Some weeks ago I ran across what was the beginnings of a book review, by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. I say “beginnings” because as he says, he only made it (listening in MP3 format) partway through one of the early chapters before he had to stop. As strong a stomach for portrayals of evil as he claims to have, he confesses himself revolted beyond endurance.
The book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder’s 2010 history of a particular part of Europe during a very special period in its history. The “bloodlands” Snyder describes consist of the western rim of the Soviet Union (with reference to its pre-1945 borders), Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This part of the world, largely cut off from the consciousness of the rest of the Western understanding first by war and societal collapse, then by revolution and civil war, then by war again, and finally by the Iron Curtain, got to experience its very own special kind of hell from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. During twelve of those roughly 20 years both Hitler and Stalin were in power, and both turned their blood-soaked attentions to it.
Until comparatively recently few in Western Europe and fewer in the United States have known more than the bare outlines of what happened in the bloodlands, and even since the Soviet collapse the act of memory remains burdened by the purpose of memory, by which is largely meant the political purpose of memory. In terms of Getting the Story Out there were just too many people who had every reason to un-make the history. The only Western Europeans with any sort of broad personal exposure to what happened there – the Germans, both military, quasi-military, and civilians (even women civilians) – were understandably reluctant to call attention to what they did and saw in the bloodlands. The communists were likewise perpetrators on a grand scale, and thus for decades the white-washing of communist crimes by the Western intellectual elite confined their understanding of Stalin’s crimes to his purge of the Party in 1937-38 (Solzhenitsyn deals extensively with the myopia of the True Believers, as he calls them; for them the other millions of victims of the Great Terror just didn’t – and to this day don’t – pop up on the screen). It’s not just the perps who have re-purposed the era, either. Even among the populations from whom the victims came, the martyr cult has been forced into a nationalist understanding of what happened and why.
Just what did happen? The book opens with scenes from the destruction of the kulaks and the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. First came the “destruction of the kulaks as a class.” And who was a kulak? Anyone we say. If you have two cows: you’re a kulak. If your family has carefully tended its field for decades so that you produce more than the vodka-soaked farmer down the lane: you’re a kulak. If you loaned a neighbor a few rubles to put a crop in this year: you’re a kulak. A good proxy expression for “kulak” is “successful peasant.” That’s important, because in the Russian village no less than anywhere else, it’s the successful to whom people look for leadership. Those “kulaks” were not only in themselves objectionable from a class standpoint, they were also points around which resistance to Stalin’s further plans might coalesce.
The “kulaks” thus had to be destroyed. There were so many “kulaks” that it wasn’t even possible to shoot them all. So what Stalin did was swoop down and pack the able-bodied men off to camps, then come back and sweep up the now-defenseless women and children to become “special settlers.” Understand that these “special settlements” consisted of shoving the dispossessed farmers out of a train somewhere in Siberia, in a strange climate, with neither cattle nor seed corn nor farming tools, and telling them to (in an old white trash expression) “root hog or die.” Hundreds of thousand did exactly that: die of cold, of starvation, of desperation.
Collectivization seems to have been an orthodox communist ideological policy of Stalin’s. He’s allowed Lenin’s New Economic Policy to run as far as he was going to, and dammit now we were going to embrace communism. That collectivization directly breached the Bolsheviks’ promise to the peasantry of land reform was immaterial. As Snyder points out in several places, the practice of “dialectics,” which in plain English means “the truth is what I say it is at this moment, without prejudice to my ability to declare its opposite ten minutes from now,” is a key to understanding the minds of the Soviet (and leftist in general) leadership. So the remaining peasants were run off their land, by raw physical coercion or regulatory suppression (such as by denying permission to purchase seed), and forced into an agricultural factory (sorry, lefties, but “agri-business” is not an invention of Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland).
While collectivization of agriculture was a Soviet-wide policy, there was more at play in the Ukraine than just a turn away from the Right Deviationists and a lunge towards Socialism in One Country. The Ukraine was not only the Soviet Union’s breadbasket but also the home of Russia’s traditional belligerent cousins. If collectivization was going to succeed, and if the “national question” was to be solved, then the Ukraine had to be subdued. Conveniently this also meshed with the economic needs of the Soviets, as grain and lumber were about all they had (at that time; the phenomenal mineral riches of Siberia had yet to be tapped extensively, although the Kolyma was beginning its flowering into a byword for brutality and hopelessness) that anyone was interested in buying. And so the grain expropriations came. And came. And came. The “law of seven-eighths” (so nicknamed, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, because of its promulgation on August 7) which criminalized possession of as little as an ear of corn, a moldy potato, or a handful of oats, sent tens of thousands to the Gulag. But more simply died. Stalin shut the peasants in the countryside, closing off the cities and denying the internal passports or the right to buy train tickets which would have been necessary for the peasants to go where there was food. Starving peasants who somehow managed to sneak their way to the cities were, if they survived long enough, shoved back onto trains and shipped right back to the howling wilderness of the countryside.
