Humanity in the Bloodlands

Each of the living bore a name.

So writes Timothy Snyder in the conclusion of Bloodlands, a systematic and unblinking account of the utter Hell experienced between Berlin and Moscow from 1930 to 1947, wherein fourteen million people were killed. 

Snyder’s thesis is that, as history, World War II was not just about D-Day or death camps. The majority of deaths resulted from mass shootings and starvation, and they largely took place within countries like Poland and the Ukraine. 

What may be most horrifying about reading Bloodlands is that it represents only the highest tiers of devastation, some of the most gruesome crags that rise above the clouds. The number of deaths accounted for in Snyder’s history excludes the millions of combat deaths in the war. It passes over  deaths from fatigue or malnutrition at concentration camps or during forced deportations. It completely discounts deaths in the Pacific and Western Europe theaters, as well as the many millions of ethnic Chinese who died during the World War II era. All told, as many as 60 million people died during the WWII era. Snyder’s area of focus amounts to less than a quarter of the total.

In spite of these exclusions, reading Bloodlands makes you wonder, after what took place during those years, how is anyone left alive at all? For hundreds of pages death is layered upon death, to the point that only an innate compulsion to bear witness to the inhumanity prevents you from skipping the ceaseless, murderous repetition.

Snyder’s anecdotes make your stomach turn: starving families eating their youngest children, pregnant women’s bellies bursting in the crematoria of the death camps, civilian nurses raped and then shot after pleading that their patients be spared. Reading all this, I kept returning to that line at the end of the book. Each of the living bore a name. These are not just a multitude of numbers and bodies, but real people who were seen as less than human. 

As a work of history, Bloodlands is most successful when it fights back at the insidious shorthand of the American social studies classroom. For example, most Jews were not killed in gas chambers, but were shot and buried in unmarked graves. More Soviet citizens died than any other population during the War. The majority of them were not Russian but Ukrainian, the same ethnic population that had died by the millions during Stalin’s forced starvation and political killings of the 1930s.  To a Polish national caught in the crossfire of these two warring nations, it was a Hobson’s choice of masters: be killed by the Germans for your racial impurity or by the Russians for failing to conform to the new class system.

Snyder does not set the Russian and German killing machines on equal moral footing, nor does he let Stalin off easily. A death is a death, and Stalin’s slaughter of his own people bookend the far more alien cruelties of the Nazi SS. The history concludes with the deaths of tens of thousands of ethnic Germans that Stalin and the post-war Polish government forced from their homes within the boundaries of a new Polish State in a final ethnic cleansing.

Literary figures from the Master List appear frequently in Bloodlands: George Orwell chastises his fellow Britons for their indifference to the future of the Polish state. Gunter Grass’s mother offered herself as a rape victim to Soviet troops in a failed hope of sparing her daughter. Arthur Koestler, whose novel Darkness at Noon is the great fictional account of the Great Terror, recalls seeing the starving throngs during  Stalin’s Ukranian famines and perversely thinking they were “enemies of the people who preferred begging to work.”

Bloodlands is not an enjoyable book, but it is a necessary one. The events that took as many as 60 million lives across the globe in the 1930s and 40s did not begin on September 1, 1939 and they did not end in the summer of 1945. They were not solely the crimes of Germany, Italy and Japan. They were not committed exclusively by men in uniform. Bloodlands turns our stomachs, but it also etches the reality of this horror in our minds.

Each of the living bore a name.

One Response to “Humanity in the Bloodlands”
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  1. […] is a scene like that every few pages. Reading it, I was reminded of my reaction to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which is a nonfiction history of the same era: “For […]

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