- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2010

By Timothy Snyder
Basic Books, $35.95, 524 pages, illustrated

Virtually every adult in the Western world is by now aware of the barbarities committed by Hitler’s Germany. A smaller number recognize that Stalin also was guilty of many atrocities. What Yale professor Timothy Snyder has now provided is a detailed recounting of the massive bloodletting in the lands between Germany and the Soviet Union before and during World War II.

The author believes that between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi and Soviet regimes together murdered some 14 million civilians of both sexes. But the circumstances varied widely, as did the motives behind the bloodletting. Hitler, of course, was committed to the extermination of the Jews, but Stalin’s targets were more diverse, and his motives were often ideological rather than racial.

The author’s “Bloodlands” comprise a broad swath from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea, including Poland, western Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine. Much of the book focuses on the period of World War II, but Mr. Snyder begins with Stalin’s war against the Kulaks (well-to-do peasants) and the deliberate abetting of starvation in the USSR’s agricultural south. Ukrainians in particular were considered resistant to collectivization, and therefore to be destroyed.

A Ukrainian doctor wrote to a friend in 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” Mr. Snyder believes that terror in the USSR far exceeded that in Germany. He writes, “Nothing in Hitler’s Germany remotely resembled the execution of nearly four hundred thousand people in eighteen months” under Stalin. But Hitler would soon catch up. “On any given day in the second half of 1941,” Mr. Snyder writes, “the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire.”

The country most affected by German-Soviet rivalry was Poland. An August 1939 pact between Germany and the USSR divided most of the country into German and Soviet spheres, sectors that came into being following the twin invasions of Poland from the east and west in September. The Nazi occupation began a period of unspeakable horror for the Poles. The Germans brought in special operational units to seek out Jews and other potential dissidents and to implement summary executions.

Conditions in the Soviet occupation zone were only marginally better than those under the Germans. Some Polish troops had resisted the Soviet occupation, and when the Soviets encountered resistance their response was instant retaliation.

The Katyn Forest massacre in the spring of 1940 provided a remarkable instance of Soviet brutality. At that time, some 22,000 Poles, most of them army officers, were seized and transported to the remote area of Katyn. There the prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and were killed with a shot to the head.

Hitler’s own interest in ethnic cleansing was reflected in the German campaign against Leningrad. In December 1941, with his troops invested about the city, Hitler ordered that Leningrad be obliterated by bombing, shelling and starvation; no surrender was to be accepted. As a result, the city underwent a siege of 900 days in which as many as 1 million people are believed to have died.

Warsaw’s fate was equally grim. By July 1942, the Germans had begun moving residents of the Warsaw ghetto to the death camp at Treblinka. Seeing their fate as inevitable, the 60,000 who remained in the ghetto determined to resist; they manufactured arms and created underground bunkers. For some six weeks, the defenders held off the attacking Germans, but the battle eventually claimed the lives of 14,000 Jews.

The fate of Poland’s Jews was scarcely worse than that of prisoners of war on both sides. Mr. Snyder estimates that the Germans shot some 500,000 Soviet prisoners, and that they killed some 2.6 million more by starvation or mistreatment during transit. By treating Soviet prisoners abominably, Mr. Snyder writes, Hitler sought to ensure “that German soldiers would fear the same from the Soviets, and so fight desperately to prevent themselves from falling into the hands of the enemy.” The death rate eased only when the Nazis discovered a labor shortage at home and chose to employ Russian prisoners as slave labor.

Statistics are an important part of Mr. Snyder’s narrative, but he does not forget that every number was once a human being. In the Ukraine, Stanislaw Wyganowski foresaw that he would meet his wife, already in custody, “under the ground.” Both were shot in 1937. The author tells how Junita Vishnaitskaia, a Jewish woman in Minsk, wrote to her father in July 1942, “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because [the Germans] throw small children into the mass graves alive.”

This book is a grim but important read. The short lesson to be derived from it is that the Russians were almost as bad as the Germans. In a more philosophical vein the author concludes, “The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate. It is for us scholars to seek these numbers and put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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