By the simple expedients of taking all the food that was grown there and preventing the inhabitants from leaving, Stalin managed very intentionally to starve to death somewhere between 3 and 7 million Ukrainians — the numbers are all over the map — Snyder gives (working from memory here, so forgive me) something like 3.4 million; others, e.g. Robert Conquest, give much higher numbers) in about two years. The terror famine is now known as the Holodomor, and the Russian refusal to acknowledge it remains a sore spot to this day. Walter Duranty, the NYT’s man in Russia, white-washed it for Western audiences and was rewarded with a Pulitzer, which the NYT has yet to disown.
De-kulakization, collectivization, and the Holodomor were just the start, however. By the late 1930s the Great Terror was in full swing. This is the Stalinist interlude that communists and their Western fellow travelers understand principally as the period during which the Party ate its own. And in truth the Party elites did manage to get thinned out. But even then the thinning was . . . mighty selective. Before it started, for example, the NKVD’s senior leadership was about a third Jewish. By the end it was less than 4% Jewish. And its other non-Russians had mysteriously gone away (for example, the Latvians had been a principal recruiting pool for the early Cheka). Don’t feel too badly for them, though; many of these chappies had zealously played their parts in the grain requisitions from the Ukrainian peasants.
It wasn’t just the Jews who attracted Stalin’s attentions during the purges. He was famously paranoid, and among his most ingrained fears was that of the national minorities. Here his personal demons intersected with communist doctrine. The proletariat has no nation, no homeland. Therefore in the dictatorship of the proletariat there can be no nationalities. Those pesky Central Asian nomadic peoples are just going to have to give up their herds and settle down where the Great Helmsman chooses to put them. [It’s impossible not to see some parallels between Soviet policy and the American reservation system for its aboriginal tribes. Of course, in America the individual tribesmen were not compelled to remain with the tribe and settle. While the tribes as tribes were confined to their reservations, on those reservations they were not forbidden to follow their ancestral ways (disregarding that the buffalo that was the foundation of those ways was nearly exterminated), nor were the tribes as social units extinguished. Nor was the reservations’ produce expropriated and the people left to make shift. So there are important substantive differences as well; however, honesty says we must still recognize the similarities.] The Soviet Union was home not only to the Ukrainians but also millions of ethnic Poles, Finns, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Kazakhs, Crimean Tatars, Koreans, and multiple others. Most of them lived in areas of the Soviet Union that were uncomfortably close to their “homelands,” at least by Stalin’s reckoning. And so he began to address the situation. Some he simply deported as a group, as with the Crimean Tatars, who within the space of a couple of days were shoved into trains and banished to interior. But how do you pack up an ethnic minority the size of Soviet Poles? You can’t. What you can do is shoot as many of them as you figure out a reason to, especially if they’re the kind of people who might be looked up to or take a leadership role among their fellows. Snyder points out that the ethnic minorities of the bloodlands were many times more likely than either ethnic Russians or Soviet citizens overall to die in an executioner’s cellar.
For several years by this point Hitler had been in power and devoting a great deal of thought to what he wanted to accomplish, and where. The over-arching scheme was set forth in the Generalplan Ost, the general plan of transforming the broad Eastern European lands into a land of German agricultural colonists. That those lands were already the homes of several million non-Germans didn’t matter. Some would have to be killed outright, some moved out of the way, some dragooned and worked to death, but many more simply starved. For nearly seven years, though, Hitler couldn’t lay hands on his victims. And then came the war.
I’ve commented elsewhere on the collusion between Hitler and Stalin in carving up Poland and the Baltic republics. The dialectics (q.v.) of the situation compelled the Western left to swallow its anger and grief, at least for nearly two years. During that time the Angel of Death came to visit Poland and the Baltics . . . and settled down, hung up some prints and re-arranged the furniture.
