Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review - Bloodlands

The other night, I finished reading "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin", by Timothy Snyder.  To say that this book was a difficult read would be an understatement.  Not that the author didn't do an excellent job stating and proving his thesis, but that the subject matter was horrific on a scale that makes it difficult to read more than a few pages at a time without stopping to reflect on it for a while.  Monday was Yom HaShoah, the day of rememberance for victims of the Holocaust.  I find it fitting that I finished this excellent work on the time and place of the Holocaust that evening.  By expanding the scope of his study to include both victims of Stalinist communism and Hitlerist socialism , Snyder shows that all human beings are subject to oblivion if a regime feels that they can destroy those whom they dislike with impunity.

We've all heard the stories, seen the movies and pictures.  6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, 25 million Soviet citizens perished in World War II.  What Snyder does is expand the time frame for the mass killings in Eastern Europe to include the Soviet famines and purges of the 1930's and the ethnic cleansing that took place after World War II.   He does this not by just quoting more statistics, although this book is heavy with statistics, but by also relating the personal stories of those who survived or were able to document their experiences before dying.

I was trained in Russian and German by people who either lived through the Great Terror and the Holocaust or by their children.  So I'd heard some of the personal stories from their perspective.  What was wrenching about Bloodlands was that the same story seemed to happen over and over again throughout the 12 to 15 years of mass killings in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltics, and western Russia.  People, who for the most part did nothing worse than be a living member of a chosen group, were murdered in their millions, mainly through starvation, shooting, or gassing.  Human beings, be they Polish Jews, Ukrainian peasants, or Baltic intellectuals, were reduced to units of production and consumption, and were destroyed when their productive capacity was not worth their continued existence and consumption of resources.

Where Snyder differs from other authors is that he shows that the killings went beyond the labor and death camps of the Third Reich and the Gulags of the Soviets.  He illustrates how the vast majority of the victims of the two most murderous regimes in human history died from intentional starvation or by being shot over pits that they dug themselves.  As someone with history, especially military history, as a hobby, I had read about the conditions that the Soviets and Germans kept POW's and civilians under during the war. This book brought just how horribly these two populations were afflicted into sharp focus, especially when contrasted with the treatment and conditions the civilians of Western Europe and non-Russian POW's lived under at the same time.

If you're a history buff, or want to get an in-depth analysis of this period of European history, I heartily recommend this book.  It's Its lesson that another mass murder of innocent human beings can happen anywhere is relevant in a world that has seen genocides in my own lifetime.  Places like Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and a myriad of others show that when people are stripped of their humanity by a government or an ideology and have no way to defend themselves, their continued drawing of breath is not a given.  By learning about these crimes and understanding how they occurred and what happened to make them possible, we are better prepared to prevent or stop them.


cybrus said...

Interesting - I just started that book this week. Looking forward to, and scared of, finishing it.

DaddyBear said...

Cybrus, it's a good read. I'm definitely glad I read it. I just had to take it in small bites.

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