I have just finished probably the most grueling book I have ever read: ‘Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin’ by Timothy Snyder.
What he calls the bloodlands were the territories of eastern Poland and western Soviet Union, including the Baltic states, which had the misfortune to be controlled at different times by two of the most murderous leaders in history: Stalin and Hitler. As a result 14 million people were deliberately murdered in that zone between 1932 and 1945, until 1939 almost exclusively by Stalin and afterwards by Stalin and Hitler together.
And the book told me a lot of things that I did not know or did not fully comprehend:
- Stalin deliberately starved to death millions of Ukrainians peasants by seizing their food, including seed grain and exporting it for foreign exchange in 1932-33
- Stalin executed another 700,000 in the Great Terror 1937-8, mainly peasants and national minorities like Soviet Poles and 300,000 of these were in this bloodlands area.
- When Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland in 1939, they set about eliminating the Polish educated elite and killed 200,000. The Katyn massacre of Polish officers was thus the tip of a very big iceberg.
- The Germans killed hundreds of thousands of Poles, Belorussians as reprisals for resistance to their invasion after 1941
- The original Hitler plan for the Soviet Union, if the Red Army had collapse in 1941 was to starve 30 million Soviet citizens to death over that winter, and kill all remaining Jews in Eastern Europe at the same time
- Failing defeating the Red Army in late 1941, Hitler had 3 million Soviet prisoners of war starved to death in 1941/2, and a million people died in the siege of Leningrad 1941-44
- The majority of Jews killed by the Nazis were killed by the German army and police squads in Western Soviet Union and not in death camps.
- The majority of killing places (Belzec, Sobidor, Chelmo, Treblinka and Majdanek) were not really death ‘camps’, because most were killing immediately on arrival by gassing. Auschwitz was not typical in that it was a work and death camp.
- The 14 million killed in the bloodlands were therefore made up of:
- 3.3 million Soviet citizens starved to death in the Ukraine by Stalin in 1932-3
- 300,000 victims of the Great Terror killed by Stalin in this region (out of 700,000 total victims)
- 200,000 Poles shot by Germans and Soviets 1939-41
- 4.2 million Soviet citizens (mainly Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians) starved by Nazi occupiers in 1941-44
- 5.4 million Jews shot or gassed by the Nazis 1941-44
- 700,000 civilians shot in reprisal by the Nazis chiefly in Belarus and Warsaw 1941-44
- A significant number of Germans died (perhaps 700,00) in their forced deportation out of Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1946-7 from neglect and food shortage, as well as the chaos when they arrived in Germany
I guess what interests me most about this appalling savagery is the minds of the architects: Stalin and Hitler. Stalin could not admit that collectivization of the farms had failed in the early 1930s and so millions had to die for his refusal to face this reality. His commissars on the ground even saw peasants dying of starvation as saboteurs undermining the Soviet economy. And Stalin’s paranoia about foreign plots drove the Great Terror and his attitude to returning Soviet prisoners of war, most of whom were sent to the Gulag.
Hitler, in turn rather, than accept the folly of his war policy, blamed the Jews for the circle of enemies around him: Britain, the USA and Russian and therefore made their annihilation the only remaining war aim once he was on the defensive.
Two effectively psychotic war leaders, but also a time and a place, where their will would be carried out by millions prepared to kill or starve others. This I guess is why I think getting real is so important in conflict. Getting beyond our fantasies, our belief systems and seeing reality for what it is and avoiding the savagery that these two fantasists came up with. Interestingly, after 1945, even while Stalin remained paranoid, the Soviet system had had enough killing. The Gulag was still full, but there was no more mass killing post 1945 in the Soviet Union.
The other thing that Timothy Snyder does is give names to typical victims and tell their stories. To be honest, I cannot bring myself to recount these as they are simply too painful. But I urge you to read his book so that they are not forgotten.
Footnote: The enormity of this horror is one reason why calling anyone in American politics or NPR, a Nazi or a Communist is so disproportional or even psychotic. Glenn Beck and others please take note. And liberals please note: George W Bush was not a Nazi or Fascist.