December 23, 2010

Bloodlands

“MUST-READ” books about the past hundred years in the eastern half of Europe are a hotly contested category. I would put CzesÅ‚aw MiÅ‚osz’s Captive Mind in the top ten, with a Kundera novel, Akhmatova’s poetry, Mandelstam’s memoirs, Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich and Djilas’s New Class. Venclova and Brodsky need to be there too. So squeezing in someone from outside the region is hard. Anne Applebaum’s Gulag is a strong contender. So is Norman Davies’s history of Poland, or, going back a bit, Seton-Watson’s history of Central Europe. Yet my clearest candidate would be a book that was published only a couple of months ago: Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.

“MUST-READ” books about the past hundred years in the eastern half of Europe are a hotly contested category. I would put CzesÅ‚aw MiÅ‚osz’s Captive Mind in the top ten, with a Kundera novel, Akhmatova’s poetry, Mandelstam’s memoirs, Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich and Djilas’s New Class. Venclova and Brodsky need to be there too. So squeezing in someone from outside the region is hard. Anne Applebaum’s Gulag is a strong contender. So is Norman Davies’s history of Poland, or, going back a bit, Seton-Watson’s history of Central Europe. Yet my clearest candidate would be a book that was published only a couple of months ago: Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.


Timothy Snyder. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books, New York, 2010. 544 pages
“MUST-READ” books about the past hundred years in the eastern half of Europe are a hotly contested category. I would put CzesÅ‚aw MiÅ‚osz’s Captive Mind in the top ten, with a Kundera novel, Akhmatova’s poetry, Mandelstam’s memoirs, Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich and Djilas’s New Class. Venclova and Brodsky need to be there too. So squeezing in someone from outside the region is hard. Anne Applebaum’s Gulag is a strong contender. So is Norman Davies’s history of Poland, or, going back a bit, Seton-Watson’s history of Central Europe. Yet my clearest candidate would be a book that was published only a couple of months ago: Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.
This book is about a subject that is achingly familiar to those from the lands between the Baltic and Black Seas, yet largely unknown, or even outright denied, by those from outside the region. The subject is the political mass murders of 14 million civilians in about 15 years under the regimes headed by Hitler and Stalin. Though the systems were different, they coincided in space and time, connived and collaborated, and in some senses reinforced and mimicked each other.
It may be worth restating here how controversial that thesis is. For many in the West, history is still quite simple: “Hitler was the most evil man in the world and after he attacked us, we were losing. Then he attacked Stalin who helped us beat him. The Soviet system was horrible but at least they were brave and on our side.” For people who have spent decades thinking along these lines, it is quite a struggle to take in the idea that World War Two was not a fight between two sides, but between several, with the two worst  lots on opposite sides.
It was also quite a struggle persuading some of my colleagues at The Economist that Snyder’s thesis was even worth considering. Surely, they said, the Holocaust is unique and any attempt to “undermine” that uniqueness is tantamount to Holocaust denial. (To be fair, I also had to deal with colleagues who argued: “Everyone has read Norman Davies, so nothing about this book is new.”) In the event, The Economist ran my review as the lead article in its books section, at greater length than I can ever recall. It was also highlighted on the cover. Now the Financial Times and several other big British papers have put Bloodlands in their “books of the year”.
Grumbling about the book still continues in some quarters, so it is important to state (yet) again that Snyder is not contesting the central place of the Holocaust in the history of the 20th century, or its unique character. Nor is he even “relativising” it. That is a mistake—a bad one—currently being made in Lithuania, where a powerful historiographical current portrays the “red” and “brown” genocides as identical. That all too easily becomes a solipsistic exculpation of the darkest spots in Lithuanian history, on the lines of “yes, some Lithuanians killed Jews, which was bad, but then Jews killed Lithuanians”.
Such a parody ignores the wider picture: the greatest tragedy in European history was the attempted extermination, on an industrial scale, of the Jewish people. It is no insult to other victims—the Roma, mentally handicapped, homosexuals or communists—let alone to Lithuanians, to say that the scale of Jewish suffering was the greatest and the malevolence behind it peculiarly intense.
Nobody could accuse Snyder of failing to see the big picture. But he is good at painting small ones too. He is extremely careful in his book to put collaboration in the Holocaust in its proper perspective. He does not excuse what happened (and modern Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians should not want him to), but he does explain clearly the nature of multiple occupation and its effects. This, he writes,

made the experience of the inhabitants of these lands all the more complicated and dangerous. A single occupation can fracture a society for generations; double occupation is even more painful and divisive. It created risks and temptations that were unknown in the West. The departure of one foreign ruler meant nothing more than the arrival of another. When foreign troops left, people had to reckon not with peace but with the policies of the next occupier. They had to deal with the consequences of their own previous commitments under one occupier when the next one came; or make choices under one occupation while anticipating another. For different groups, these alternations could have different meanings. Gentile Lithuanians (for example) could experience the departure of the Soviets in 1941 as a liberation; Jews could not see the arrival of the Germans that way.

