How does one become a celebrity historian? Let’s consult the trajectory followed by Timothy Snyder. First, learn Russian, German, French, Polish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Czech and Yiddish. Get tenure at Yale. (If you can manage, it helps to befriend Tony Judt, become his protégé and co-write his autobiography.) Then sign a contract with a trade press to write a 400-page revisionist history of the Holocaust. Make sure the book is about much more than the Holocaust, and call it Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Steer clear of grand theory; let numbers and geography do the talking. Be careful not to exceed the age of 40. Complete these steps, and you’re no longer an anonymous academic star–you’re a public intellectual.
Between 1930 and 1945, 14 million civilians were murdered in a swath of territory covering Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics and a slice of western Russia. These are Mr. Snyder’s “Bloodlands”–a nightmare realm squeezed between two empires and subject to recurring invasions from each. Its most famous victims were the 5.4 million Jews who perished in Hitler’s Holocaust, but there were others, too: more than 3 million Ukrainains, several hundred thousand Poles and 3 million Soviet prisoners of war.
Forget the blitz: Western Europeans didn’t suffer anything remotely comparable. A Polish gentile living in 1933 had comparable odds of surviving the war as a German Jew. (Polish Jews fared rather worse: They were 16 times as likely to die.) Mr. Snyder says he isn’t interested in the “international competition for martyrdom,” but his preference for body counts impels the reader to rank and compare. Ukrainian villagers had it bad; Soviet POWs had it really bad; Belorussian shtetl-dwellers had it so bad that barely anyone survived who could tell us how bad it was. Mr. Snyder’s gamble is that a proper accounting of corpses can be parlayed into a unified history.
A unified theory of civilian murder, however, is off the table. We’re told that for decades “Europe’s epoch of mass killing has been overtheorized and misunderstood.” Theodor Adorno blamed totalitarianism on the Enlightenment. Hannah Arendt declared evil “banal.” Against the grand abstraction favored by Central European emigrés, Mr. Snyder urges a simpler set of questions: Who died? How did they die? Where did the killing take place? For most of us, his answers are unexpectedly unexpected.
Many have portrayed the Holocaust as a grimly technological affair. In fact, Mr. Snyder tells us, most of the killing was quite primitive. Although many Jews were gassed and cremated, many more were round up, shot and dumped into pits. Those who were gassed were gassed upon arrival–not at camps like Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen, but in mobile gas vans, or at death factories built in the occupied Soviet Union, such as Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor. Ninety percent of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were Ostjuden, many of them conservatively dressed, Yiddish-speaking villagers. Most were killed near their homes. Few Jews ever saw the inside of a concentration camp.
Why are we obsessed with the camps? Experts have been writing about SS-operated gas vans and gun-wielding Einsatzgruppen for years. But most of us get our Holocaust imagery from Anne Frank, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel or, more precisely, from the Hollywood and Broadway vehicles their tales have inspired. By the time these mostly Western cosmopolites arrived at Auschwitz, the bulk of Hitler’s Jewish victims–poor, bearded, devout–were already dead. We’ve been trained to see the Holocaust through the eyes of its survivors, but the hallmarks of their stories–the urbane upbringing; the attics, deportations and trains; the lice inspections, the tattooed numbers, the crammed bunk beds, the fake “showers”–conjure the experience of a small minority. There were no lice inspections at Belzec–getting sent there meant immediate extermination.
HAD ADORNO LIVED to see Life Is Beautiful, he may or may not have retracted his edict regarding the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz. But poetry, in addition to films, endowed chairs and Nobel Prizes, is one of the most important things Auschwitz produced. The pits of Babi Yar, some 600 miles further east, do not figure as brightly in the collective imagination. Partly this is because the pits left so few survivors (and most of those who did survive ended up in the Soviet Union, where official histories cut them out), and partly because their victims’ stories are harder to glamorize. Our appetite for tragedy is robust, but it flags when the protagonists are neither rich nor stylish.
Other stories in the book are even more resistant to cinematization. Bloodlands begins with the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933, a humanitarian debacle in which more than three million people starved. As Stalin collectivized Soviet agriculture, yields in the fertile Ukrainian countryside plummeted. Moscow responded to the shortages by requisitioning local food supplies and exporting them to other parts of the Soviet empire. As conditions deteriorated, thousands resorted to cannibalism. Parents ate children; the more punctilious ones allowed their children to eat them. Cinema has managed to erode the incest taboo, but it has yet to tackle infantiphagia.
Stalin’s technique of forced starvation through collectivization found an admirer in Hitler, who thought the tactic could be leveraged for more ambitious purposes. As Mr. Snyder tells it, the Third Reich’s “Hunger Plan,” mostly unrealized, would have starved 45 million Slavs, including 89 percent of the Polish population. Under the plan, large sections of the Bloodlands were to be transformed into an agrarian state characterized by “exterminatory colonialism and slave labor” (Hitler’s other great model in this regard was the United States). The Wehrmacht’s failure to defeat the Red Army–and the SS’s inability to match the efficiency of the Soviet secret police–prevented Hitler from achieving his dream. He had to content himself with a less coherent set of infamies: the extermination of the Jews, the murder or deportation of half of Belarus, the forced starvation of three million Soviet prisoners of war.
MR. SNYDER NEVER directly justifies his numerical allegiances: Why should the regions that counted the most corpses command the most attention? Readers might reasonably determine they have more to learn from Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française than from a digest of mortality figures from greater Minsk. But Mr. Snyder isn’t crunching numbers into a void. Although most of his stories are already familiar to the pertinent victim groups, few are familiar to a general readership. Poles tend to learn about Polish deaths; Ukrainians about Ukrainian ones. Every group wants their suffering to match (or exceed) Jewish suffering, so exaggeration abounds, contributing to an already tense dynamic between Jews and the countries of the former Warsaw Pact. In 2001, Jan Gross, a Princeton historian, published a book called Neighbors that documented a Polish-led massacre against Jews in a small town. The thought that Poles and other Slavs were the Jews’ true enemies found an eager audience. Where the Germans have demonstrated rare and admirable contrition, Eastern Europeans have tended to game the data. At the same time, stacks of dissertations have accumulated that finger Poles, Ukrainians and others as anti-Semitic co-conspirators.
In smuggling all varieties of civilian slaughter under a single geographic umbrella, Mr. Snyder issues a sly rebuke to both Eastern European nationalists and their Holocaust-supremacist detractors. Of course there were collaborators in Poland and the Ukraine, just as there were in France and Holland. Some were bloodthirsty anti-Semites; many were survivalists. And yet, as Mr. Snyder points out, the Poles were the only group among the allies that took concrete action to support Jews during the war. (The Polish Home Army, a partisan group, tried 11 times to breach the Warsaw ghetto.) Where Arendt was a philosopher, Mr. Snyder is a diplomat. His grand collation of national traumas could provide a back door to reconciliation–or a trapdoor to further recrimination. Faced with lies, Mr. Snyder takes refuge in statistics, but reconciliation requires storytelling, not computation. For Babi Yar, as for Auschwitz, the figures needed are the poetic kind.