The history of the rise of totalitarian regimes between World War I and World War II creates intrigue among researchers, historians, and other stakeholders in the field of history. The research over this historical period can incorporate many different methodological strategies and areas, whether economic, military, social, political, et cetera. One significant aspect of the interwar period in history is the mass murder between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and the strategies and reasons they enacted their murderous terror. In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder presents a new outlook on the killings of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that requires historians to look at the period from a different perspective. Snyder’s work can unveil an uncomfortable and challenging history of death that is crucial in understanding the interwar period and multiple aspects of World War II as millions of innocent civilians perished.
Bloodlands is an expose that focuses on the starvation, incarceration, concentration, and execution of millions of individuals in Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarianist governments. The story describes both regimes as they push for a rise of power and connects the two in similar formats. “During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world.”1 Snyder presents the scope of death associated with Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union as both took dramatically and, what they considered, necessary efforts to eradicate less than desirables. The book focuses on the steps that both men took to take over their country and promote their brand of government. Snyder concentrates solely on the mass murder efforts of the two and does not traditionally go down the military or conflict routes associated with this time in history. “This study brings the Nazi and Soviet regimes together, and Jewish and European history together, and the national histories together. It describes the victims and the perpetrators.”2 Snyder wants to focus on the planning and execution of the regimes to eliminate millions of people for their purposes. These ideological decisions were made for what was considered the best for their governance model. Millions of people would be shot, starved, executed, imprisoned, or tortured for this ideological belief.
Bloodlands provides an appropriate scope in the period and does not overextend its content as Snyder analyzes this crucial aspect within European and world history. Unlike Tony Judt’s Postwar, Snyder does not exceed too many various topics regarding the historiography of a period. Bloodlands focuses on two regimes and their intent to destroy and annihilate certain groups, such as Stalin’s focus on Ukrainians, Poles, and civilian deaths. To introduce the book’s setup, Snyder describes both regimes and their strategies and models for takeover and what occurred once power and control were attained. The book can explain the rise of Stalin from an officer of the Red Army to the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. It also can use the basis of the Treaty of Versailles as a base that would help for the rise of Hitler as the four major powers at the end of World War I, “The French … wanted the Germans punished and France’s allies rewarded.”3
Timothy Snyder is not afraid to mince words and provide examples of the deprivation and horrendous nature that was a characteristic of both Hitler and Stalin’s government as a brilliant analytical tactic. In Chapter 1 – The Soviet Famines, Snyder describes the starvation under Stalin’s regime and the policies that demolished the Soviet Ukrainians during the early 1930s. Snyder describes appalling situations towards Ukrainians as they starved to death. The book discloses the Soviet policy towards theft where a person would be executed for stealing food. “Thus a starving peasant could be shot if he picked up a potato peel from a furrow in land that until recently had been his own.”4 Also, Snyder can describe the horrific tales of cannibalism that occurred due to Soviet policies in Ukraine that further the thesis provided in Bloodlands.
Snyder uses evidence throughout the book to accentuate his analysis of the terror within the Hitler and Stalin governments. The extensive list of quotes, doctoral dissertations, books, case studies, and varying primary and secondary sources allows Bloodlands to expound upon the historiography and changing perspectives. For example, Snyder uses quotes from March 30th, 1933, in the New York Evening Post to describe the brutality towards Poles in the Radom district by the Nazi government. These quotes accentuate the speed and treatment of individuals deemed a “danger to German security” as individuals were taken, sentenced, and transported quickly out of the district. Snyder cites the primary source, “3:30 binding, 3:45 reading of verdict, 4:00 transport.”5 In using this form of the primary source application, Snyder can develop his thesis while giving evidence that effectively supports his analysis as he describes deplorable situations. His detailed bibliography shows the careful research that presented detailed analysis through primary and secondary sources.
Snyder’s primary focus is his attempt at correcting the way historians and others remember this time in history. While Bloodlands focuses on multiple aspects surrounding the mass death involved in both regimes, Snyder’s work is culturally historical. “Cultures are organized by round numbers often; but somehow the remembrance of the dead is easier when the numbers are not round, when the final digit is not a zero.”6 Snyder is pressing on the importance of the lives that were lost. The people were not a number but rather a person, a story, a life. Their stories are important as they provide insight, and historically the individuals have been lost to the stories of the leaders, but these cultures have been lost. “Ukrainian villages had been deprived of their natural leaders by the deportations of kulaks to the Gulag.”7 A generation of leaders was lost due to ideologies that cost countries millions of their fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters.
Snyder’s work is an excellent representation of the interwar period. It gets to the heart of the matter as leaders took to their brand of government and created governance and control by any means necessary. Bloodlands can challenge preconceived notions and myths that have been incorrectly purported, including Chapter 11 – Stalinist Anti-Semitism. Adolf Hitler is closely associated with forms of antisemitism, yet Snyder can unveil the antisemitism and Stalin’s version of it between the two leaders. “If the Stalinist notion of the war was to prevail, the fact that the Jews were its main victims had to be forgotten.”8 As an ally of Hitler, Stalin wanted this to be forgotten.
Finally, Bloodlands compare the two totalitarian regimes under the same guise: death. Both were focused on doing whatever they felt was necessary to further their cause. Neither was opposed to ethnic cleansings or liquidation of human beings or institutions so that their own personal gain of power and control had been met. For Hitler and Stalin, their acts were justified because their ideological beliefs were evil. Timothy Snyder presents that narrative beautifully and illustrates a detailed description of the death and destruction that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin left in their wake.
- Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York, Basic Books, 2010, 20.
- Snyder, Bloodlands, xix..
- Snyder, Bloodlands, 8.
- Snyder, Bloodlands, 38-39.
- Snyder, Bloodlands, 147-48.
- Snyder, Bloodlands, 408.
- Snyder, Bloodlands, 29.
- Snyder, Bloodlands, 345.