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Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands contextualizes the story of Eastern European Jewry’s sad fate without relativizing it

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The Soviet siege of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), April 1945. (Getty Images)

In the 20th century, two factors above all were predictors of violent death: living in a war zone and living under a totalitarian government. America, which fought wars but was never fought over and which enjoyed unbroken democratic rule, was one of the best places to be born; China, which experienced civil war, Japanese invasion, and Mao-sponsored famine and massacre, was one of the worst. But the very worst place, by this logic, was the region of Eastern Europe that includes Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. This area, caught between Germany in the west and Russia in the east, was the battleground for two world wars and suffered occupation by two tyrants. From 1920 to 1939, Ukraine and Belarus were part of Stalin’s Soviet Union. When the Second World War began, Poland was partitioned between Stalin and Hitler; then in 1941, when Hitler turned on his accomplice and invaded the USSR, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus all fell under Nazi control. This lasted until 1944, when the Red Army returned, bringing a liberation that was also a new imprisonment.

Each change of regime, each military campaign, brought death on a massive scale—from combat, but still more from imprisonment, massacre, deportation, and deliberate starvation. Between 1933 and 1945, 14 million civilians and prisoners of war were killed in this region. As Timothy Snyder emphasizes in his important new history, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, $29.95), this fantastic figure does not include combatants, even though half of all the soldiers killed in the Second World War, on all fronts around the globe, died in Eastern Europe.

What it does include, of course, are the 5 to 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, which took place exactly in the region that Snyder designates “the bloodlands.” Something like 40 percent of the civilians killed in the bloodlands were Jewish victims of the Germans and their collaborators. Or, as Snyder writes in another attempt to put the Jewish experience in perspective, “Jews were less than two percent of the population [of the USSR] and Russians more than half; [yet] the Germans murdered more Jewish civilians than Russian civilians in the occupied Soviet Union.”

“Jews were in a category of their own,” Snyder goes on to write. The language of history reflects this: We speak of the Holocaust as a unique event, in some way different from the mass killing that took place all around it. One of Snyder’s major achievements in Bloodlands is to preserve this sense of the singularity of Jewish experience, even while showing its complex relationship to the terrible experiences of the peoples among whom Jews lived. This is notoriously a very difficult thing for historians to do, and the ground Snyder covers in this book has often been the source of controversy and recrimination. To Jews, any attempt to put the Holocaust “in context” can sound like an attempt to diminish its importance, to relativize it.

Jews have also been troubled by any emphasis on the suffering of other nations under Hitler—of Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Lithuanians—because collaborators of all these nationalities played a crucial role in the murder of the Jews. Indeed, the Holocaust could not have happened without the participation of the Slavs. To take just one of the countless illuminating statistics in Bloodlands: In Lithuania, the German unit (Einsatzkommando) in charge of killing the Jews of Kaunas “numbered only 139 personnel, including secretaries and drivers, of which there were forty-four.” Yet between June and December of 1941, such small units managed to kill 114,856 Lithuanian Jews. Clearly, the work of killing was done mainly by native Lithuanians: The Nazis “had as many helpers as [they] needed,” Snyder writes.

Yet Snyder also does justice to the experiences of the Slavic peoples, which were often as terrible as the fate suffered by Jews. The first chapter in Bloodlands is titled “The Soviet Famines,” and it centers on Ukraine in 1932-33, where more than 3.3 million people died of starvation. This is half as many as died in the Holocaust; and while they died of hunger, rather than gassing or shooting, they were deliberately killed by Stalin just as surely as the Jews were by Hitler. Snyder explains why and how, “facing no external security threat and no challenge from within, with no conceivable justification except to prove the inevitability of his rule, Stalin chose to kill millions of people in Soviet Ukraine.”

The reason was, first, economic. Intent on industrializing the Soviet economy, the Communists seized food from the peasants of Ukraine—the Soviet Union’s “breadbasket”—in order to sell it abroad, thus earning the money to pay for foreign technology and industrial equipment. In other words, there was never really a food shortage in the USSR; Stalin could have stopped the famine simply by stopping food exports. Adherence to Marxist ideology—which saw the urban proletariat as a more revolutionary class than the rural peasantry—led Stalin to make war on one section of his own population. In this way, Snyder shows, Communism led to the same kind of ideologically inspired killing as Nazism, though the victims were defined more by class than by ethnicity.

