Can Timothy Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’ be Appropriated by East European Nationalists?


by Per Rudling

The great strength of Professor Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (Basic Books, 2010) is that it contextualizes the violent 1930s and 1940s in Eastern Europe.


Snyder is actually at his best when he writes books based upon his own profound and always impressive research. Sketches from a Secret War and The Reconstruction of Nations made enormous contributions to our field. Like few other people, Snyder informed and raised awareness of Ukrainian nationalist massacres of Poles in Volhynia in 1943. In itself, Bloodlands does not add much new information, but contextualizes and popularizes information which is not common knowledge outside elite circles of professionals. In doing so, it fills an important pedagogic function.

What is missing from the book is a discussion of collaboration with the Nazi authorities and the mass participation of various East European nationalists in the Holocaust. An expanded section on the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front), for instance, would made ethnonationalistic apologists less interested in trying to appropriate the book for their causes.

Snyder does mention the LAF’s Kazys Škirpa, and touches briefly upon the OUN, but the contextualization of nationalist involvement in the mass murder of Jewish neighbors, i.e. in the Holocaust itself is missing. Expanding this section would also have confronted the nationalists with the issues they deny, relativize, or work hard to obfuscate. In this regard, I find that Reconstruction and Sketches are both superior to Bloodlands.

That said, the book does not relativize the Holocaust. Bloodlands clearly shows that the scope and nature of the Holocaust was very different than other crimes. In fact Snyder is very careful in his use of the term “genocide” in order to avoid inflation of this term. Whereas various Eastern European nationalists are trying to use this book as a vehicle for their political projects, they will only be successful to a certain degree.

In fact, Snyder’s research of the OUN-UPA massacres of the Volhynian and Galician Poles, has left many Ukrainian nationalists uneasy. Whereas he educates a broader audience on the 1932-33 famine — a long-standing aim of the nationalists — he also clearly rejects nationalist attempts to inflate the number of famine death to a figure between seven and ten million people. So at least in the Ukrainian case, the nationalists are ambiguous on Bloodlands. They cannot really dismiss the book, but also have problems appropriating it. Many pro-nationalist polemicists approvingly cite the book. The way they refer to the book leads me to think that they  have not actually read it.

The second edition of this important book would benefit from an expanded section on the collaboration in the Holocaust by local anti-Soviet fascist groups of the period. This is all the more important as some of these, including the OUN and the LAF, are today rehabilitated, celebrated, and glorified by today’s successor states and their nationalist diasporas as “freedom fighters”.

Per Rudling is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald, Germany.

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