It has taken me longer than usual to write up a review of Timothy Snyder’s book (subtitled “Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”). Partly this is because I wasn’t taking notes as I read it (often while riding public transit), but also partly for the reason I wasn’t taking notes in the first place: it’s bleak material that didn’t inspire me to do much writing myself. I didn’t even initialize this post until nearly two weeks after I finished reading it (on President’s Day). I had no such problem with the last non-fiction book I read, about how pervasive Malthusian warfare has been throughout human existence, but there was a greater feeling of distance to the subjects of archaeology (and anthropology, though the focus was more on the former), plus a framing about how post-WW2 “social scientists” in those disciplines got things so wrong. The cultural impact of the mass murder discussed in the book is such that there’s no need to make people aware of it (in the broad sense), so instead the value it attempts to add is a shift in focus and addition of details neglected in the more shallow takes on the topic common in the west.

The main thing Snyder is trying to do is reframe things away from a separate history of Hitler’s Germany and how it carried out the Holocaust vs Stalin’s Soviet Union and its bodycount. Since the the victims of the Holocaust were predominately from the titular region of Europe “from central Poland to western Russia” (containing the old Pale of Settlement) and even many of those from elsewhere were shipped there to be murdered, and Stalin’s victims (excluding the Kazkhs) were concentrated in many of the same places (specifically, Ukraine & Poland, though the western parts of Russia bordering other places were also at risk of campaigns against national minorities/suspected traitors), Snyder’s idea is to focus on the region from Stalin’s initial efforts starting around 1933 (though there’s some context from earlier years), through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact he made with Hitler, then Hitler’s betrayal & invasion of that region in Barbarossa, and then Stalin’s rollback of the invasion and his final actions before he died. This means Stalin gets both of the bookends, although Snyder grants him only a third of the 14 million deliberate non-combat deaths in the region during that time which is the focus of the book. As the bulk of Stalin’s bodycount comes from his deliberate starvation of Ukrainian peasants, this also means that Hitler’s deliberate starvation of Red Army POWs and others (the Hunger Plan intended to starve conquered subjects on a much larger scale, but he never had the control to extract grain from the region like Stalin did) gets more attention than is usually paid in the west (we do sometimes hear about the Dutch famine, but that’s not the subject of this book and the region wasn’t intended to be starved from the beginning).

The Holocaust is the elephant in the room here as something that westerners are aware of and also provides the largest share of killings in Snyder’s figures, but he still sees himself as revising the common understanding in the west. To that end, he distinguishes between “concentration camps” (found more in the west where they could be liberated by Allied armies, and thus first reaching our consciousness) where people were held for significant periods of time with the intent of providing forced labor, and “death camps” (exclusively liberated by the Red Army) where people were brought to be killed immediately (Auschwitz, confusingly, contained both kinds of facilities). He also emphasizes that the “Final Solution” turned into killing Jews (rather than deporting them to General Government Poland/Madagascar/Siberia) first via bullets near the eastern edge of German control following Barbarossa, and only later did the Germans start creating killing facilities for Jews using gas, as they had earlier euthanized the disabled. By splitting the Holocaust into different methods and totaling up all the deliberate killings of the bloodlands, starvation comes out on top followed by bullets and then finally gas. This caused me to flash back to my earliest years of blogging where I would tangle with Holocaust revisionists who focused their skepticism on gas, which struck me as pointless given how indisputable were the mass murders by other means. I noted at the time that my perspective was informed by Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” being the main text I was assigned in school on the subject, and that focused on actions like shooting people in ditches, whereas the deporting of people to camps was where the involvement of the titular policemen ended. Chip Smith of the Hoover Hog (now with Nine Banded Books) explained that one couldn’t understand the American conception of the Holocaust without taking into account the 1970s miniseries of that name (which I only watched a few years ago), which had shifted attention away from the concentration camps used for political prisoners like Dachau.

In his most recent podcast with James Miller, Greg Cochran noted that Germany had fought the first world war “rougher” than the other major powers, but that it wasn’t anywhere near the extremes they went to in the next war. It’s also well known that Germany behaved very differently on the eastern vs western fronts. Americans are very familiar with media depicting captured soldiers of the Allies in German POW camps, which we even treat as ripe material for comedy. The same was not true of Soviet POWs, whom the Germans (not just the SS who are usually blamed for war crimes in the east) decided in advance would not be fed as there would not be enough food to feed Germans plus all their conquered people. The deaths from hunger I have the most trouble thinking of as being out-of-the-ordinary are those resulting from the siege of Leningrad (which Snyder puts at “about a million”). He can point to Hitler’s decision in advance that the city was to be completely demolished rather than simply captured and handed over to the Finns, but (unlike with Warsaw) he was never able to capture it at all. Similarly, the plan to refuse any offer of surrender from the city was also irrelevant, since it never surrendered. At most, the Germans placing mines that could prevent people from escaping would be outside the norm, but I don’t think the Finnish army behaved outside the norms of the previous war when they returned to their old border just north of the city, and the Soviets were able to supply the city when Lake Ladoga froze over, so it doesn’t seem like said mines were actually the thing cutting the city off. In the previous war between Germany & Russia there seemed to have been a lot more maneuver (especially compared to the relatively static trenches on the western front) rather than sieges of Russian cities, although admittedly the collapse of multiple Russian governments could have put a damper on defenses of such cities. In a counterfactual where the Germans did reach St. Petersburg and then got stuck in trenches outside of it (assume the Finns seize their independence prior to the Bolshevik takeover, or the Bolsheviks try to keep fighting like the Communards) I don’t know how differently things would have gone.