Yet Stalin did also practice what Snyder calls “National Terror,” in addition to “Class Terror.” He persecuted the Poles of the Soviet Union because of his fear of Poland, against which the USSR had fought a war in 1920, and the secret police fed these fears by inventing ludicrous conspiracy theories about Polish espionage. In 1937-38, during the Great Terror, almost 700,000 Soviet citizens were killed; of these, 85,000 were Poles, even though Poles made up less than one half of 1 percent of the Soviet population. Similar atrocities were directed against Lithuanians, Koreans, and other peoples who could theoretically look to a foreign state as a protector. Snyder convincingly argues, in the last chapter of Bloodlands, that the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism after 1948 can be seen as a late example of this kind of national terror. Once the Jews of the USSR could look to Israel as a homeland, Stalin began to see them as another potential threat. Before he died, in 1953, he encouraged the concoction of the “Doctors’ Plot,” which accused Jewish doctors of medically murdering high-placed Soviet officials—possibly as a prelude to another mass purge.

The relationship between Jews and Communism is probably the most explosive of all the subjects Snyder addresses, and here he benefits most from the strengths he shows throughout the book—deep learning, wide compassion, and clear, careful moral judgment. To this day, there are some in Eastern Europe who continue to minimize, or explain, or even justify the Holocaust by pointing to the atrocities inflicted on their own peoples by so-called Jewish Communists. Snyder shows the reasons why this line of argument has found adherents, especially in the war years. It was never true that most, or even many, Jews were Communists; but it is true that many prominent Communists were Jews. Maxim Litvinoff, the Soviet foreign minister during the 1930s, was Jewish—Stalin dismissed him in 1939 when he made his alliance with Hitler, in deference to Nazi anti-Semitism. Lazar Kaganovich was one of Stalin’s most loyal enforcers and played a major role in both the Ukrainian famine and the Terror.

Jews were also disproportionately represented in the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. There were historical reasons for this, which Snyder might have stated more explicitly: It was the experience of Tsarist anti-Semitism that led so many Jews to feel that Communism was their best hope. But in the 1930s, the association of Communism with Jews—fed by Hitler’s propaganda, which referred incessantly to “Judeo-Bolshevism”—made it dangerously easy for many Eastern Europeans to see patriotism, anti-Communism, and anti-Semitism as part of the same package. The fact that one of the last acts of the Soviet regime in Poland and the Baltics, before the Germans arrived in 1941, was to massacre political prisoners only added fuel to the flames. By the time the Nazis arrived, these conditions made many Balts and Slavs feel that killing Jews was somehow striking a blow for their national dignity.

While Snyder explains the feelings behind this view, he also scrupulously shows that it was factually baseless. There was, of course, no connection between massacring Jewish women and children and resisting Soviet power. What’s more, Soviet Communists were themselves active persecutors of Jews, especially in Poland. As Yehuda Bauer showed in his recent study The Death of the Shtetl, Soviet rule everywhere destroyed Jewish civilization: No one was more viciously opposed to Judaism and Jewish culture than Jewish Communists. And, of course, only a small fraction of Jews were Communists at any time, in any sense; more were socialists or Zionists. Still, the association of Jews and Communism lingered even after the war, when some of the Communist rulers imposed by Stalin on Eastern Europe were Jews.

Lithuanian or Ukrainian nationalists who helped the Germans kill Jews, hoping that it would serve their own causes, were quickly disabused. When Snyder turns from the Soviet to the Nazi side of the story, he shows that the Holocaust of the Jews was not the only genocide the Nazis had in mind. They had similar plans for the whole of Eastern Europe, involving the mass murder and starvation of Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. In accordance with Nazi racial theory, these peoples were to be reduced to slavery, in the service of German settlers who would turn the whole of Eastern Europe into an Aryan agricultural empire. If the German Army had captured Moscow in the fall of 1941, knocking the USSR out of the war as Hitler intended, the Nazis planned to starve 30 million people to death so the invaders could feed themselves.

