Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin   
By Timothy Snyder. New York. Revised 2022.  547 pages

Between 1933 and 1945 the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people in the heart of Europe. The area where they died, which the author of this book calls the Bloodlands, extended from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States.

This prize-winning book by a Yale University historian, Timothy Snyder, covers those terrible years. It was originally published in 2010 but the 2022 paperback edition has a new afterword on the historical debates about this period.  It is based on Snyder’s extensive research in the archives of Eastern Europe.

This book aims to recover the humanity of the people slaughtered in the period. Its focus is not on Hitler or Stalin but on the Europe “between Hitler and Stalin”. Snyder is interested in the “belligerent encounter” between two totalitarian systems and describes how their impacted on each other and on the suffering populations under their control, such as the Poles or the Ukrainians or the Baltic nations.

The Nazis and Soviets both created one-party States. The significance of the word “party” was inverted: rather than being a group among others competing for power according to accepted rules, it became the group that made the all the rules. One might add that they were atheistic regimes, with no sense of an ultimate accountability before God for one’s actions.

Interaction between the two systems happened in complex ways. In the early 1930s, Stalin’s instruction to the world Communist movement of “class versus class” rather than cooperation between classes meant that German Communists were unable to collaborate with German Social Democrats. This policy helped Hitler to win elections in 1932 and 1933.

In 1939 Hitler and Stalin jointly invaded Poland and the Nazis then invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Successive Nazi and Soviet occupations of a country such as Lithuania were worse for the local population than occupation by the Nazis alone.

My own family learned something of this experience from a Lithuanian family friend who lost many relatives to Stalinist persecution and was imprisoned by retreating Nazis. After the war, he somehow made his way to the Irish national seminary at Maynooth and later to priestly ministry in Manchester.

 After the Nazi invasion of 1941, death rates in the Soviet Gulag camps increased drastically as a result of food shortages and logistical problems. Snyder also points to the existence of “double collaborators”: people who worked successively for both Nazi and Soviet power. He highlights the common inhumanity of the Nazi and Soviet systems, that is, their ability to deprive groups of human beings of their right to be regarded as human.

Snyder underlines the unique horror of the Holocaust (an “unprecedented crime”) and offers some new perspectives. As the invasion of the Soviet Union faltered and the conquest of the immense plains to the East proved impossible, the focus of the Nazis changed from mass deportation to mass killing of the Jews.

Most Soviet and Polish Jews had already been murdered by the time Auschwitz became the major death factory. Most of the Jews who died in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp. They were murdered in gas vans or in mass shootings.

As well, historians have tended to pass over the nearly five million Jews killed east of Auschwitz and the nearly five million non-Jews killed by the Nazis.

The author also offers new perspectives on Poland’s nightmare. Outside that country, the extent of its suffering is under-appreciated. Between September 1939 and June 1941, in their time as allies, the Soviet and Nazi states killed perhaps 200,000 Polish citizens and deported about a million more.  In 1940, the Soviet secret police murdered thousands of Polish prisoners of war in Katyn Forest.

And outside Poland’s borders, ethnic Poles suffered more than any other national group within the Soviet Union during the “Great Terror”, which targeted diaspora nationalities. By a conservative estimate, some 85,000 Poles were executed in 1937 and 1938, that is, one-eighth of the victims of the Great Terror. And Poles were just a tiny minority in the Soviet Union. Of the more than four million Polish citizens murdered by the Nazis, about three million were Jews and one million non-Jews.

Belarus may have suffered even more. By the end of the war, half of its population had either been killed or moved. Snyder suggests that this cannot be said of any other country.

The book does not dwell much on the experience of Christians under Hitler and Stalin. Snyder does note at one point that Christian religious practice was dangerous –  a Polish Catholic could go to the Gulag for owning rosary beads. However, he doesn’t cover in depth the experience and suffering of the Christian churches, especially the long calvary of the Catholic Church in Poland under both Hitler and Stalin.

Bloodlands includes a harrowing chapter on the Ukrainian famine (“Holodomor”) of the early 1930s, a neglected 20th century catastrophe. The Soviets starved more than five million people to death during agricultural collectivization, most of them in Ukraine. The Western press failed to cover the Ukrainian famine – Malcolm Muggeridge, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, was one of the few honourable exceptions.

According to Snyder, Stalin was responsible for premeditated mass murder in the sense that his policies foreseeably condemned millions to death by starvation or disease. In Stalin’s warped worldview, people starving in Ukraine were trying to discredit him.

“A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union.” Starvation was resistance and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner because “resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount”. If collectivization had led to mass starvation, this was the fault of those who starved and foreign intelligence agencies who somehow arranged the whole thing.

This remarkable book is well-written, thought-provoking, and gut-wrenching. It is sadly topical at a time when war has returned to the Bloodlands.

In his afterword, Snyder responds to criticisms. Some reviewers suggested that “one can’t compare Hitler and Stalin” or that “one can’t compare the Holocaust and anything else”. Snyder explains that the book began from a process of inclusion rather than comparison and seeks above all to document all the killings that happened. A taboo on comparison, he says, negates scholarship. He reminds us that inhabitants of the Bloodlands were compelled to compare. Polish soldiers, for example, had to decide whether to surrender to the Nazi or Soviet armies.

Although Snyder points to limitations in post-war discussion of the Holocaust in Germany, the country was effectively de-Nazified after the war. But the Soviet Union failed to acknowledge its own crimes. Hopefully this important book will eventually contribute to a necessary reckoning.

Tim O’Sullivan taught healthcare policy at third level in Ireland and completed a PhD on the principle of subsidiarity.