Lest we forget

This is my review of Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder.

"The Bloodlands" are the areas of western Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic States (like Lithuania) where 14 million people were starved, shot or gassed as part of Stalin's and Hitler's inhuman policies in the period 1933-1945.

You may avoid some confusion by reading first the final short sections "Numbers and Terms" and "Abstract". When reading the main text, I often felt uneasy when trying to grasp to which area or time period a specific gruesome statistic applied. I appreciate that Snyder needs to be accurate for academic reasons, but his obsession with numbers, which are not always expressed very clearly, soon becomes oppressive.

Surely, the main point is that the death toll was appalling whatever the precise figures involved, and one's sole justifiable motivation for reading the book is to gain a better understanding of how and why these terrible things happened, partly so that one will judge more clearly and not slip blindly into being part of the same kind of mad folly.

Again with academic reputation in mind, Snyder labours to provide theories to compare and contrast the various types of horror perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin. However, I often found these arguments quite opaque, in a text that is generally rather long-winded and repetitive.

I hoped for more insights in the final conclusion but was frustrated with such sentences as "Grossman (a novelist of the period) extracted the victims from the cacophony of the century and made their voices audible within the unending polemic" – sounds great, but what does it really mean? I could cite many further examples of windy rhetoric.

The events speak for themselves – the Ukrainian peasants forced to meet impossible quotas, even when it meant parting up with their seed corn, those who survived only because they were prepared to resort to cannibalism when weaker relatives died, Jewish "collaborators" forced to collect up and burn the bodies in the Warsaw ghetto, only to be shot and thrown on the fires themselves. These events do not need to be wrapped up in waffling verbiage, although I would have found it useful to know more about theories on the psychology of crazy leaders and the misguided people who follow them and about the economic and social conditions which led to some of the policies pursued.

Despite this, "Bloodlands" is informative e.g on Stalin's attempts to collectivise the peasants of the Ukraine, the difference between the German concentration camps and grimmer "extermination facilities" often "hidden" from western eyes behind what became "the Iron Curtain", and the shifting occupation of Poland, for a time even split between the Germans and the Russians. "Bloodlands" makes sobering reading (for which I have given it four stars) but could have been better written with more lucid analysis.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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