When the invasion stalled, the Nazis decided to focus on the one aspect of their “utopia” it was still in their power to achieve: the extermination of the Jews. “The Final Solution,” Snyder writes, “was the one atrocity that took on a more radical form in the realization than in the conception. Soviet Jews were supposed to work themselves to death building a German empire or be deported further east. This proved impossible; [so] most Jews in the East were killed where they lived.” Four of Snyder’s 11 chapters are devoted primarily to the Holocaust, a measure of how central it was to the fate of the “bloodlands.” Indeed, anyone who wants to fully comprehend the Holocaust—at least, as far as it can be comprehended—should read Bloodlands, which shows how much evil had to be done in order to make the ultimate evil possible.

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The ‘soundbite figure’ of 6 million Holocaust victims appears to be, according to latest research, a conservative estimate.
Catholic priest Patrick Desbois has uncovered over 800 mass extermination sites, more than two-thirds of them previously unknown.
The Times reported last year: “As his work in the Nazi killing fields continues, he is convinced that the figure for the number of Jewish dead will have to be revised upwards.
‘Surely at the end of it all the numbers will be larger,’ Father Desbois said, ‘but we are still inspecting sites in Belarus and there is the vastness of Russia ahead of us.’”
So, while, strictly speaking, it is not inaccurate to say that “5 to 6 million” Jews perished in the Shoah it sends out the wrong signals at the wrong time.
It suggests that the death toll is open to revision down from the figure commonly associated with the Holocaust at a time when the 6m figure is open to assault from deniers of various hues – and at a time when, if anything, the figure needs to be revised upwards.

allenby says:

I’d like to make a small correction:

Although Lithuania has been closely tied to Poland and Russian influences over many centuries, Lithuanians are NOT “Slavs”.
They have their own culture entirely different from Slavic countries.
Lithuanian language has nothing in common with Slavic languages and is considered an oldest surviving Indo-European language. Some words in Lithuanian even resemble words in Sanskrit and Latin.

Chana Batya says:

@allenby: does this make the Lithuanians less complicit in their crimes against the Jews? Not Slavic, true. Anti-Jewish, also true. Complicit with the Nazis? True again. Your point illustrates the concept of distinctions without differences.

Judging by the comments on I got an impression that this is one of the books which is trying to promote the so-called idea of two evils (pretty popular nowdays), intended to whitewash nazi collaborators by equating their crimes with the crimes of the Soviet secret police NKVD. It puts on the same scale those who served Nazis with those who fought against them, those who ordered to build death camps with those who ordered to bomb Dresden. If this is true, if indeed the author is trying to promote in his book such idea he must be confronted by all means, even he writes positively about Jews, because such description of history is highly inaccurate, dishonest and, ultimately, anti-Semitic.

Chana Batya says:

@gene: I agree that this historical relativism is sickening. Enough! Some crimes, some people, are just worse than others. Dresden vs. Auschwitz, no contest, right? Not for me, anyway.

What we have been spared so far, and may not be much longer, is the comparison of the Jews who were pressed into service in concentration camps and ghettos, with non-Jews who did the same. Jews who selected other Jews for deportation? Who collaborated just a little bit, perhaps to save themselves, perhaps because they thought they were sacrificing a few to spare more? Who knows, but we know that some did, and thankfully none of those unfortunates has been prosecuted for this, whereas non-Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, etc., who assisted the Nazis in their evil were prosecuted as war criminals. The “just following orders” excuse which Nurenberg did NOT accept from them, was the same defense as that offered by Jews: I had to, they made me, if not me then someone else perhaps less humane. These are not black and white issues in the slightest, and I’m waiting for certain other groups to start proposing this argument (except that it’s becoming moot). I have read, written by a Jew, that no one who survived the Holocaust is did so without doing something of which they are ashamed.

We need to be concerned for comparisons that are invalid (Nazis vs. Nazi fighters; the London vs. the Dresden blitz and so on) yet I worry about this as well: Jews who could have died rather than allowing others to be killed; were there no war criminals who made the same choice, to live by allowing others to die, even by killing others?

John Bias says:

I know Hasatan is Fallen Angel’s name is Heylel (Hasatan) cause many wars… Our Master Hashem’s Son Jesus (Yeshua)Christ will save Jew People in Israel from many armies trying to against Israel in last of days……………………….