Where to start? To the east of the Molotov-Ribbentropp Line, the Soviets set out to decapitate Polish society. If you were educated, or wealthy, or a priest, or influential, or owned a business, or were an officer, teacher, policeman, professor, scientist, lawyer, prosperous farmer, engineer . . . etc., you were herded up and either deported or more commonly simply shot. If you survived the shootings you might well yet end up crammed into a frozen cattle car to be deported to the wasteland of the Central Asian steppes. The Katyn Forest massacre of the 14,000-odd Polish officers is just the best-known small part of a much larger story, one which the Western allies diligently suppressed even when presented with incontrovertible proof of it. Janusz Bardach’s wonderful Man is Wolf to Man, his memoir of Gulag survival, starts with his experiencing the Soviet occupation of his native Poland. In the Baltic Republics, Stalin was doing much the same thing: shoot everyone around whom society might coalesce, deport as many of the others as you can herd into the cattle cars, and call it a day.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the line, Hitler was following a very similar course, although at the outset he wasn’t nearly as organized about it as Stalin. Uncle Joe had many years and millions more corpses’ experience under his belt, you see.
Then came Barbarossa, the so-close-but-yet-so-far failure to knock the Soviet Union out of the war. The Germans were taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners at a time. They had no intention of feeding them at the expense of their own troops, who were told to live off the land. And so they just herded the Soviet prisoners of war (other than the political officers, who were shot out of hand) behind barbed wire and left them to die of hunger in the open weather. Millions died this way just in the first months of the war.
Right behind the front came the Einsatzgruppen and Einsatskommandos, roving groups of murderers who’d march entire villages into the woods and machine gun them over open pits. The Jews of course were prime targets, and it was contemporaneously with Barbarossa that the truly massive-scale killing of Jews really got going. One thing that I had not previously understood is that the mechanism of killing was different depending on which side of the Molotov-Ribbentropp Line one was. East of the line the majority of killing was done by gunfire, either retail, with one shot per victim, or wholesale with machine guns hosing down lines of people. West of the line was the more, errrmmm, technical side of things, with gas vans and gas chambers of various designs.
Everyone has heard of the Wannsee Conference, the meeting in early 1942 at which the “Final Solution” of liquidating the Jews as such was resolved as the, well, final “solution” to the “Jewish problem in Europe,” as the Nazis phrased it to themselves. And when Westerners hear the expression “Final Solution” they think of Auschwitz.
Snyder pays meticulous attention, however, not just to raw numbers killed but which groups were killed where, how, and in what order. Auschwitz started as a slave-labor facility. Granted, no one paid much attention to whether the slaves died of hunger or over-work, and so it was a tremendously lethal place from the start. But it wasn’t until fairly late in the process that the famous gas chambers were built at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Even then the arriving train-loads went through “selection,” with the able-bodied sent to be worked/starved to death and the balance herded into the chambers. So it never lost its industrial character. But (and I confess I hadn’t known this until reading the book) it was principally Jews from outside the bloodlands who were sent to Auschwitz, well over half the total. And Roma and Sinti. And non-Jews from the occupied territories. All in much smaller numbers, of course; over 90% of Auschwitz’s victims were Jews, and it accounted for about one-sixth of the total Holocaust victims. And Auschwitz’s peak killing didn’t occur until beginning in 1944, by which time the Germans had been nearly completely run out of the Soviet Union and much of the rest of what they’d conquered. As Snyder points out, by 1944, something like three-quarters of the Jews who would eventually die in the Holocaust had already been killed.
The Jews of the bloodlands were exterminated much closer to home. As mentioned, east of the Molotov-Ribbentropp line, the predominating method was shooting, which seems to have occurred in the very near proximity to the places of residence. West of the line the Nazis built special purpose facilities with gas chambers fueled (if that’s the right expression) by carbon monoxide, usually generated by captured Soviet tank engines. Another thing about the special facilities was that they weren’t “camps” in any meaningful sense of the word, because all they did was kill, unlike Auschwitz. There were some bunk houses for the prisoners staffing them, but that involved a tiny number of people. “Operation Reinhard” was the name bestowed on the operations of these places, and their names remain largely unfamiliar in Western society: Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Majdanek, Belzec. They were set up, their target populations were exterminated, and then the Germans did their level best to destroy every trace of them.
A further point of distinction: As Snyder points out, roughly 100,000 people survived Auschwitz. Of the Jews who saw the inside of an Operation Reinhard facility, fewer than 100 are known to have survived.
But all those are technical points, so to speak. One thing which Snyder properly does is remind the reader that it’s somehow dehumanizing to speak of so-and-so-many “millions of victims.” What we must remember is that to say that there were roughly 5.7-6 million Jewish victims of the Germans is to say that there were 5.7 million times one victims. For each of the dead was not just a component number but rather a distinct point of humanity. The woman who suckled her infant as she waited to be shot at Babi Yar was not a statistic; she was a mother, a daughter, a wife, a friend. She had once had hopes and dreams. She knew the ecstasy of creation and the pain of childbirth. And they gunned her down, together with her child.
