Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
by Timothy Snyder
Published 2015 by Vintage
Even though I’ve read about WW2 many times previously and, after a point, it felt increasingly important to me to read more about the eastern front. But the reason behind why I wanted that was different – that this was where the greater war was fought and so less was generally available to be read, even though all the numbers that came out were way too huge. After reading this book, and I’ll be honest that I didn’t have the complete idea about what the eastern front actually meant to the war and what exactly happened there, it dawned that, more than the numbers and durations, this was actually the most fated part of the world soaked in blood and tears, a part that has been so out of the world’s folklore that we don’t ‘obviously’ know about it.
Bloodlands made me angry, sad, horrified, but beyond that, a lot more of a humble human being. It’s not a very easy read, obviously. The great number of lives that suffered and the reasons (and the ideas, the regimes, the killers) that made them suffer seemingly endlessly (or sometimes as quick and fast at thousands in a day) is beyond imagination. Every detail, small or big, is overwhelming.
The book generally takes into account the events that unfolded and future that beheld this land (post world war 1 until Stalin’s death), but specifically about a certain very specific period in history (1933-1945) for a certain very specific part of the world (Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics) for a certain very specific people (people who happened to live in this bloodland and of a certain racial/national distinction to the perpetrators) who still carry that history solely in their lives and deaths.
There are numbers. Numbers so big, as Timothy Snyder notices, that they are too big for simple humans to fathom or understand. The numbers being talked about is of actually human lives and deaths, such as 1 million+ at Leningrad, 780 863 at Treblinka, or 33 761 at Babi Yar, among many other such numbers. Hence, he provided numbers as small, Snyder cautions lest they become a context and implores you to remember them, as 1, such as Tania Savicheva or Dina Pronicheva’s mother, and 2, such as the married couple of Maria Juriewicz and Stanislaw Wyganoswski. The numbers in the middle, talking about the ‘industriousness’ of the perpetrators, such as, killing of 12-15000 jews in a 14hrs nazi workday in Treblinka and 20761 men killed in Moscow by one team of just 12 NKVD men. All kinds of numbers. Two things are certain though – these are the number of the people brutally killed in the bloodlands, and each of these numbers will leave you a little more shattered than before. The numbers are overwhelming but Snyder cautions the reader to not stop at them.
He aims seens to not have these number brushed away and forgotten, like they did until not too long ago (because a major part of these lands were still part of the Soviets – the communists of Soviet and the communists and nationalists of the rest had their own plans and purposes to play with the history for their own goals). He also wants to avoid shaking off the nazis and the stalinists by merely terming them inhuman or savages or anything but humans themselves. The aim of this history, as he points out, has to be avoiding another occurrence of something even resembling that worst part of human history, which can only be achieved when they are treated as humans and what led them doing it. So does he want the dead to remembered as those human beings in particular and their individual lives, rather than just another number part of all the big numbers. 14 millions in total were killed in that part of the Europe, each of them dead were living once. As Snyder says, how could so many of them be brought to such violent end?
He talks about the nations that were made into bloodlands, as well as the nations and its rulers (Hitler and Stalin) who burned these civilisations into ashes. He details the boundaries of these nations and the ideas of the 2 murderous regimes that moved them : both of them fluid and fragmented, in their own ways, so long the period of bloodlands lasted. Sometimes even after that.
Timothy Snyder has written an amazing book, as well as a very important one. A few things that stand out for the author and his book for me –
a) The narrative: that is unlike very many history books and would compel you to read on and on, despite the book detailing one of the most horrendous periods of humanity. As the matter of history books in general goes, a decent length history book with maps and numbers one would finish in a matter of days.
b) The purpose: He seemed to be on a mission and makes sure the reader gets it. I have read a few reviews on this book, which states that some names, numbers, and events are repeated. It does iInitially in the book, which can come across as a little off-putting, but later one knows that it was probably necessary. In the end, he concludes with his points even more precisely and, while doing so, he repeats those names and numbers again. By then, one knows what has he been talking about.
This is a very important book, for a very important and violent part of the history, the numbers and the context, but more for each one of those 14 million fateful normal lives in the bloodlands. Alarming and concerning is how a major part of this history was mostly lost from the world war II narrative for so long. And it remains so yet, for many of it parts.
Snyder aptly says this in his summary note:
Closure is a false harmony, a siren song masquerading as a swan song.