NOTE: This review appeared today in East European Jewish Affairs under the title “Detonation of the Holocaust in 1941: A Tale of Two Books” (proof as PDF).
Not for the first time, two fine historians have published in the same year their very different syntheses for the wider public, on the same topic, and based largely o known published sources, both having long proven their mettle as master researchers in previous publications rooted in archives and primary documents. On this occasion the resulting contrast is unusually startling. One of these books, Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between, is a meticulously balanced and historically authoritative, but conventional and somewhat lackluster history that will appeal to lecturers looking for a solid textbook on twentieth-century East European history and, of course, history buffs ever fascinated by the Second World War.
Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, by contrast, is the work of a literary master who has what it takes to write a thriller. Deservedly, his book has captured the imagination of vast numbers of readers and pundits alike. It is also the work of a humanistic thinker who does not beat around the bush and has – very justifiably – made willful state mass murder his topic, leading him to grapple with murder en masse, a forever captivating topic, all the more so within the Hitler–Stalin complex of issues that continue to fascinate, daunt and rebound potently in today’s geopolitics.
Yet Snyder’s Bloodlands suffers from some cardinal biases that are all the more regrettable in such a masterly and popular work. First, though, it is prudent to briefly cover the book’s scope and at least a few of its highly consequential virtues.