Snyder has good chapters on both the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the physical destruction of the city itself. And also some good material on how the post-war Polish communists did their level best to erase the specifically Jewish experience of the war from both. In the service of nationalism.
And since the dying in the bloodlands didn’t stop with the guns, Snyder covers the ethnic cleansings that went on for another two years. While not expressly exterminatory in intent, several hundred thousand people died in the course of creating ethnically homogenous national states.
Why the viciousness? Some of it can be attributed to nothing more complicated than that the bloodlands were caught between two monsters. There is a reason, after all, that more police officers die responding to domestic disputes than any other risk situation. Hitler and Stalin both wanted those areas and they wanted them for very specific purposes, neither of which was compatible with survival of the societies who happened to live there. But Snyder also points out two processes that played out, in slightly different patterns and at different times, on both sides. Neither Stalin’s mass murder nor Hitler’s began as it ended up being.
Stalin began by decapitating the rural population in preparation for collectivization. He followed up with suppression of a long-time problem population. But over time his blood-lust transferred itself to the national minorities as such, as (in his mind, at least) bearers of threats to Russia’s (and Russians’) political dominance in the Soviet Union and its border neighbors. His paranoia required an object to focus on, and it found those objects in the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Baltic peoples, the Kazakhs, the Tatars, the Volga Germans, and so forth. Their destructions, either physically or by wrenching separation from their homelands, became an end in itself (because of course not a damned one of them actually posed any threat whatsoever to the Soviet Union or Stalin’s rule).
Hitler’s extermination of the Jews in similar fashion transformed itself from something which was ancillary to the conquest of the Soviet Union and Lebensraum into a war aim as such. Originally it was just part of de-populating the areas to be colonized once the war was won. The Slavs were likewise to die, but they were to be starved/worked to death. By December, 1941, so Snyder, it was apparent to the German high command that the war wasn’t going to be won. Let’s see: We went to war to conquer Lebensraum, and that isn’t going to happen. We cannot say that we have failed in our war objectives, though; too many telegrams to mom back home about how her little Heinz had the honor to die for the Führer. Thus: The war is now about the smashing of Jewish domination of Europe. This of course dovetailed nicely with the fact that all the other options to “solving” the “Jewish problem in Europe” that had been explored had played out and were no longer physically possible.
I will say that the least satisfying parts of Snyder’s book (once you’ve struggled through all the descriptions of the killing; I defy a parent to read of the killing of mothers and children without wanting to vomit) is the final chapter on comparison and comprehension. I’m not sure that comparison of Stalin and Hitler is terribly useful. It’s not like we’re running some cadaver sweepstakes here and in any event both Stalin and Hitler put together pale in comparison with the 45-60 million dead Chinese that Mao racked up in the Great Leap Forward . . . in four short years. Comprehension and memory likewise both come up as not-quite-dead-ends. There are multiple, partially-overlapping groups who died in their millions. Each has a legitimate claim on the special aspect of what happened to them. But for God’s sake! They’re DEAD. They’re all dead. Each one of those victims is no more and no less dead than any other. Each was no more and no less human. Each one’s death is a gaping, suppurating wound of justice that heaven alone can remedy.
And can you even claim to understand What Happened? Sure, you can punch through the archives, you can assemble pictures, documents, film footage, and so forth. You can compile data. You can, in some places at least, go see where it happened. But we today have no more ability to stand at the edge of the ravine at Babi Yar than we do to fly a kite in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. And it is in those moments when the bullets were slamming into that mother and her infant; when the little Ukrainian boy who imagined that he saw food and kept proclaiming, “Now we will live!” until one day he didn’t; when Tania in besieged Leningrad noted the deaths by starvation of her entire family until, “Only Tania is left,” and then she wasn’t either; when the Polish officer, writing in his last moments of life about his wedding ring, heard the click of the pistol as it was cocked behind his ear: In those moments It Happened, and we are forever shut off from them.
If we cannot know, cannot understand, then we can at least defy forgetfulness. Snyder’s book tells a story that all of us have a duty to hear. So we can Not-Forget. And we can mourn. We can examine our own souls and hearts, and forever ask ourselves whether we harbor within us the death of humanity that starved, shot, gassed, beat, and burned the bloodlands for nearly twenty long years. In this respect I would suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates has it exactly backwards when he closes his piece with the observation that it’s chaos “out there” and always has been. That “out there” springs from “in here,” and the only place that any of us has mastery of is our own individual “in here.”