Chana, we have two issues here: Jews, who collaborated with Nazis to save their own lives, and Jews who fought Nazi collaborators (including Jews) as part of the Soviet oppressive apparatus since Soviet Union fought Nazi Germany at that time as well. These Jews served either in the Red Army (majority) or in the Soviet secret police (minority) NKVD and participated in all good and bad deeds of these two organizations.
The theory of “two evils” states that Soviet occupation and oppression of Balts and Ukrainians was no different from the Nazi oppression of Jews and therefore we must prosecute not only Nazis but Soviet collaborators as well (usually Jews and Jews only) and with the same severity since their crime against native population was no different from the crimes committed by the natives against Jews.
Such approach to the history is highly inaccurate and immoral and inflammatory and should be confronted. Its purpose is to use lies and distortions in order to whitewash Nazi criminals and justify slaughter of millions of people.

David Bennett of Ottawa, Canada, wrote the following in a letter to the editor, published in the current, 12/23/10, issue of the New York Review of Books (at p.101): “This systematic murder of selected ethnic groups in an artificially engineered program [Germany’s death factories] puts some German atrocities in a different category from the Soviet, just as we (in an analogy, not a comparison) distinguish the heinousness of murder from that of manslaughter. Both sides killed people because they were in the way, politically suspect (this very loosely defined), or an inconvenience. Some of the vast numbers the Germans killed were systematically murdered because of who they were.”

Timothy Snyder’s response to Mr. Bennett’s pointing out how the Holocaust was different: that the murders by Germans of Poles, and as a result of the starvation by the USSR of its own citizens, were often deliberate and carried out as planned, while Germany’s plans for the Jews were not fulfilled as originally intended. The response seem unclear, at best, or evasive.

The one-column advertisement for Bloodlands, at p. 3 of the NYRB, clarifies. Its first forty lines highlight several individual instances as examples of Stalin’s mass starvation of three million Ukrainians and Nazi Germany’s murder of Poles and four million Soviet citizens; the last five lines relates a Jewish death.

The letter to the editor exchange is at

ThrueToHistory says:

Some factual corrections.
In the 20est century Ukraine and Belarus were parts of Russia all the time except for German occupation in 1918 and from June 1941 until their liberation in 1943/43.
As to the military casualties of WWII, USSR suffered 65%-75% of total military deaths in the war. That makes it over 10,000,000 men and women.
Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, so called the Baltic republics have absolutely no ethnical connections with Slaves. At the same time, due to their geography there were under influence and occupation of their stronger neighbors, Russia, Poland and Germany (Prussia).
Talking about the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s one should be more accurate in using the term “killing”. The catastrophic death rates were a by product of Stalin’s idea to make farmers a proletariat by forcing farm collectivization. This idiotic idea combined with the bad crops devastated and killed by starvation millions. Unlike the Holocaust it was not a planned deliberate ethnic extermination.
The main reason for collectivization was ideological. Communism did not believe and trust private property. Second was the decline in crops. Soviet leaders believed that it was intentional by private farmers as part of their goal to starve the centers of the revolution. Russia was at war from 1914 to 1922. First WWI then the revolution and the civil war with foreign intervention. As a result the economy was devastated. The League of Nations refused to provide the economic help. The industrial development of Soviet Russia was financed by selling gold reserves, museum arts, seizing private treasures and oil sells.

ThrueToHistory says:

The attempt to connect the Jewish support of the Bolsheviks to anti-semitism in the areas in question is popular yet without merits and is a result of a shallow approach. It is primarily the result of thousand years of the church (catholic and greek-orthodox) presentation of Jews as Christ killers. Hundreds of years before communism surfaced during the Ukrainian revolt of Khmelnitsky against Polish rule the Jewish population in the area were desecrated. The pogroms repeated themselves as the centuries passed. As the area came under control of the Tsarist Russia the Jewish residence were limited to small geographical areas. BTW the Jewish religious leadership supported this policy as a way to keep the community together. It continued up until the first Russian revolution of 1917. This concentration of the Jewish population supported the development of anti-semitism and in a way made Nazis work easier. The Jewish areas were plagued with poverty, unemployment, government oppression and deceases. It is only natural and logical that so many Jews joined the revolutionary movements. They joined many anti-tsar parties. Just to mention the Bond, the social-revolutionary party, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The Jews simply wanted human rights as the opposite to tsarist oppression. The discrimination was abolished at least for the first 20 years of communist regime in Russia. Yet it continued to a lesser degree in the areas under control of independent Poland.
Last but not least. The Nazis never intended to deport Jews further to the East. That was the plan for the Slavs. Jews were destined for the extermination from day one. The Jewish population in the areas occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939-40, as a result of the infamous agreement with the Nazis, benefited by having almost 2 more years of life in peace and mainly by having the opportunity to escape the invasion deep into the Soviet Union. Unfortunately too many didn’t do it for too many reasons.

