Bloodlands (2010), by Timothy Snyder


Yale historian Timothy Snyder has labored to set straight the awful record of “purposeful policies of mass murder” from 1933 to 1945 by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the “bloodlands,” including Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and portions of Russia, the latter essentially marked by the furthest line the Wermacht reached in Operation Barbarossa before that army began its dooming retreat.

I very much admire Snyder’s impeccable history, as far as it goes in (to use his inspired characterization) “mastering” the horror of the bloodlands. He corrects in one book a number of decades-old misrepresentations of dreadful numbers of the murdered, geographies of such killings, modes of the massacres, ethnic mixes of the killed, and other aspects. No doubt he is courageous to have done so; he is no friend to legends, especially awful ones, and such legends attract loyal, determined, above all political, crowds.

But his corrective nightmare is, I think, essentially a long overdue and most valuable improved factual history which, though simply by its compilations and narration it resonates many other and deeper meanings which for various reasons have sometimes been turned from, turned away, neglected, or falsely represented for eight long decades, begs the most terrible historical question, that question more answerable today than ever if yet far from deeply answerable.

But perhaps Snyder intends not to confront that question. For Snyder tries within the proprieties of the historian to draw an original yet generically usual large picture behind the bloodlands: Stalin’s and Hitler’s differing “utopias”–Stalin’s ruthless “Socialism in one country” versus Hitler’s militaristic “Garden of Eden” of an expanded, pure, invincible “Germandom” self-sustaining through a Nazi “cleansing” and transforming of the bloodlands, especially the rich soils of the Ukraine, into the German breadbasket.

This is bloodbath history which takes very seriously written plans, the prosaic renderings of Genesis-mythic dreams of totalitarians Left and Right, as Explanation. Stalin: “modernization” and “retreat into terror” (especially in Collectivization and the Great Terror); Hitler: “colonial demodernization,” “a lightening victory,” “Hunger Plan,” “The Final Solution,” and “Generalplan Ost.” Snyder seems by my reading essentially to be accounting for the nightmare of the bloodlands by dramatizing the clash therein of these dreams of the two dictators.

He is, in short, strategic.

He makes much of what he calls the “belligerent complicity” of Hitler and Stalin in their strategic dreams in the mass killings–those not directly from military battles–of fourteen million people in the bloodlands from 1933 to 1945.

I’ll leave it to you to consult Snyder directly to obtain his very large, prosaic and needed corrections to the awful record. I consider it required reading.

That aside, it seems to me that the question here, and in the multiplying awfulness in most of history, is How?

How is it possible those fourteen million people could have been murdered? Snyder tells us that such is a matter for historians who focus on how big ideas shape history. He says he is not such and officially declines to analyze Hitler and Stalin and their evil chapters on such levels. Yet, late in his narrative, he is explicit that he does not favor Arendt’s explanations of the massive evil in question, along with her highly estimable ilk of interpreters, especially their theory that modernity has led to a moral isolation of the individual and that somehow such an observation is incisive here. He doesn’t even mention banality.

Snyder, after all, is seeing Hitler and Stalin not in any kind of isolationist context but as de facto co-conspirators or, better put, effectively complicit murderers fighting over one potential (no more important modifier in the present review) Promised Land. An example is Stalin encouraging resistance in Warsaw as the Germans were near withdrawal and then halting the Red Army outside that city long enough for the SS, the Wermacht and their local conscripts, to murder nearly all the Jews left in the Ghetto and raze the city, two conditions Stalin saw as postwar advantages for him. Potential.

Yet in Bloodlands, and as usual, Hitler proves irresistible as an analysand and Stalin seems a mere shadow. Should you read Snyder, I am sure you will agree that this lack of proportion is unintentional. The book opens with an unblinking, terrible account of Stalin’s engineered mass starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. Overall in Bloodlands, the awful facts are distributed between Stalin and Hitler in probably the most perfect proportion yet in histories of this period.

But Hitler, a “romantic,” is portrayed with much more effect. He is the Lead Devil. Stalin, in a way, is discussed behind his back. But I strongly disbelieve Snyder is here in any sense ideological.

