Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin

By Wildt, Michael | Kritika, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin


Wildt, Michael, Kritika


Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. xix + 524 pp. New York: Basic Books, 2010. ISBN- 13 978-0465002399. $29.95.

The overarching concept of this book is intriguing. "In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century," writes Snyder, "the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people. The place where all of the victims died, the bloodlands, extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States" (vii-viii). These people were not victims of war but were killed through a "murderous policy." They were not soldiers but "women, children, and the aged" (viii). Snyder thus analytically interlocks the two most murderous regimes of the first half of the 20th century by identifying an East European space. In so doing--25 years after the Historikerstreit, in which German historians fought bitterly over the singularity of the Shoah he repudiates the uniqueness of the German murder of the Jews and instead situates the Holocaust in a spatially circumscribed history of violence. Yet the pitfalls of this brilliant concept are apparent from the outset: if the spatially defined domain fails to hold empirically, the entire concept falters.

Ever since the arrival of the spatial turn in history, it has seemed promising to write a history of 20th-century state violence through the prism of the East European space where most of the Stalinist and Nazi mass murders actually took place. Both Nazi and Stalinist hit squads acted in this space; both regimes occupied this part of Europe; and both regimes had grand plans of how they were going to integrate--and exploit--these regions in their empires. Yet it should be stated right away that Snyder does not present any new empirical research in this book but rather takes a fresh look at the existing scholarship from the perspective of his spatial conception, the "bloodlands." His main concern is not to identify the causes of mass murder or to provide explanations for the Holocaust but rather to compose a synoptic picture of practices of mass murder or, put differently, a panorama of violence in Eastern Europe.

Snyder starts with a short sketch of Hitler's and Stalin's respective rise to power among the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Both Hitler and Stalin drew radical conclusions from the collapse of the Old Europe, but with very different aims in mind. If Stalin saw the only chance for the Soviet Union's survival and for the consolidation of the power of the Bolsheviks in rapid industrialization, even if against the will of its own population, Hitler devised a racist vision of a Grosseuropa under German domination, which would provide East European "living space" (Lebensraum) for the German "master race." When Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin had long eliminated all rivals and was the undefeated leader of the Soviet Union. And while the Nazi regime killed about 10,000 people in concentration camps and prisons before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Stalinist leadership had already allowed millions to die from hunger and had shot about one million people.

Here we already encounter one of the major problems of this book. By focusing on Stalin's crimes, the millions of people who died during the Russian Civil War, and especially the famine of 1921-22, get no attention at all. True, Snyder mentions these victims in passing (11), but he does not go into any depth, probably because they fit into neither his temporal nor his spatial framework. These people died in the "bloodlands" and in many other parts of the former tsarist empire. For the violent policies of the Bolsheviks in general and the Stalinist leadership in particular, the experience of the Civil War was formative, and the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 also in many ways constituted a reliving of the famine that had preceded it by ten years. A history of Soviet violence has to be able to include the Civil War and the 1921-22 famine; if it cannot, its analytical framework is in peril. …

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