Hardly anyone ever thinks about Minsk, an omission for which there are plenty of good reasons. The weather is unpleasant, the architecture brutal, the country obscure, and—because Belarus has spawned neither émigrés nor much in the way of modernity—Minsk seems stuck in history without memory. This gap in memory is important because, during a particular moment in time, the 1930s and ’40s, Minsk and some similar places in far eastern Europe—Kharkiv, Wola, Vilnius—all mattered very much. Kharkiv in the Ukraine was deliberately starved twice—by Stalin in 1933, and then by Hitler in 1942—as two competing empires sought to separate its people from their valuable grain. In Wola, the notorious Nazi Dirlewanger brigade, made up of ex-criminals, set fire to three hospitals, burning alive those inside; in factories, they shot thousands of workers at a time. In Kiev in 1941, 30,000 Jews were summoned for deportation, stripped naked, commanded to lie on the edge of a ravine, and shot, often falling onto the dead bodies of those who had preceded them an hour or two earlier. In Minsk, the next year, the occupying Nazi forces demanded 5,000 Jewish heads a day; if the quota was not met with adults, they began shooting children.
The iconography of the two, overlapping terrors of those years—first, Stalin’s mass killing campaigns from the east, and then Hitler’s holocaust from the west—does not owe much to these places. For Hitler, we think first of the mechanized butchery of Auschwitz and the other European concentration camps; for Stalin, we think of the show trials, and the long, trudging exile to gulags in Siberia or Kazakhstan. But if we were to simply count the number of people slaughtered in those years, the camps and the gulags would account for a surprisingly small number. Of the six million Jews murdered during Hitler’s campaigns, two-thirds were killed before Auschwitz opened, in 1943, and more Jews were killed in mass shooting campaigns than in mechanized camps. Of the twenty million murdered by Stalin, only three million went through the gulags. Nearly seven million perished in the starvation campaigns in the Ukraine in a single year, 1932–33. As the tallies mount, these totalitarian terrors begin to look different, in subtle but important ways: less ideological, less organized, and more horrifying. They look, in other words, less Western.
For many years, the history of these places was locked behind the Iron Curtain and unavailable to Western researchers. But they are available now, and the young Yale historian Timothy Snyder, having made his way through them, has emerged with a subtly reshaped version of the history of these two regimes that places the sweep of land from the Baltic to the Black Sea (present-day Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine) at its center. Snyder calls this territory “the Bloodlands,” and his new book of the same name, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, is deeply arresting and provocative. For several decades— from Hannah Arendt forward—these terrors have looked like the product of separate visions of Utopia gone horribly awry, the sick consequences of modernity. Perhaps, Snyder suggests, modernity had very little to do with it.
The unhappy geographic accident of the Bloodlands is that its inhabitants were, in the early twentieth century, forced to choose between the two belligerent empires butting up against them—Germany from the west, and the Soviet Union from the east. These in-between places were ethnically mixed if not quite cosmopolitan, with Ukrainians living in Poland, Poles in the Ukraine, Jews and Russians everywhere. Snyder constructs these two terrors as part of the same, linked history, with the victims of mass murder returning a few years later to avenge their dead by participating in mass murders of their own.
In Snyder’s writing, we discover an unexpectedly imperial history. The two great, competing powers of eastern Europe, operating from Moscow and Berlin, each dreamed of empire but lacked colonies, in part because they lacked imposing navies. What was available to them was the Bloodlands, and so they sought to build their colonies there.
Snyder begins this brutal history with Stalin’s collectivization campaign in the Ukraine, in the early 1930s. The Soviet Union, hoping to build an empire but lacking any overseas territory, wanted to maximize the production of the fertile Ukraine, and worked to drive Ukrainian peasants off their land. The Soviets set rigid harvest quotas and, when the peasants failed to meet them, took the seed grain and collectivized the farms. They forbade anyone from leaving the area, erecting watchtowers and high fences to keep the farmers in. Nearly three million Ukrainians were sent to the gulags. When the low yields continued, Moscow, declaring that the peasants were holding out on them, sent brigades through the countryside, hut to hut, confiscating any seed grain they could find. Food became so scarce, and cannibalism was so rampant—siblings eating the youngest among them, parents leaving instructions that their bodies be eaten when they died—that a black market arose in human flesh. In the Ukraine alone, 3.3 million people died of forced starvation that winter.
