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Book Discussion: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin

About 17 million noncombatants were killed by the Nazi and Soviet regimes between 1933 and 1945, said Timothy Snyder, Professor of History, Yale University at a 10 November 2010 lecture at the Kennan Institute. "The striking thing I noticed as a historian of Eastern Europe is that 14 million of that group died in a relatively confined bit of territory – between Berlin and Moscow, and between the Baltic and Black Sea; the lands that I call the Bloodlands." Snyder said that in his book, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, he tried to explain an event that had not been explained before.

One reason the history of this region and this period had not yet been written is that we are now in a moment in time when it could be written, Snyder explained. It has been twenty years since the revolutions of 1989, and the archives of East Europe, as well as the Soviet archives, are vital to understanding not only the countries of the region, but Nazi Germany as well: "All of the major sites where the Germans killed in significant numbers fell behind the iron curtain."

Shortcomings in the three major branches of historiography covering this region and period (East European, Soviet, and Holocaust) also help explain why this story has not yet been told in full. Historians who study East Europe usually focus on one country. Historians of the Soviet era have made great progress in understanding the causes and consequences of episodes such as collectivization and the Great Terror, including how many died. However, Snyder stressed, these historians have not adequately recognized that Soviet citizens killed under Stalin were disproportionately located in the same territory Nazi Germany invaded in WWII. Holocaust history is arguably the best developed of the three. Yet this historiography is almost always based on German sources, which is very useful for understanding decision-making in Berlin, but less useful for understanding the lands and people where the Holocaust took place.

Snyder emphasized in his book the difference between concentration camps and death facilities, whether Nazi or Soviet. "My figure of 14 million killed does not even include people who died in camps," stressed Snyder. Death facilities, "whether a Soviet shooting pit or Treblinka," were places where people were deliberately starved, shot, or gassed. Snyder advocated the notion of "plural causality," that one cannot reduce events to any one cause: "One cannot understand a national tragedy only in national terms," he said.

Snyder described several episodes detailed within the book. He noted that documents now show that Stalin made deliberate decisions in 1932 that he knew would lead to the deaths of more than 3 million Ukrainians because of their nationality. The Great Terror, often thought of in terms of show trials of party members, actually fell hardest on the kulak peasants during collectivization. The second largest group of victims of the Terror was ethnic minorities. About 250 thousand minorities were killed on the basis of their ethnicity, including approximately 110 thousand Poles shot for being spies for Poland. During their joint occupation of Poland, the Nazi and Soviet regimes each killed about 100 thousand civilians using demographic profiling so similar that they often targeted the same family.

The bloodiest part of the history, Snyder continued, commenced in 1941 with the German invasion. German war planning was much worse than the reality of the invasion, Snyder reported. In addition to cleansing Europe of Jews, Germany imagined they would starve 30 million Soviets to death in the first year of the war, then begin a process of colonization, called Generalplan Ost, at the end of the war in which tens of millions more people would be assimilated, enslaved, or killed.

The first major killing action in the Soviet Union by the Germans was the execution and planned starvation of over 3 million Soviet prisoners of war. Snyder described the history of the Holocaust in the Bloodlands in three parts: the shooting campaign of communities in Ukraine; the combined shooting and anti-partisan campaign in Belarus; and the death factories, including Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Auschwitz, where about 1 in 6 of all Jewish victims died, started off as a camp and became a killing facility in the late years of the war; it operated longer than the others because it was so far west.

Snyder concluded that to write the history of such a complicated and tragic period, it is necessary to come to terms with making comparisons: "If we understand these crimes better, we will then have a more solid basis to make comparisons…People have a clear conception of who was worse and who did what, and that prevents them from seeing some of the factual material." At the same time, one has to get over the taboo that you can't compare Hitler and Stalin, or Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Snyder observed that people in the Bloodlands had to decide whether to resist the regimes, to collaborate, or do neither—they compared the two regimes all the time. "And if we extract comparison in the sense of experience of both regimes, we are denuding historical reality of something that is very important. In this basic sense, to try to impose a taboo on comparison is to falsify the lives of the people who died in this region."

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more