Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe reviews Timothy Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’


by Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe (Berlin)

Review of Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Basic Books: New York 2010. This review first appeared in German in H-Soz-u-Kult (online version here; PDF here). This English version and publication in are by authorization of the author and H-Soz-u-Kult, which has kindly supplied the following copyright notice: Copyright © 2011 by H-Net, Clio-online, and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact H-SOZ-U-KULT@H-NET.MSU.EDU.


“The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Soviet Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces” (p. xi) ― as defined by Timothy Snyder, a territory where between 1933 and 1945 approximately 14 million people were killed by the Nazi and Soviet regimes (p. 409). “In the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic states, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia” (p. xi). “The bloodlands were no political territory, real or imagined; they are simply where Europe’s most murderous regimes did their most murderous work” (p. xviii). Snyder’s task is to “turn the number back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity” (p. 408).

Snyder attempts to implement the project in eleven chapters. He begins with the presentation of the famine in the Ukrainian SSR in 1932-1933, when 3.3 million people died. The author concedes that the famine was the result of the first Five Year Plan, in which agriculture was forcibly collectivized. Snyder argues that Stalin wanted to thereby solve the problem of nationalism in the Ukrainian SSR (pp. 24, 43-44 ). The political objective was also the class of kulaks, an ideological enemy which the Soviet dictator contrived to liquidate with the help of scheduled food deprivation and deportations (p. 25).

The famine was caused by Bolshevik forces, who confiscated all food and all the seed grain of the farmers. The author describes in this chapter some gruesome details, such as the widespread cannibalism and the human flesh trade (pp. 48-52): “One six-year-old girl, saved by other relatives, last saw her father when he was sharpening a knife to slaughter her” (p. 50). With the description of the watchtowers, from which young Communists guarded the land of the starving peasants, Snyder draws parallels between the famine and the Holocaust (pp. 39, 45), but does not explicitly equate them. He does however metaphor Ukraine as “a giant starvation camp with watchtowers” (p. 45).

The Great Terror of 1937-1938, during which the NKVD liquidated 681,692 people (p. 107), is the next level of terror in the bloodlands (p. 81). “A team of just twelve Moscow NKVD men shot 20,756 people at Butovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, in 1937 and 1938” (p. 83). The largest national group among the victims of terror comprised Poles, on account of whose “espionage” 143,810 people were arrested and 111,091 executed.

Subsequently, Snyder investigates the consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was followed by the occupation of the Second Polish Republic, in its west by Nazi Germany and in its east by the Soviet Union. So, in September 1939, the number of Jews in the German Reich and under Nazi administration was increased manifold (p. 131), which significantly impacted the search for a feasible solution to the so-called “Jewish question”. The Soviet Union deported from the occupied territories around 315,000 people of various nationalities and arrested 110,000, of whom about 30,000 were shot and another 25,000 perished in prisons (p. 151). During that period, the two regimes seemed to “complement” each other in their murderous endeavors, as can be seen for example in the 78,339 people who were deported in June 1940 by the Soviets to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Eighty-four percent of these deportees were Jews, who had fled the Nazis to the Soviet Union in September 1939 (p. 141).

This all changed with the advent of the German-Soviet war on 22 June 1941, when the German Einsatzgruppen began the systematic mass killings of Jews (pp. 191-193, 198-200). The murder of 5.4 million Jews, most of whom were Polish or Soviet citizens, is described by Snyder as objectively and comprehensively as other atrocities committed by the Nazis and Soviets in the bloodlands: He embeds the Shoah in the extermination of 14 million victims of the bloodlands. He also explains how the plans of the Nazi leadership to solve the “Jewish question” by means of a Jewish reservation in Lublin, Madagascar or Birobidzhan morphed in the summer of 1941 into mass shootings and the first “experimental” gas trucks in the “death factories” (pp. 144, 185).

