Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin 1933-1945

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.

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, Conflict Statistics, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin 1933-1945

  1. Pingback: Retribution - nuclear war - art of war

  2. Norma says:

    I’m sharing part of this post at my blog because I know I’ll never be able to read the book but think it’s very important. I’ll link back.

    • Norma, thanks, though having read your blog, I think you are taking Snyder out of context in seeing Hitler and Stalin as both socialists. Stalin was a Russian ‘socialism in one country nationalist authoritarian Communist’, so yes socialist for short, if you remember the complexities behind the label, but bearing no relationship whatsoever to say Sweden, which could also be called socialist or most of Western Europe that are social democracies, but some Americans call socialist. I have a suggested test for political psychosis: if you can read an account of the Swedish economic and political system and the North Korean and can’t tell the difference and have no preference which you live in, they you are psychotic: out of touch with reality.

      As for Hitler calling himself ‘National Socialist‘ was just a bit of bs branding. He was an extreme nationalist, or fascist, with no interest in changing the economic system in a remotely socialist way. Indeed, if you read the history of the time, his main funding came from large industrial companies aka capitalists, who are, in my experience working in them, as unlikely as turkeys to vote or fund for Christmas to come early, aka socialist revolution. Hitler’s party grew out of the suppression of the Communists in 1919 by the Freikorps, and his loathing of Communists and his murder of Communists by the million should suggest that something other than ‘socialism’ drove him. He was elected by a minority vote in 1933 on the basis he would stop Communism, not bring in socialism.

      So I share you abhorrence for both rulers, but think clarity of the English language is best served by calling Stalin a Communist tyrant and Hitler an extreme nationalist tyrant, though of course Hitler did steal money from the Jews he killed….Otherwise you run the risk of calling anyone in the current US political spectrum by totally inaccurate names. Fortunately, we in the US don’t have any fascists or communists to deal with. And I think your blog makes some interesting mistakes about Obama, who is no socialist even by Swedish standards.

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