- Book Review Index
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. New York: Basic Books, 2010. 524 pp. $29.95.
Timothy Snyder tells us that “Europe’s epoch of mass killing is overtheorized and misunderstood” (p. 383). In the large region he designates as the “bloodlands”—Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states—he tallies fourteen million politically motivated murders attributable to Stalin and Hitler, ranging from the collectivization-induced Ukrainian famine of 1933 to the post-Holocaust east-central European ethnic cleansings of 1945–1947. The Jewish Shoah, by Snyder’s reckoning, claimed 5.4 million victims. He defines his project thus: “I wish to test the proposition that deliberate and direct mass murder by these two regimes in the bloodlands is a distinct phenomenon worthy of separate treatment” (p. 411).
Snyder aims to reveal a “belligerent complicity” between Stalinist and Hitlerian mass murder (p. 392). The West German “historians’ quarrel” erupted over conservative historian Ernst Nolte’s 1986 proposal to derive Nazi genocide from German reactions to Bolshevik violence, a thesis massively rejected by liberal-minded scholars. (Nolte’s book, Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, 1917–1945: Nationalsozialismus und Bolshevismus  is absent from Snyder’s pages, as are important works of Nazi-Soviet comparison by Enzo Traverso , Jörg Baberowski and Anselm Doering-Manteuffel , Dietrich Beyrau , and Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin .)
Snyder’s pursuit of mutually reinforcing aspects of Hitlerian-Stalinist terror leads him to reject one-sided methodological “intentionalism”—oddly mislabeled as “institutionalism” (p. 484)—which ascribes the Holocaust to belief-driven Nazi premeditation. Instead, Snyder joins leading present-day scholars, stressing the emergence of systematic genocide from a center-periphery dynamic in 1941 between Hitler and his ground-level agents in previously Soviet-held eastern Europe (pp. 214ff). Snyder understands his contribution to lie in showing how this dynamic emerged under the influence of the previous practice of communist violence in the Soviet-occupied “bloodlands.”
The affinity between Snyder’s and Nolte’s theses might discomfit, but his question is legitimate. He cites Nazi-encouraged willingness in 1941 among inhabitants of the previously Soviet-ruled “bloodlands” to stage pogroms against local Jewish populations, and their subsequent passive toleration or active support of Nazi exterminism. This Snyder attributes to “psychic nazification,” resulting from exposure to Soviet violence—terroristic imprisonment, deportations, mass shootings, class-targeted famine (p. 196)—ascribable in both Nazi and east European anti-semitic discourse to “Jewish Bolshevism.”
Still, the Holocaust was “Himmler’s success” (p. 189), not the Stalinism-traumatized east Europeans’. More important in Snyder’s telling was the impact on the invading Germans of Soviet violence’s evidence—corpse-strewn prisons, societies demoralized and dismembered by ethnic cleansing and “liquidations” of “class enemies.” In response, “German forces of order [sic] could present themselves as undoing Soviet crimes even as they engaged in crimes of their own.” The traumatized scene they encountered “seemed to be a confirmation of what they had been trained and prepared to see: Soviet criminality, supposedly steered by and for the benefit of Jews” (p. 197).
This helps explain how “ordinary men,” viewing their surroundings through anti-communist, antisemitic lenses, could participate in genocidal murder. It is a point familiar from Christopher Browning’s writings, and also Peter Longerich’s important“Davon haben wir nichts gewusst!” Die Deutschen und die Judenverfolgung 1933–1945 ( 2007). But a massive caveat looms against any argument that exposure to Soviet practice triggered Nazi genocide: already in fall 1939, in Nazi-occupied western and central Poland, public mass murder commenced of civilians, the victims numbering in the tens of thousands. This was the work both of the German army and the newly unleashed SS “task forces” (Einsatzgruppen), targeting the Polish population, including Jews. When in 1941 the Nazi occupation of the formerly Soviet-held “bloodlands” commenced, German soldiers and policemen in occupied eastern Europe were psychically acclimated to mass murder, without having had first-hand experience of Stalinist violence. This inescapable fact undercuts the causal significance Snyder attributes to the German encounter with Soviet communism.
Snyder also explains mass murder in the totalitarian realms in comparable but causally autonomous terms. Both Hitler and Stalin preached “a transformative utopia”—Aryan empire and classless communist paradise. Each stigmatized “a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible”—“the Jews” and, in the Soviet Union, “kulaks,” “foreign agents,” and “saboteurs.” Each embraced “a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory. . . . In both collectivization and the Final Solution, mass sacrifice was needed to protect a leader from the unthinkability of error” (p. 388).
This foray into social psychology is argued by assertion rather than empirical demonstration. It is not Snyder’s stated central thesis, yet it is, finally, his principal explanation for Stalinist and Hitlerian mass murder. Many scholars will find sufficient grounds for these crimes in the interactions of dictatorial center and bureaucratic periphery, in ideological intoxication and practical dilemmas of labor mobilization and provisioning of captives, in reckless zeal for “gigantist” social engineering, whether racist-imperialist or communist, without hypothesizing a need for mass sacrifice to sustain a leader’s infallibility.
Snyder sets forth exhaustively his statistics of “bloodlands” victimhood. Some readers will be surprised to learn the extent of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Polish losses. Though, as he says, “the right number is not enough,” he is inclined to dismiss analytical frameworks and denigrate “theory” (p. 407). He inveighs against “the comforting clichés of the sociology of mass murder,” without specifying them (p. 251). His book bursts with pathos-laden details of the disparate victims’ excruciating suffering, humiliation, and death. Snyder underscores the perpetrators’ unambiguous moral guilt, incurred through clear-eyed embrace of self-righteous ideologies of ostensible self-defense against supposedly inhuman enemies (cf. pp. xviii and 399-402).
The one theorist Snyder seriously engages is Hannah Arendt, but his understanding of her work does not tally with her text on totalitarianism. He takes her as an analyst of “alienation” and “modernity.” Yet these are highlights not of Arendt’s philosophy but of Marxism and classical sociology, the Frankfurt School and Foucault, and the Holocaust-oriented writings of such recent theorists as Detlef Peukert and Zygmunt Bauman. None of the central texts of these interpretive currents figure in Snyder’s book. Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) especially is glaringly absent. What Snyder finds “comforting” in these works is hard to fathom.
Perhaps he expresses conventional liberal-empiricist unease with what are taken to be the “inevitabilities” and “determinism” of such large-scale theorizations as “modernity.” Yet Snyder himself conjures with liberal, fascist, and communist conceptions of modernity (pp. 156, 479-480). He concedes, as he takes Arendt to be arguing (though she refrained from theorizing modernity as such), that totalitarian mass murder “was a sign of some deeper dysfunctionality of modern society” (p. 383). He associates his notion of “psychic nazification” with Arendtian alienation, but sees the next “logical move” in “claiming that the overlap of both “totalitarian” powers plays the historical role that Arendt assigns to modernity” (pp. 485–486).
Arendt derived twentieth-century political mass murder from the absorption of pseudo-scientific racial thinking into war-igniting western imperialism, from the ethnocentrism of the mass-mobilized nation-state and resultant exile of rejected human populations into the fatal limbo of dehumanized statelessness—and, too, from widespread popular anxiety and radicalization in crisis-ridden industrializing society. In confining the traumas of modernity to the east European “bloodlands”—will this designation not seem injurious to the people who inhabit these spaces?—Snyder seems to absolve the rest of the world of its contributions to the “horror of the twentieth century” (p. xiii).
William W. Hagen
University of California, Davis