- Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
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 [End Page 178] 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 antisemitic 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...