But this comes later on in the book. By the time Estonia is first mentioned, a quarter of the way through the book, Snyder has already described, in chilling and excruciating detail, the famine in Ukraine, which is so horrible that it makes the Baltic states’ fate seem quite mild by comparison.
I like to think I know Estonian (and Soviet) history pretty well. But I did not know, and I wonder how many Estonians have an idea of, the number of people executed in the Soviet Union during the 1930s for “spying for Estonia”. (You will have to buy the book to find out, but the number Snyder cites is far higher than I had thought possible). That fact crops up during his gripping and comprehensive account of the “class terror” and spy mania of the 1930s, with the millions of deaths they involved, and the arbitrary use of state power and perversion of the criminal justice system. These chapters include some telling examples of Soviet propaganda’s attempts to turn black into white. Young Ukrainian communists in the cities were taught that the starving compatriots in the countryside were enemies of the people “who risked their lives to spoil our optimism”.
Snyder also uses the early part of the book to make some crucial conceptual points and puncture some myths. A good example of this comes in the preface, in his treatment of Auschwitz. That multi-purpose slave-labour and extermination camp is the commonly held epitome of wartime evil. Yet far more Jews, most of them Polish, were gassed in other death camps whose names are less well known: Treblinka, CheÅ‚mno, Sobibí³r, and Bełżec. And even more were killed in pits and ditches, close to where they lived, and sometimes with the help of their neighbours. Snyder’s statistics are disconcerting to the lazy-minded, and skilfully deployed. If you have got Auschwitz, the single best-known “fact” of World War Two, a bit wrong, then maybe it is time to be a bit more questioning about other supposed certainties. 
Snyder makes another unsettling point for outsiders: that the Holocaust was not the end, but the beginning of Hitler’s murderous plans for racial supremacy. Having exterminated the Jews, he wanted to deal with the Slavs next. As Snyder writes, “If the German war against the USSR had gone as planned, 30m civilians would have starved in its first winter, and tens of millions more [would have been] expelled, killed, assimilated or enslaved thereafter.”
The Baltic States and the Holocaust takes up four pages of just over 400 in the main part of the book (which also has a further 150 consisting of its exemplary footnotes and bibliography). Snyder writes that: “as a result of trained collaboration and local assistance, German killers had all the help that they needed in Lithuania”. Even before the Nazis arrived, mobs whipped up by the German-backed émigré diplomat Kazys Å kirpa killed 2,500 Jewish fellow-citizens in pogroms: a shameful stain on Lithuania, yet dwarfed by the killing that went on later. Snyder does not ask the question, but I think it is worth considering, how a democratic and free post-war Lithuania, magically placed back on the map in 1945, would have regarded Å kirpa. Would he be put on trial as a war criminal? I can hardly imagine that he would not be, and justly convicted too. So it is troubling and puzzling that some people in a free and democratic Lithuania, magically back on the map after an absence of five decades, not five years, find it hard to condemn him now.
Latvia gets just a paragraph. The treatment of Estonia is only a bit longer. Snyder writes:

”¦ the sense of humiliation after the Soviet occupation was just as great as in Lithuania and Latvia, if not greater. Unlike Vilnius and Riga, Tallinn had not even partially mobilized its army before surrendering to the Soviets in 1940. It had yielded to Soviet demands before the other Baltic States, thus precluding any sort of Baltic diplomatic solidarity. The Soviets had [by 1941] deported some 11,200 Estonians, including most of the political leadership. In Estonia, too, Einsatzgruppe A found more than enough local collaborators. Estonians who had resisted the Soviets in the forests now joined a Self-Defense Commando under the guidance of the Germans. Estonians who had collaborated [Snyder’s italics] with the Soviets also joined, in an effort to restore their reputations.
Estonians greeted the Germans as liberators, and in return the Germans regarded Estonians as racially superior not only to the Jews but to the other Baltic peoples. Jews in Estonia were very few. Estonians from the Self-Defence Commando killed all 963 Estonian Jews who could be found, at German orders. In Estonia the murders and pogroms continued without the Jews. About five thousand non-Jewish Estonians were killed for their ostensible collaboration with the Soviet regime. 1

The Baltic States appear later in the book only briefly, in a paragraph about the post-war deportations. Some may sniff at what could seem like skimpy treatment. Yet Snyder reads (and in several cases speaks) Polish, Russian, German, French, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Czech, Slovak and French. It would be mean-spirited to blame him for not reading Lithuanian or Latvian, let alone Estonian and Finnish, which might have provided sources for a more sharply focussed “northern dimension” to his book. Given the nuance and subtlety with which he manages his material concerning the big countries he deals with, smaller countries must, I think, simply accept that their own tragedies are part of a bigger and still more ghastly mosaic.
I suspect that many of the western readers of Bloodlands, especially if they have not read works by Norman Davies and others, will find that it makes them see European history henceforth in a radically different light. They may have already grasped the dimensions of the Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian and Russian tragedies. But they may also understand for the first time that these stories fit together, sometimes converging, sometimes complementing each other. Such readers may also realise that the history of the 20th century is a deeply complicated and ambiguous story, not the cheerful schoolroom fairytale, part Casablanca and part Sound of Music, which long sustained their national self-image. In short: the door to their minds will be open. That creates space in which the Baltic States can tell their stories too. All we need is a historian to write it.
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1 Snyder’s cited source here is Murder without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust by Anton Weiss-Wendt.

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