Richard J. Evans’ review in the London Review of Books (11/4/10 issue) states the problem with Snyder’s book:

“It was the comprehensive European, even global scale of the Nazis’ intentions towards the Jews that marked out the genocide from other mass exterminations of the period, or indeed any period. By addressing Nazi anti-semitism almost entirely in the context of Hitler’s plans for Eastern Europe, and drawing rhetorical parallels with the mass murders carried out on Stalin’s orders in the same area, Snyder distracts attention from what was unique about the extermination of the Jews. That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on. There was something peculiarly sadistic in the Nazis’ desire not just to torture, maim and kill the Jews, but also to humiliate them. SS men and not infrequently ordinary soldiers as well set light to the beards of Orthodox Jews in Poland and forced them to perform gymnastic exercises in public until they dropped; they made Jewish girls clean public latrines with their blouses; they performed many other acts of ritual humiliation that they did not force on their Slav prisoners, however badly they treated them in other ways. The Slavs, in the end, were for the Nazis a regional obstacle to be removed; the Jews were a ‘world enemy’ to be ground into the dust. By focusing exclusively on what he calls the ‘bloodlands’, Snyder also demeans, trivialises or ignores the suffering of the many other Europeans [not only Jews, as Evans explains later] who were unfortunate enough to fall into Nazi hands. …”

Norman Davies defends Snyder, claiming that “his main offence seems to be that of challenging the magic circle of German and Holocaust interests which have dominated the landscape in recent decades.” (LRB 12/2/10).


Maybe Adam Kirsch should reconsider.

For a detailed examination of one example of what’s at issue in the revisionist rewriting the Holocaust as only one part (and not the largest part) of a “double genocide”, see Dovid Katz’s “Why red is not brown in the Baltics,” in the Guardian’s “Comment is free” blog at

Antony Polonsky says:

Anyone wishing to obtain an understanding of the scope and content of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands should read the book for himself. The account of the book in Richard Evans’s review (LRB, 5 November) gives no idea of what Snyder is undertaking, calling into question his remarkable ability to compare the mass murders carried out by the Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships and his empathy for victims of this terrible bloodletting. It is also not correct that Snyder downplays the importance of the Holocaust, which is dealt with in three separate chapters.
Evans sharply attacks Snyder’s treatment of the origin and implementation of the policy of mass murder of the Jews. There is a vast literature on this topic on which Richard Evans is an acknowledged expert. It is however unfair to claim that Snyder misunderstands this literature. He does not claim, as did Arno Mayer and Philippe Burrin, that the policy was adopted in revenge for the German setbacks outside Moscow in December 1941 as Evans asserts. Following Christopher Browning, he sees the adoption of this policy as the result of the euphoria of victory between September and October 1941.

He also attacks Snyder for emphasizing the undoubted sufferings of the Poles at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler. This is certainly an important feature of the book, but it should be stressed that Snyder is also strongly critical of the strategy of the Polish underground which led to the disaster of the Warsaw Uprising. In addition, his figures for Polish casualties are lower than those usually cited and reflect the most recent research. He estimates Polish non-Jewish civilian deaths at German hands at around a million and at Soviet hands at around 100,000. A further million died ‘as a result of mistreatment and as casualties of war’. (p. 406)

Robinsky says:

“Bloodlands” is a very thorough study of mass murder that took place between Poznan and Smolensk. I like the fact that Snyder tried to present the individual life stories, in addition to dry numbers and statistics. I was shocked to learn that up to 40% of generals of NKVD (Soviet equivalent to Gestapo) and up to 60% in Ukraine were Jews! Nation that endured so much sufferring had also so many members responsible for mass murder of Ukrainians, Belorussians,Poles and other Jews. There is no simple or easy way to understand the War and its cruelties.

I’ve said that least 2035297 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands contextualizes the story of Eastern European Jewry’s sad fate without relativizing it

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