I’m just reaching the end of Yale history professor Timothy D. Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010).
This is an important book for Americans to read. We have a lot of romance surrounding World War II, for several reasons. First, the US and its allies won the war–in a relatively short period of time (Dec 1941 to August 1945). Second, it is the last war Americans can point to that nearly everyone agrees was a “just war” on our end. Indeed, my grandfather joined the Marines because he grew up admiring his older cousins who had served in WWII–though my grandfather’s experience in war (Vietnam) turned out very differently. Third, Americans’ sympathy for the Jews and their plight (as well as our historic support for the state of Israel) makes the Holocaust loom large in our cultural memory of WWII, and we like to think of ourselves as having liberated the Jews from a regime of consummate evil: Nazi Germany. This manifests itself in both serious movies about WWII (e.g., Saving Private Ryan) and films with more stereotyped portraits of Nazis (Indiana Jones movies and Inglourious Basterds come immediately to mind).
Snyder’s book does not minimize the horror and gravity of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. Rather, his book carefully situates the various persecutions and murders of Jews within the larger historical context of two powerful regimes: first, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and second, Hitler’s rising Germany. He tells the story of Stalin’s plan to starve a third of Ukrainians in 1931, of the Molotov-Riggentrop Pact which carved up Poland and other states into spheres of Nazi and Soviet exploitation and oppression, and of the horrible loss of civilians and soldiers in Belarus, Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine, and Russia after Hitler violated the pact. The Eastern European front was far more bloody and horrific than the Western front.
Snyder tells the big-picture narrative using shocking statistics of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions killed–but he also includes personal testimonies that humanize the individuals behind these numbingly high figures. The sufferings of these nations (and their constituent Jewish populations) are each unique, and Snyder treats them that way.
Snyder presents to an English-speaking audience the cultural and geopolitical factors that led to the Holocaust. He speaks of how the Allies betrayed Eastern Europe, especially Poland and the Baltics, allowing them to fall under Soviet influence. (Perhaps the West didn’t know at the time how bad Soviet communism was, but there were signs that Western leaders should not have ignored.) It is all well and good to say, “Never again,” but unless we understand the cultural and political backdrop of these atrocities, they will happen again.
Bloodlands has helped me understand the historical backdrop of the setting in which I’m teaching. A third of my current students are American, a third are German, and a third are from former Soviet states, including Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. As helpful as history can be, I also must resist the temptation to superimpose the histories of these countries on the individuals with which I am interacting. Most of my students are under 22, so they have no personal memory of life in their countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In his sobering conclusion, Snyder writes of the responsibility of the contemporary reader of historiography, especially the Western reader:
Ideologies also tempt those who reject them. Ideology, when stripped by time or partisanship of its political and economic connections, becomes a moralizing form of explanation for mass killing, one that comfortably separates the people who explain from the people who kill. It is convenient to see the perpetrator just as someone who holds the wrong idea and is therefore different for that reason. It is reassuring to ignore the importance of economics and the complications of politics, factors that might in fact be common to historical perpetrators and those who later contemplate their actions. It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands. The identification with the victim affirms a radical separation from the perpetrator. The Treblinka guard who starts the engine or the NKVD officer who pulls the trigger is not me, he is the person who kills someone like myself. Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral. (399)