The Death by Martyrdom of Millions and the Perspectives of Theoretical Reflections

August 2011
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Timothy Snyder. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

 

What is said here obviously will echo the many reviews already written about Timothy Snyder’s book, especially those by Volodymyr Ryzhkovsky and John-Paul Himka in Krytyka.1 Possibly it will partially duplicate their thinking but, overall, I deliberately familiarized myself with their thoughts only after I had formed my own.  It is difficult for me to judge the accuracy of this decision, but I wish to emphasize it.

Timothy Snyder’s book tells the history of the intentional murder of fourteen million people in the heart of Europe carried out by the Nazi and Soviet regimes.  The title of the work proposes a new metaphor for the designation of the region where these killings took place:  “Bloodlands”.  This is an analogy to the widely used and still fashionable concept of borderlands, the territory “from central Poland to the west of Russia, which completely encompasses Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States.”  Snyder emphasizes that specifically these expanses are not a ”political territory, real or imagined; they are simply where Europe’s most murderous regimes did their most murderous work” [p. xviii].

Snyder notes that the Jewish Holocaust, other mass Nazi killings, and the crimes of Stalinism became three different histories, even though they took place on the same territory and at the same time. He attempts to adjust this view, integrating Eastern European experience to general European history.  Specifically, his book always strives to demonstrate a special sensitivity, even empathy, to the East European experience:  the double occupation, first Soviet, then German, which created risks and temptations unknown in the West [p. 190], and made possible such paradoxical situations as the acceptance into Belarus partisan units, headed by Jewish commanders, close to twelve thousand former policemen, who were made to participate in the extermination of Jews, but who left the German service after news about the Battle of Stalingrad [p. 243]. 

The author declares his dedication to three research imperatives:  no historical event is beyond understanding; consideration of the possibility of alternatives and correct chronological attention to all elements of Stalinist and Nazi politics are necessary; research attention cannot be concentrated only on one persecuted group – on the contrary, it is necessary to bring together the many histories and memories [xix].  That is why Snyder describes the inter-war political situation in Europe and the obvious geopolitical balances, before turning to the history of the Soviet famine, class and national terror, the “Europe of Molotov-Ribentropp”, the “final solution of the Jewish question”, and the death factories.

Snyder’s book is more than an academic monograph; this is an attempt at a massive synthesis, based upon a solid knowledge of this subject in multilingual sources. Also this is an example of stylistically impressive and openly involved historical writing, which adheres to a few narrative strategies.  One of these is the use of numbers, with the purpose of raising the established stereotypical view of history (understandably, this is primarily about the stereotypes held by Western culture).  For example, the author writes that in the late 1930s, the Soviet system of concentration camps was approximately 25 times larger than the German one at the time, and none of the repressive operations of Hitler’s Germany could even approach the Soviet...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka