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The Politics of Slaughter

May 18, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

How is it that a historian as able as Timothy Snyder can get so many things right in his new book Bloodlands, published by Basic Books, and yet get one big thing so wrong? This work, which clocks in at close to 500 pages, is a detailed record of mass murder beginning in 1933 and ending in 1945. The Holocaust has a place in such a time frame, of course, but from the start, Snyder applies the wrong emphasis with which to approach this immensely complex event.

Snyder's title is a term he's coined to designate the area where the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered 14 million civilians. This massive patch of territory stretches from central Poland to Western Russia, and includes Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States; the 14 million individuals include Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and citizens of the Baltics. As Snyder writes, these people were slaughtered in a campaign that he characterizes as "mass violence of a sort never before seen in history."

But Snyder, who never loses sight of the Holocaust, wishes to look at the extent of the killing envisioned and executed by the two dictators who dominated Europe during the author's designated time period. As Snyder reminds us, Hitler didn't want only to eradicate Jews; his murderous ambitions went beyond that. He wanted to wipe Poland and the Soviet Union off the map, exterminate their ruling classes and kill millions of Slavs.

As for Stalin, he may have led the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis on the eastern front, earning him the gratitude of millions, yet Snyder posits that his record of murder is nearly as horrible as Hitler's. The author also argues that in the period of peace before World War II began, Stalin's bloodthirstiness may have exceeded the German dictator's.

"In the name of defending and modernizing the Soviet Union," writes Snyder, "Stalin oversaw the starvation of millions and the shooting of three quarters of a million people in the 1930s. Stalin killed his own citizens no less efficiently than Hitler killed the citizens of other countries. Of the 14 million people deliberately murdered in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, a third belong in the Soviet account."

Like-Minded Mad Men

This linking of Hitler and Stalin marks the groundbreaking part of Snyder's book. Many others have argued for this coupling of these like-minded mad men, but no other author that I know of has analyzed it as relentlessly as Snyder. He examines almost every facet of this twisted relationship, along the way adding to our understanding of the Soviet famines, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (also known as the Hitler-Stalin pact) and the true nature of Stalin's anti-Semitism.

Bloodlands touches on pertinent side issues, such as the politics and economics of slaughter, the psychology of the two leaders and the usefulness of revenge.

Most important of all, the book makes us see something complex that was not so apparent in other histories of the period: How there existed what Snyder has identified as a murderous complicity between the two totalitarians that led to the deaths of millions. One of this mad duo would kill large numbers of people because he had been provoked to do so or even aided in doing so by the other.

On his handling of these assorted points, I have no quibbles. But then the author writes: "The horror of the 20th century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the 20th century."

The problem is that Snyder is talking about two kinds of killing, two kinds of horror, both tragic but different in purpose and execution. By lumping the 6 million Jews in with the 8 million unfortunates who also died, he's willfully denying the uniqueness of the Shoah -- and I use that phrase with great care.

Of these 14 million victims, Snyder argues that they were not casualties of war, but victims of two calculated murderous policies. No one would deny this if you are talking about Stalin's forced famines and his terror campaigns in the 1930s, or Hitler's early euthanasia program against the "unfit." But the kind of random killing that both Stalin and Hitler indulged in when people got in their way had little to do with calculated policies.

For example, Polish children may have been in harm's way from both Nazis and Soviets at times during World War II, but no one was hunting them down every minute of every day; nor were fellow citizen's ready to betray them at a moment's notice, often for their own satisfaction and not for monetary reward. Every Jew was in the sights of a multitude of other Europeans for one reason or another, beginning in the 1920s with the rise of Hitler, till 1945, and even for some time after; that cannot be said of the other unfortunates.

Snyder wants to shift the focus, and include more victims and give them voices and identities -- all admirable goals. But shifting the emphasis and widening the focus doesn't work when it comes to the Holocaust, because it does not help elucidate the event or explain how it fits into the greater conflagration known as World War II. No matter what the author might believe, there was a war against the Jews solely, which ran parallel to the larger conflagration.

Lumping concentration-camp victims in with all the other non-Jews and noncombatants who died may increase the horror of the 20th century exponentially, as Snyder wishes, but it makes less of the horror that occurred at Auschwitz and the other German death factories.

What Snyder seems to be talking about here is the terrible fate of people who were unfortunate enough to anger or get in the way of two regimes bent on murdering anyone they chose. That is something different from the calculated efforts of these two master autocrats.

The fact that Hitler had grander plans, but never got around to slaughtering all the people he wished -- this was also true of Stalin, though he may have kept his cards closer to his vest -- does not change the nature of the Holocaust. The relentless slaughtering of Jews is not something you can subsume under the general heading of what happens when countries with murderous intentions go to war and confine much of their killing to a specific place. (Hitler's murderous intentions also don't make something different out of random killing; clearly, it doesn't make it into something resembling racial policy and genocide.)

I admire Snyder immensely for going into the Gulag and telling us what happened there, especially since so many people still seem so fond of "Uncle Joe" and the Communist enterprise in general. But, in the end, the author could have written Bloodlands by subtracting the 6 million Jewish victims from his 14 million total and still have fashioned a masterpiece of historical writing. Now interested readers will have to pick around the passages on the Shoah to get to Snyder's brilliant stretches on almost every other subject he addresses.

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