Bloodlands: Europe between Stalin and Hitler, by Timothy Snyder, Bodley Head, RRP£25, 544 pages
Between 1933 and 1945, some 14m people were murdered in the vast stretches of land that lie between Berlin and Moscow. Today, this area spans Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, western Russia and the eastern Baltic coast, but in this superb and harrowing history Timothy Snyder has named it the “bloodlands” – an appropriate name, given how much blood was shed there.
Very few of us would be able to identify how all these people died. Our ignorance is rooted partly in the fact that the deaths are less well documented, the bodies having fallen in an area that was quickly shrouded by the Iron Curtain.
All of us would be able to account for at least 5.4m of the deaths, which were the result of the Holocaust. However, very few have heard of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian term for Stalin’s deliberate starvation of the Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, which ended in some 3.3m fatalities.
Snyder’s first chapter on the Holodomor is distressing to read. He recounts how, in one orphanage in a village in the Kharkiv region, the children started to eat the youngest child while he was still alive. Strips were torn off his body, and the child even started to eat parts of himself. Some children even sucked at the blood issuing from his wounds.
Of course, according to Stalin’s twisted logic, the Ukrainians were starving in order to spite him. Those affected by the famine were actually “saboteurs”, who were deliberately halting the dictator’s attempt to create an industrial society that would be a more stable framework on which to build his workers’ utopia.
Hitler, however, used the Holodomor to show that Marxism was failing. Both dictators were masters at politicising death, and Hitler used the famine as a stick he wielded against his opponents on the left. In Snyder’s eyes, Stalin had therefore unwittingly helped Hitler come to power.
Snyder shows how many millions of the deaths in the bloodlands were brought about by what he calls “belligerent complicity” between the two men.
“De-enlightenment” was another motive for murder shared by both Hitler and Stalin, who did their best to eradicate Poland’s cultural and military elite. Between them, they killed some 200,000 Polish citizens. Like Stalin, Hitler also practised starvation, and Snyder estimates that the Nazis starved 4.2m Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians from 1941 to 1944.
Some may find Snyder’s staking-out of the area of the bloodlands too arbitrary for their tastes, and might accuse him of creating a questionable geographical delineation. Agree with it or not, in a sense it does not matter, because Snyder presents material that is undeniably fresh – what’s more, it comes from sources in languages with which very few western academics are familiar.
The success of Bloodlands really lies in its effective presentation of cold, hard scholarship, which is in abundance.
Guy Walters is the author of ‘Hunting Evil’ (Bantam)