Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

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Americans call the Second World War “The Good War.” But before it even began, America’s wartime ally Josef Stalin had killed millions of his own citizens—and kept killing them during and after the war. Before Hitler was finally defeated, he had murdered six million Jews and nearly as many other Europeans. At War’s end, both the German and the Soviet killing sites fell behind the Iron Curtain, leaving the history of mass killing in darkness.

Bloodlands is a new kind of European history, presenting the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of a single history, in the time and place where they occurred: between Germany and Russia, when Hitler and Stalin both held power. Assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, Bloodlands will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the central tragedy of modern history.


“If you want to understand the real history of what is going on between Ukraine and Russia and the West, you have to read this harrowing history. Between 1943 and 1945, 14 million people died in Eastern Europe, killed by Stalin or Hitler. Snyder explains why and how this part of the world became the 20th century’s hell hole.” — Fareed Zakaria GPS, Book of the week

“Timothy Snyder…compels us to look squarely at the full range of destruction committed first by Stalin’s regime and then by Hitler’s Reich. Each fashioned a terrifying orgy of deliberate mass killing.... Snyder punctuates his comprehensive and eloquent account with brief glimpses of individual victims, perpetrators and witnesses.” — New York Times Book Review

“Between 1933 and 1945, 14 million people were murdered in Eastern Europe. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin catalogues how, where, and why these millions died. The cumulative effect makes you reconsider every aspect of modern Europe and World War II. Along the way, Snyder achieves something more vital: he wrests back some human dignity for those who died, without treating them solely as victims.” — The New Republic, Editors' Picks: Best Books of 2010

“Snyder’s research is careful and thorough, his narrative powerful.... By including Soviet with German mass atrocities in his purview, Timothy Snyder begins the necessary but as yet still taboo examination of the full depravity of total war as it was practiced in the 20th century, before the advent of nuclear weapons foreclosed it.” — Washington Post

“How Stalin and Hitler enabled each other’s crimes and killed 14m people between the Baltic and the Black Sea. A lifetime’s work by a Yale University historian who deserves to be read and reread.” — The Economist, Books of the Year
“[A] superb and harrowing history.... Snyder presents material that is undeniably fresh – what’s more, it comes from sources in languages with which very few western academics are familiar. The success of Bloodlands really lies in its effective presentation of cold, hard scholarship, which is in abundance.” — The Financial Times

“In this scrupulously researched history.... Snyder does not argue for a supposed moral equivalence between Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and the earlier Stalinist extermination of the kulaks. On the contrary, the industrial exploitation of corpses and their ashes was a uniquely Hitlerian atrocity—a unique instance of human infamy. Nevertheless, this is the first book in English to explore both German and Soviet mass killings together. As a history of political mass murder, Bloodlands serves to illuminate the political sickness that reduced 14 million people to the status of non-persons.” — Ian Thomson, Telegraph (UK)

“Snyder is perhaps the most talented younger historian of modern Europe working today. Astonishingly prolific, he grounds his work in authoritative mastery of the facts, mining tomes of information in multiple languages and brilliantly synthesizing his findings. At the very least, Bloodlands is valuable for its astounding narrative integration of a gruesome era of European history.... A preternaturally gifted prose stylist, [Snyder] strives for a moral urgency appropriate to his depressing topics, and he rarely succumbs to bathos.... [B]y any measure Bloodlands is a remarkable, even triumphant accomplishment.” — Samuel Moyn, The Nation

“[A] genuinely shattering report on the ideology, the political strategy, and the daily horror of Soviet and Nazi rule in the region that Timothy Snyder calls the bloodlands.... Timothy Snyder did archival research in English, German, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Russian, and French. His learning is extraordinary. His vivid imagination leads him to see combinations, similarities, and general trends where others would see only chaos and confusion.... This is an important book. I have never seen a book like it.” - The New Republic, Istvan Deak