Campaigns of this kind of brutality spawned deep, murderous resentments, and, later that decade, the Soviets became worried that resentment might lead to revolution. In 1937 and 1938, Stalin’s government began a mass killing campaign targeted at the remnant peasant class, and executed 386,000 of its own citizens, simply for having once owned land. Posters showed peasants crushed under tractor wheels, under the headline “We will destroy the peasants as a class!” But most of these peasants were also Ukrainian, and the Soviets began to fear that a national counterrevolution might be in the offing. The Soviet intelligence chief for the Ukraine, Vsevelod Balytski, told Stalin that the famine was the doing of Polish intelligence agents. Moscow launched a shooting campaign against suspected Polish intelligence agents that soon grew to encompass virtually any ethnic Pole. Similar campaigns against Belorussian, Latvian, Ukrainian, and Japanese nationals followed; in all, 700,000 died. What had begun as a Marxist campaign against a class had become ethnic cleansing. The grip of racial thinking in eastern Europe was so strong that not even communism could weaken it.
Snyder’s focus on the fields where the killings were carried out, rather than the halls where they were organized, leads him to emphasize the second advantage the Bloodlands had to offer. “Both [the Nazis and the Bolsheviks] wished to control and exploit the Ukrainian breadbasket,” Snyder argues, “and both caused political famines: Stalin in the country as a whole, Hitler in the cities and the prisoner-of-war camps.” And, as he points out, they also wanted the buffer that Poland could provide.
Hitler’s mass murders were not merely evidence of madness elevated to ideology, writes Snyder, but a means to an end— ethnic cleansing as a way of sedating conquered territories. Snyder emphasizes Generalplan Ost, the never-realized Nazi program for the colonization of the western Soviet Union, which foresaw fifty million deaths by starvation as calories from the Ukraine were diverted to Germany itself.
There was a certain mad logic at work here, and it is notable that Hitler’s mass killings began in Poland with a decapitation of the elite, in whom the aspirations for a Polish nation resided. By early 1940, Hitler told his deputies that Polish “leadership elements” had to be “eliminated.” In towns all of the men were ordered to report to a public square, and then were shot. Psychiatric hospitals were emptied, either by shooting or by gassing the patients, techniques that would later be perfected in the concentration camps. Educated Poles were deported west by the tens of thousands, to prison camps closer to Germany, and thousands of others froze to death.
This campaign against the Poles took place largely in 1940, when the Germans felt empire to be their manifest destiny. (The metaphor of America’s earlier expansion westward into fertile lands fit Hitler’s imagination so precisely that he invoked it repeatedly, declaring that the Volga would soon be Germany’s Mississippi River.) But by 1941, as the United States entered the war in the west and Nazi armies bogged down around Moscow and Leningrad, the Germans themselves were far less confident of victory. It was in this moment, Snyder argues, that the first mass killing campaigns against the Jews began—as a demonstration of the possible, of what parts of the Nazi vision for imperial domination could be rescued once empire looked less certain.
Earlier schemes had emphasized the deportation of Jews, and their isolation in ghettos; there were even ambitions to relocate Jews to Madagascar. Those soon disappeared. “In the summer and autumn of 1941, Himmler ignored what was impossible, pondered what was most glorious, and did what could be done,” Snyder writes. “Himmler made the Final Solution more radical, by bringing it forward from the postwar period to the war itself, and by showing (after the failure of four previous deportation schemes) how it could be achieved: by the mass shooting of Jewish civilians.” Touring the conquered east, Himmler emphasized that Jewish women and children were to be shot along with men. Seventy-two thousand Jews from Vilnius were taken to the Ponary Forest in Lithuania and shot. Near Riga, with the assistance of local police and militiamen, the Germans were able to kill “at least 69,750 of Latvia’s 80,000 Jews” in four months. More than 23,000 Jews, many of them recently expelled from Hungary, were shot in the course of four days in fields in the western Ukraine. About a million Jews were murdered by German forces in the conquered east between the summer of 1941 and the end of the year, nearly all of them in mass shooting campaigns. “All in all,” Snyder writes, “as many if not more Jews were killed by bullets as by gas.”