Leningrad is somewhat atypical in being an actual Russian city highlighted in the “bloodlands”. During the early section it is hard not to think that somebody upstairs (or downstairs) really had it in for the Poles. It actually gets comical when Stalin insists on blaming the failure of Ukraine to meet his heightened grain quotas on deliberate sabotage by Ukrainian nationalists in league with Poland’s spy service, and there aren’t enough actual Poles (prior to Molotov-Ribbentrop) to be punished in his national (as in, against an internal “nation”) campaigns, so instead anyone who once worked for a Pole or the previous NKVD & Ukrainian Communist Party officials who failed to detect the vast conspiracy gets selected to meet the quota. Plenty of anti-communist anti-semites have gone on about the disproportionate representation of Jews in various Communist Parties as well as the secret police, and in the national campaigns there should have been a perfect opportunity for Stalin’s purges to resemble that accusation, since there was not then a campaign against Jews qua Jews… but the irony is that precisely because they started out in such positions Stalin killed far more Jews prior to the invasion of Poland than Hitler, and by the end of the purges the ethnicities disproportionately represented in the NKVD were just Russians & Georgians (like Stalin himself & Beria). Some rightists who emphasize the social side of politics over the economic one have also expressed some sympathy for Stalin (in contrast to Lenin & Trotsky) for embracing Russian patriotism during the war and rejecting Trotskyists internationalism even earlier for “socialism in one country”, but after reading the book one can’t think of him as anything but a dangerous radical who gave up on the things these rightists hate about leftism when their failure left him little other option. Snyder, coming from a very different perspective, bemoans the USSR for emphasizing the suffering of ethnic Russians at German hands when it was various minorities (excluding the Volkdeutsch & Baltics more often recruited by the invaders), especially Jews, who got it the worst, but the USSR as a whole really does come across as hostile to its own dominant ethnic group, as well as to its population generally. Stalin not being very eager to talk about Jews being the primary targets of the Germans when even the western Allies weren’t focusing on them either (although censorship was on another level in a place that hostile to the exiled Polish national government) seemed like comparatively small beans in my book.

The question of why Hitler decided on the Holocaust is a recurring one among historians that naturally comes up here. As noted above, the earlier versions of the “Final Solution” merely involved deportation, only for it to be deemed infeasible each time. Snyder allows for a certain amount of bottom-up action, as many people on the ground were simply killing any Jews they found in conquered territories (and as Romanians were willing to do without any German encouragement), but the concentration of Jews into ghettos and deportation of them to death camps required a lot more planning at high levels. Snyder’s view is that Hitler blamed Jewish capitalists for controlling the UK (as well as the US which, unlike the UK, he had deliberately declared war on) and insisting on fighting him even after he’d conquered France. Thus, by killing Jews in the Pale of Settlement he was striking at an enemy he could not reach across the water. Again, there’s something darkly comical about this, thinking you are doing anything about a hypothetical international Jewish capitalist in the UK or US via your actions in Poland. It actually requires Jews to not resemble heartless capitalists or even “rootless cosmopolitans” but instead bleeding hearts who could be coerced via their sympathy for the more traditional Jews who remained in the old country (Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century surely referred to that choice of residency via one of Tevye’s daughters, but I certainly can’t remember which one). There was also the logic of many in the SS or Order Police that Jews were major (or perhaps dominant) supporters of the partisans fighting against them, and thus any killing of Jews was anti-partisan action. Of course, if this wasn’t true at first it became so for those refused the option of being merely a conquered people (if anyone can make western European imperialists look good by comparison, it’s revanchist powers like Nazi Germany who show how not to do it). Snyder notes the irony that by first killing off the most “useless” of “eaters” in the relatively conservative older generations (from which the Germans would also seek leadership of the Judenrat), the Germans shifted the political balance within Jewish ghettos to militant communists & Zionists. There was an inconsistency in the German approach which Snyder describes as depending on whether in the moment they were focused on a shortage of food (which initially led to all those starving Red Army POWs before they were later recruited to staff many death camps) or labor (which had introduced even gentile western Europeans to German slavery). However, the decisions to kill everyone in their custody later in the war as the Red Army closed in resembled that of the Ottoman government in the previous world war lashing out at an available target when they couldn’t defeat the actual army they were fighting.

The book closes on something of an anticlimax with Stalin victorious but not nearly as murderous as he had been even at the start of the war when he first grabbed eastern Poland. There are deaths associated with ethnic cleansing, but the Volkdeutsch don’t get it nearly as bad as the Poles had been earlier (despite the abysmal failure of the German government to prepare to get them out as people with good reason to hate them closed in). The Ukrainian nationalists who purged Poles from the territory Stalin transferred to Ukraine were never going to be permitted to stick around by Stalin, even if he approved of the more ethnically homogenous eastern Europe being created. He starts embracing overt anti-semitism after the founding of Israel (despite initially supporting its creation) when he fears Jews under his rule are more loyal to it, but kills far fewer Jews then than he had earlier in national campaigns that hadn’t actually been targeted at them, as nobody leaps at the chance to fulfill any quota of dead bodies. The final days bear a certain resemblance to the caricature of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union: an exhausted has-been run by an old man that people are mostly just paying lip-service to. Perhaps it was an accelerated version of one of Russian ecologist Peter Turchin’s cycles as people simply get tired of all the killing. Snyder does go on after this to emphasize the dead as individuals rather than statistics and how the narrative has shifted over time as Soviet influence & control over records changed, but I wasn’t as interested that as the actual meat of the book, even if (as evidenced by the late publication of this post as I run low on library renewals for the book) that meat is not especially appetizing for me to write about.