“[G]ripping and comprehensive.... Mr. Snyder’s book is revisionist history of the best kind: in spare, closely argued prose, with meticulous use of statistics, he makes the reader rethink some of the best-known episodes in Europe’s modern history…. Even those who pride themselves on knowing their history will find themselves repeatedly brought up short by his insights, contrasts and comparisons.... Mr. Snyder’s scrupulous and nuanced book steers clear of the sterile, sloganising exchanges about whether Stalin was as bad as Hitler, or whether Soviet mass murder in Ukraine or elsewhere is a moral equivalent of the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews. What it does do, admirably, is to explain and record. Both totalitarian empires turned human beings into statistics, and their deaths into a necessary step towards a better future. Mr. Snyder’s book explains, with sympathy, fairness and insight, how that happened, and to whom.” — The Economist

“[A] brave and original history of mass killing in the twentieth century.... Snyder’s original contribution is to treat all of these episodes—the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust, Stalin’s mass executions, the planned starvation of Soviet POWs, postwar ethnic cleansing—as different facets of the same phenomenon. Instead of studying Nazi atrocities or Soviet atrocities separately, as many others have done, he looks at them together. Yet Snyder does not exactly compare the two systems either. His intention, rather, is to show that the two systems committed the same kinds of crimes at the same times and in the same places, that they aided and abetted one another, and above all that their interaction with one another led to more mass killing than either might have carried out alone.” — Anne Applebaum, New York Review of Books

"Bloodlands does what every truly important book should: It makes us see the world differently.” — Wall Street Journal

“Timothy Snyder has written a nuanced, original and penetrating analysis of Europe’s twentieth century killing fields between Russia and Germany, drawing on many little-known sources. History of a high order, Bloodlands may also point us towards lessons for our own time.”—Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies, University of Oxford, and author of The File

“For over a decade in the middle of the twentieth century, the lands between Russia and Germany were the killing fields of Europe. Tens of millions of civilians from Poland to Ukraine, Lithuania to Belarus were starved, beaten, shot and gassed to death by the authorities and armies of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. We think we know this story and we assign it shorthand labels: Auschwitz, the Gulag. In his path-breaking and often courageous study of Europe’s ‘bloodlands,’ Timothy Snyder shows how very much more complicated the story was. His account of the methods and motives of murderous regimes, both at home and in foreign war, will radically revise our appreciation of the implications of mass extermination in the recent past. Bloodlands – impeccably researched and appropriately sensitive to its volatile material – is the most important book to appear on this subject for decades and will surely become the reference in its field.”—Tony Judt, author of Postwar and Ill Fares the Land

“A brilliant, important and highly original look at a swath of territory that includes not only Poland but also Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states.”—The Jewish Journal

“Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is not a book whose time has come; it is a book whose time is long overdue. The sooner this volume is absorbed by a wide East European readership, the more likely real headway will be made in ‘resetting’ some of the region’s most enduringly acrimonious bilateral relationships.”—The Moscow News

“We see the dilemmas and horrors facing those who inhabited the bloodlands – how they survived, collaborated, resisted, loved, hoped, watched, lived and died. [Snyder] tears the historical narrative from the hands of Stalin and Hitler, and places it in the hands of the victims. This is all underscored by Snyder’s powerful prose: He is not only a skilled historian, who brings together hundreds of sources in several languages, but also a sharp and moving writer.”—The Kiev Post


from the Preface to Bloodlands

“This is a history of political mass murder.  The fourteen million were always victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them.  A quarter of them were killed before the Second World War even began.  A further two hundred thousand died between1939 and 1941, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were not only at peace, but allies.  The deaths of the fourteen million were sometimes projected in economic plans, or hastened by economic considerations, but were not caused by economic necessity in any strict sense.  Stalin knew what would happen when he seized food from the starving peasants of Ukraine in 1933, just as Hitler knew what could be expected when he deprived Soviet prisoners of war food eight years later. In both cases, more than three million people died.  The hundreds of thousands of Soviet peasants and workers shot during Great Terror in 1937 and 1938 were victims of express directives of Stalin, just as the millions of Jews shot and gassed between 1941and 1945 were victims of an explicit policy of Hitler.

