Sunday, October 13, 2013

Completed: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin


I've read some depressing books. Even some very depressing books. But I don't think there's anything I can do describe just how bleak of a read Bloodlands is...but I'm going to try. (I don't mean to laugh, but apparently my go to adjective for depressing is "brutally." For this book, I'm going to need new adjectives.)

That dark line on the map is the Molotov-Ribbentrop line through Poland.

I guess the reason this book garnered so much attention is that it did something most other books didn't: it looks at where Stalin and Hitler's spheres of influence overlapped, and talked about the effect it had on the region, which the author describes as the Bloodlands. Most books talk about either Hitler or Stalin. Snyder's argument is that the policies of each dictator enabled and allowed the work of the other. Rather than just doubling the pain and agony of the people in the Bloodlands, they created something of a multiplier effect.

The Bloodlands is roughly comprised of Eastern Poland and what was then Western Soviet Union: Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia. In the 12 years from 1933-1945, Stalin and Hitler were responsible for the deaths of 14 million civilians in the Bloodlands. Again...civilians. This number is not counting ANY military casualties. We're strictly talking about unarmed men, women, and children. FOURTEEN MILLION PEOPLE, KELLY. FOURTEEN. MILLION. This book describes the "deliberate killing policies" put into place by Stalin and Hitler that caused those deaths. As Snyder says, "German and Soviet occupation together was worse than German occupation alone. The populations east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, subject to one German and two Soviet occupations, suffered more than any other region of Europe" (344).

The reason the people in the Bloodlands were hit so hard was because they were essentially "invaded" three separate times. First, in the 1930s, Stalin pushed westward, gobbling up the Baltic States. Eventually, he and Hitler formed a secret pact that eliminated Poland as an independent country,  and they split down the middle with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Line. Up through World War II, Stalin controlled the area to the East of the line, while Hitler controlled the West. But in 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, pushing across the Molotov-Ribbentrop line and occupying the Bloodlands. Finally, in 1945, Hitler was defeated, and Stalin once again reclaimed the area as Soviet territory.

Basically, there were a couple major ways these mass killings were implemented in the Bloodlands. The first was starvation. In 1933, Stalin collectivized the farms of the Ukraine, which is apparently the California of Europe. Everything grows there and it is the breadbasket of the continent. Stalin took the grain from the peasants who grew it, sending it to cities or exporting it for profit. That winter, at least 3.3 million Ukrainians were deliberately starved by the government.  As you can imagine, this was a harrowing part of the book. Because Stalin had such absolute control over the entire State, he was able to keep peasants from stealing grain to eat. Imagine exporting the grain that could save starving people in your own country.

When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, he envisioned a quick lightning strike that would net an easy victory. He wanted the plentiful farm lands of western Russia for German settlers, but knew he would have to get rid of all the people there. There was an actual starvation plan in place, and in the end 4.2 million Soviet citizens were starved out by the Germans between 1941 and 1945.

The second major strategy was shooting. In the Bloodlands, Stalin had at least 700,000 of his own citizens shot in the Great Terror of 1937-38. The Germans shot at least another 200,000 Poles in occupied Poland between 1939-1941. Another 700,000 civilians from Belarus and Warsaw were shot between 1941-1944. There's some awful stories of how it was done that I will spare you from. But apparently there was no shortage of bullets in the Bloodlands.

Finally, of course, there were the gas chambers of the Germans. Once Hitler realized that he would not win in Russia, he implemented the Final Solution, which started out as a plan for mass deportation, and instead become one of mass killing. 5.4 million Jews were gassed or shot in the Holocaust, along with other ethnic groups depending on the location of the killing camps.

Again, and for the sake of empahsis: although the author briefly touches on military casualties,  especially the appalling treatment in Nazi and Soviet prisoner of war camps, all of these deaths were strictly civilian. (Current estimates for TOTAL worldwide deaths as a result of WWII are as high as 60-80 million.)

In lieu of more summarizing, I'll now share some quotes with you that I marked in the book. It's just so powerful, and I know I cannot do it justice. I'll start with some mind blowing ways of looking at the numbers. I don't have much to add, which is sort of lazy, but it's just astounding to see the way these millions of people suffered.

The twenty-second of June 1941 is one of the most significant days in the history of Europe. The German invasion of the Soviet Union that began that day was much more than a surprise attack, a shift of alliances, or a new stage of the war. It was the beginning of a calamity that defies description. The engagement of the Wehrmacht with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers... the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and three million prisoners of war (155).

Ruthlessness is not the same as efficiency, and German planning was too bloodthirsty to be really practical...The problem for the Germans was rather that the systematic starvation of a large civilian population is an inherently difficult undertaking, it is much easier to conquer territory than to redistribute calories" (168).

As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War (182).

Traditional empires had never done anything like this to Jews. On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed in pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire (227).

By the end of the War, some eight million foreigners from the East, most of them Slavs, were working in the Reich. It was a rather perverse result, even by the standards of Nazi racism: German men went abroad and killed millions of "subhumans," only to import millions of other "subhumans" to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves---had they not been abroad killing "subhumans" (246).

By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country" (251).

One of the major themes of the book is that the true extent of mass killings in the Bloodlands was hidden from history because the major killing fields were behind the Iron Curtain. All of the major death sites, POW camps, concentration camps, etc, were controlled by the Red Army. The American and British forces were on the Western Front and approaching Germany, but the major killing was done on the Eastern front. Snyder writes, "When an international collective memory of the Holocaust emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it rested on the experiences of German and west European Jews, minor groups of victims, and on Auschwitz, where only about one in six of the total number of murdered Jews died...nearly five million Jews were killed east of Auschwitz, [along with] nearly five million non-Jews" (377). He continues later to explain that "in a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps" (382). In this way, the history was astounding to me. The gas chambers that we so strongly associate with the Holocaust were a second act, a follow-up to the main event, which was mass shootings. There were other death camps of the Nazi regime, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek. At these death camps, there were literally no survivors. Blezec and Sobibor had mortality rates of 99.99%. If you got sent there, you were killed. No one survived, and only due to Nazi record keeping do we know the numbers killed there.  We know about Auschwitz because it was a hybrid camp, with both gas chambers and workers. People **survived** Auschwitz and lived to tell about it. But by the time the gas chambers opened at Auschwitz in 1943, "the tremendous majority of all the people who would be killed by the Soviet and Nazi regimes, well over 90%, has already been killed" (383).

I feel I have run out of steam on this review. It was a great book, but not an easy one.


1 comment:

  1. Whoa. That one definitely looks like a tough read. It is amazing how much of this information seems to be lost (at least, unknown to the general public... meaning: people who do not go digging for it), especially when you consider how recently this all happened. It's only been about 70 years! Heck, my grandmother (who is still alive!) served in that war.

    Really makes me wonder about how much other history is lost/unknowable as one goes back further in time. Of course, my history knowledge is atrocious (and not going to improve this year as I have booted Don't Know Much About History once again...) so thanks, as always, for taking the hit for me -- I'll continue to learn history via your book reviews (this way, I don't have to read the horrific descriptions. I'm a wuss. I'll take it.) (No pressure, though!)