Hunger as a weapon of mass destruction was used in the bloodlands a second time after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. Between summer 1941 and 1944, 4.2 million Soviet citizens starved to death under German occupation (p. 411); 2.6 million of them were Soviet prisoners of war. All in all, some 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war were killed by the Nazis (p. 184). In Belarus, under the rubric of “anti-partisan” activities, 320,000 people were killed, very few of whom were actually partisans (p. 250). Cities such as Warsaw, Minsk, and Leningrad lost half their population within a short period of time (p. 309).

In the subsequent sections of the book, the author discusses “ethnic cleansing” and the forced relocations, as a result of which several million German, Poles, Ukrainians and others were driven from their homes. Moreover, in the final chapter he deals with rampant antisemitism in the postwar Soviet Union and Poland, a disconcerting phenomenon most particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Towards the end of the discussion, the author expresses the conviction that “the image of the German concentration camps as the worst element of National Socialism is an illusion” (p. 382) because “by the time the gas chamber and crematoria complexes at Birkenau came on line in spring 1943, more than three quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead”. Over 90% of all people who were murdered by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the bloodlands were already dead by the time the “death factories” were put into operation (p. 383).

Although Snyder declares his opposition to the “international competition of martyrdom” and the “romantic justification of mass murder” (p. 401), some issues in his study arise precisely in these areas. The author is indeed most critical of nationalism, but repeatedly makes use of the terms of nationalist discourse such as those of “independent Ukraine” (e.g., p. 407).

As an aside it could be mentioned that the concept of “bloodlands” cannot stand without a legitimizing narrative. The embedding of the 14 million victims of the bloodlands within the 55 million victims of the Second World War leaves the special status of the bloodlands open to question.

In describing the fate of Polish and Soviet prisoners of war, moreover, Snyder gives the impression that the killing of Polish prisoners, embodied by the word Katyn as a central concept in Polish national mythology, was the most dramatic event, while in reality the number of Soviet prisoners of war killed was more than one hundred times higher (pp. 133-141 and 175-186).

The book’s main problem lies in the exclusion from the investigation of those forms of terror that emanated neither from the Soviet nor the Nazi side, but from the collaboration of various ultranationalist, antisemitic and fascist groups with the Nazi regime. In contrast to the passing over of Polish collaboration,  the author did not omit the collaboration of Balts and Ukrainian fascist-nationalist organizations such as the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists).1 Yet, he ascribes to them little. This could be justified if one uses number alone as the only guideline, because these groups actually caused far fewer total casualties than the Nazis and Soviets. But this obscures the killing methods of these groups and movements, plays down their involvement in the Holocaust, and trivializes their ideology. However there are documented cases in which Jews fled into labor camps controlled by the Nazis to escape the terror of the Ukrainian “freedom fighters”.2

Given the strong focus on the collective suffering and the patriotic struggle of Poland under Hitler and Stalin, it seems almost uncomfortable for the author to document the widespread antisemitism of the lower layers of the leadership of the Home Army (AK).3

For these and analogous reasons, the history of terror in the bloodlands under Hitler and Stalin is more ambiguous, diverse and complicated than presented by the author, without any major challenges to the numbers presented.


1 For Polish collaboration with Nazi Germany, see for example Klaus-Peter Friedrich, “Zusammenarbeit und Mittäterschaft in Polen 1939-1945” in: Christoph Dieckmann, Babette Quinkert, Tatjana Tönsmeyer (eds.), Kooperation und Verbrechen. Formen der „Kollaboration“ im östlichen Europa 1939-1945, Göttingen 2003, pp. 113-150.

2 Archiwum Instytutu Żydowskiego Historycznego, 301/3337, Hilary Koenigsberg, p. 14.

3 Frank Golczewski, “Die Heimatarmee und die Juden” in: Bernhard Chiari (ed.), Die polnische Heimatarmee. Geschichte und Mythos der Armia Krajowa seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, München 2003, pp. 635-676, esp. p. 664.


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