War did alter the balance of killing.  In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was the only state in Europe carrying out policies of mass killing. Before the Second World War, in the first six-and-a-half years after Hitler came to power, the Nazi regime killed no more than about ten thousand people.  The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of a million.  German policies of mass killing came to rival Soviet ones between September 1939 and June 1941, after Stalin allowed Hitler to begin a war.  The Wehrmacht and the Red Army both attacked Poland in September 1939, German and Soviet diplomats signed a Treaty on Borders and Friendship, and German and Soviet forces occupied the country together for nearly two years.  After the Germans expanded their empire to the west by invading Norway,Denmark, the Low Countries,and France in 1940, the Soviets occupied and annexed Lithuania,Latvia, and Estonia.  Both regimes shot educated Polish citizens in the tens of thousands and deported them in the hundreds of thousands.  For Stalin, such mass repression was the continuation of old policies on new lands; for Hitler, it was a breakthrough.

The very worst of the killing began when Hitler betrayed Stalin and German forces crossed into the recently-enlarged Soviet Union in June 1941.  Although the Second World War began in September 1939 with the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, its bloody essence was the German-Soviet conflict that began with that second eastern invasion.  In Soviet Ukraine,Soviet Belarus, and the Leningrad district, lands where the Stalinist regime had starved and shot some four million people in the previous eight years, German forces managed to starve and shoot even more in half the time.  Right after the invasion began, the Wehrmacht began to starve its Soviet prisoners,and special task forces called Einsatzgruppen began to shoot political enemies and Jews.  Along with German Order Police, the Waffen-SS, and the Wehrmacht, and with the participation of local auxiliary police and militias, the Einsatzgruppen began that summer to eliminate Jewish communities as such.

The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmachtand the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces.  Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early1940s, this meant Poland,the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia.  Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany.  But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany.  The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps.  But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died.  These are the misunderstandings that prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century.

Germany was the site of concentration camps liberated by the Americans and the British in 1945;Russian Siberia was of course the site of much of the Gulag, made known in the West by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  The images of these camps, in photographs or in prose, only suggest the history of German and Soviet violence.  About a million people died because they were sentenced to labor in German concentration camps  — as distinct from the German gas chambers and the German killing fields and the German starvation zones, where ten million people died.  Over a million lives were shortened by exhaustion and disease in the Soviet Gulag between 1933 and 1945 — as distinct from the Soviet killing fields and the Soviet hunger regions, where some six millionpeople died, about four million of them in the bloodlands.  Ninety percent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive.  Most of the people who entered German concentration camps (as opposed to the gas chambers, death pits, and prisoner-of-war camps) also survived.  The fate of concentration camp inmates,horrible though it was, is distinct from that of those many millions who were gassed, shot, or starved.

The distinction between concentration camps and killing sites cannot be made perfectly: people were executed and people starved in camps.  Yet there is a difference between a camp sentence and a death sentence, between labor and gas, between slavery and bullets.  The tremendous majority of the mortal victims of both the German and the Soviet regimes never saw a concentration camp.  Auschwitz was two things at once, a labor camp and a death facility, and the fate of non-Jews seized for labor and Jews selected for labor was very different from the fate of Jews selected for the gas chambers. It thus belongs to two histories, related but distinct.  Auschwitz-as-labor-camp is more representative of the experience of the large number of people who endured German (or Soviet)concentration, Auschwitz-as-death-facility is more typical of the fates of those who were deliberately killed.  Mostof the Jews who arrived at Auschwitz were simply gassed; they, like almost all of the fourteen million killed in the bloodlands, never spent time in a concentration camp.

The German and Soviet concentration camps surround the bloodlands, from both east and west, disguising the pure black with their shades of grey.  At the end of the Second World War, American and British forces liberated German concentration camps such as Belsen and Dachau, but the western allies liberated none of the death facilities.  The Germans carried out all of their major killing policies on lands subsequently occupied by the Soviets.  The Red Army liberated Auschwitz, and it liberated the sites of Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełżec, Chełmno and Majdanek as well. American and British forces reached noneof the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites.  It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed,leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the cold war and the opening of the archives.  It is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long.  The photographs and films of German concentration camps were the closest that most westerners ever came to perceiving the mass killing.  Horrible though these images were, they were only hints are the history of the bloodlands.  They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction.”

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