937-1938; two hundred thousand Polish citizens (mostly Poles) shot by German and Soviet forces in occupied Poland in 1939-1941; 4.2 million Soviet citizens (largely Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians) starved by German occupiers in 1941-1944; 5.4 million Jews (most of them Polish or Soviet citizens) gassed or shot by the Germans in 1941-1944; and seven hundred thousand civilians (mostly Belarussians and Poles) shot by the Germans in "reprisals" chiefly in Belarus and Warsaw in 1941-1944."
Bloodlands describes reality that is complicated and soul crushing. Reality of state lies, betrayal, fear, and torture. Reality created by two strongly minded people who had millions of followers, who believed that they were doing good, that they had noble goals, and that means justify the ends.
"To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them."
Enough Germans liked Hitler and the Nazi party to vote them into a political stronghold from which they could not be removed peacefully. Hitler wanted to unite and protect all Germans, so they could never again be humiliated by the French, or overran by the Slavs. He wanted Germany to be ethnically pure, economically strong, providing decent living conditions and stable employment to all workers. He wanted to expand the living space for the quickly growing "noble" race of Aryans. He hated Jews, because he thought they were immoral, used manipulative rhetoric tactics, and were loyal to other Jews rather than to the state. A large part of the society didn't mind... Would you?

Communists had initially the support of millions of Russian peasants and workers, who benefited from the overthrow of the capitalist regime by seizing private and church land, and by getting shorter working hours and higher wages. Stalin, at least publicly, followed Lenin's goal of building a paradise on earth, where everybody would give to the society as much as they could, and everybody would get from the society as much as they needed. All income from land distributed for public purposes, progressive taxes, no inheritance, free education for children, equality... Isn't that nice?

Is this book relevant today?

I think it is. Definitely not to scratch old wounds, maybe even not to correct our national memories. The message for all of us, but particularly Jews, Poles, Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarussians, and any other group touched personally by the story of Bloodlands, is that we should be vigilant, so such atrocities do NOT happen again, anywhere, to any group. We should never again ignore, or worse, follow people who think that their group is better than another, or who incite hate against another group, or torture and kill people, or start wars under false pretences

If you think that these things could not occur today, then how do you explain that, less than 10 years ago, we let one strongly minded leader start an unprovoked war which resulted in at least 109,032 deaths? Because the goal was noble?