The efficiency of the killing machine escalated. Studying the Polish facility Belzec, Snyder believes that 434,508 of the Jews deposited there by train were killed. The statistics at another facility, Sobibor, were similar. By the end of the war, 20 percent of the prewar Jewish population of Belarus had been slaughtered. There were plans to subdue the western Soviet Union by starving it—fifty million would be killed. “Auschwitz is only an introduction to the Holocaust,” Snyder writes, “[and] the Holocaust only a suggestion of Hitler’s final aims.”
In this mass of death, Snyder insists on the logic of the murderers, in search of empire in the east, hindered by the complicated ethnic arrangements and allegiances of the land they hoped to rule: “Their motives for mass killing, however revolting, made sense to them.”
In September of 2009, Snyder published an essay in the New York Review of Books laying out the arguments that now appear in Bloodlands, and even the title made it obvious that he had sighted big game: “Holocaust: The Ignored Reality.” The existing view of the Holocaust, Snyder wrote then, “is in fact only the beginning of knowledge, a hint of the true reckoning with the past still to come.”
Snyder is, unfortunately, least convincing when he is most ambitious. In many ways this is a consequence of Snyder’s focus—his presentation of the motives of Stalin’s and Hitler’s decision makers seems willfully slender. The killing fields can tell you an awful lot, but Snyder also wants them to explain why, and when he does you see the signs of strain. Historians have already taken issue with Snyder’s account of the origins of the Holocaust of Jews— his argument that it was an attempt to salvage something from a lost war—and the evidence he presents to support such a sweeping claim is remarkably thin.
But the starkest moments come from Snyder’s bottom-up tabulation of death, and as the numbers mount, they begin to show the killings in a new light. The number of cosmopolitan, western European Jews who were exported to the east and slaughtered in camps were dwarfed by the far-larger numbers of Jews on Europe’s eastern margins who were simply shot in fields, or starved in ghettos. Stalin’s victims, in the final accounting, included only a small number of political targets. Snyder’s archival work emphasizes that these slaughters have often been understood as the consequences of modernity—and of the modern state— gone mad. Those elements persist in Snyder’s writing, but they seem quieter, and the mass killings themselves look far more brutal and tribal.
For contemporary political reasons, I am rooting for Snyder’s historical amendments to take hold. In the fall of 2009, I spent a couple of weeks on assignment in the Sudan, writing a story about the aftermath of the Western intervention in the mass killings in Darfur. I met with Ghazi Salahuddin, a medical doctor by training and an apologist for a genocidal regime. Ghazi is slight, fastidious, and clearly more intelligent than the retired general whom the Obama administration sent to negotiate with him. We talked in a sandstone apartment on the banks of the Nile, Khartoum bursting all around us with oil money.
There had indeed been crimes committed in Darfur, Ghazi said, horrible crimes even; but there had been no genocide. I asked where he drew the line. “I think with a genocide you know a genocide when you see it,” he replied. What he meant was that there had been nothing like Auschwitz or the gulags, no modern technology of mass death. “In Darfur there is nothing like that. You cannot single out one mass grave. You cannot produce a list of those who died in the genocide.”
The images Ghazi had in mind when he thought about genocide were those of the sick, mechanized progress of trains toward Auschwitz’s ovens. He flattered himself that his government had committed crimes of a different kind. But the mass murders carried out by the Sudanese government in Darfur —like those committed by many other Third World governments—were identical to the murders committed by Hitler’s troops and Stalin’s agents in the Bloodlands. I don’t pretend that anything would have turned out differently in Sudan if Ghazi had known that his government’s genocide looked exactly like those perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin. But at least he would not have been able to enjoy the self-deceiving solace that his government had been in any meaningful way less monstrous.