The Lead Devil, Snyder tells us, makes several great miscalculations: that there could be a lightening victory over the USSR; that upending the collectivized Ukraine into a frontier manned by brave German farmers would be easy; that most, if not all, “subhumans” in the bloodlands could be exterminated readily. (Around 1943, Himmler saw that only the “utopia” of  “The Final Solution” might be left of Hitler’s dreams and, managing that horror as energetically as he could, accordingly rose in Hitler’s estimation.)

Stalin’s one miscalculation was that Hitler would attack the USSR later than Operation Barbarossa. (As an aside regarding warning legends about Operation Barbarossa: the hoary usual storyline is that Stalin was “in denial” about the German attack and ignored valuable intelligence at his ensuing great peril; but Snyder notes, with back-up reference, that Stalin repeatedly asked his intelligence sources in the lead-up to Barbarossa whether the Wermacht in Poland in the summer of 1941 had winter gear; they did not. Might we say that Stalin miscalculated Hitler’s own “lightening victory” miscalculation? That he quite reasonably thought no one would repeat Napoleon’s folly?)

As to why Stalin is yet again lurking in the shadows, I’ll advance a brief theory.

Snyder gives us a few (unwitting, I think) clues. One is that the NKVD was superior to the SS and the Gestapo in carrying out bloody operations in the bloodlands and elsewhere. The sheer logistics and repressive operations of Collectivization and the Great Terror most probably were beyond the abilities (and even perhaps the imaginations) of the powerful Nazi organs of mass murder and “relocation.” For example, the Gulag system would seem to have exceeded the Nazi camps and murder factories in scope, logistics and control. Accordingly, the forced labor projects managed by the NKVD eclipsed their Nazi counterparts. In short, mass killing is difficult but not as difficult as a multiple dread policy of mass killing and sustained, mass exile (internal in the case of the USSR) and “natural” starvation across a huge area and collectivization and forced industrialization.

The usual idea about Stalin’s shadowy persona: the Nazi horrors were in the glare, the Soviets were among the Allies in World War Two, and some influential intellectuals were reluctant to confront Stalin’s savagery. But as Snyder points out, little actually managed to enter the popular and many other minds about Stalin’s actual conduct at the time. The Popular Front was a success, but perhaps more importantly Stalin winked and said of humanity, that loathsome mass, that no matter how much horror you visit on them, they’ll “swallow” it and forget it soon. He said this in the 1930s in Moscow.

Montefiore’s book about Stalin, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, leaves me with the unassailable impression that beneath all Stalin loathed humanity; yes, the irony is obvious. Nothing in Bloodlands subverts this impression of Stalin. I think the impression serves as a major clue about Stalin’s conduct. More than Conquest, Bullock, Kun, Martin Amis and others, Snyder begs the question of Stalin in the richest context yet.

After all, How did Stalin do it? Engineer much of the nightmare of nightmares in history to his time?

He couldn’t have been a mere romantic and done so. What he must have been, it seems to me, is a certain acute monster who makes Iago look like a comedian. He couldn’t possibly have been intimated by Machiavelli or Dostoevsky, I feel certain. In fact, I cannot imagine any great previous mind, not even Shakespeare, who does so let alone even might have done so.

For want of a better nomenclature springing to mind, Stalin is the Great Dark Redeemer. I believe it diminishes him–and we’ve had all too much of that–to refer to him as the Anti-anything or -anyone.

Dark Redeemer: we should suppose that the Enlightenment idea that man is a noble creature together with Hamlet’s mocking “O what a piece of work is man!” and Twain’s “People are no damned good” are all simultaneously true. Reading between the lines (including the missing lines) in Snyder, you might well begin to sense that the largely off-stage Stalin’s genius was to redeem the primal in us. No grace here. No idealism in any traditional sense. No mere Machiavelli. Instead, it must have been to play simultaneously on the thrill of power tempered with terror. Stalin saw loathsome, predictable human beings, all of us, as able to be seduced and power-hungry and able to be terrified all at once. Stalin must be the greatest natural genius here–the Great Purger, the Inimitable Giant of Terror, the Winner in Every Game of Life and (Horrible) Death–redeeming the darkest side and sustaining the bestiality to become a code of conduct until inevitably that bestiality weakened enough in his Selected to require they be purged and replaced with new beasts still brutal enough.

Here is a speculation about Stalin: He admired the heritage of murderous bestiality–the primatology–of us humans and simultaneously loathed our inevitable weakening, for example, our proclivity to give in to certain corruptions. Strength here would mean being monstrous in the service of a ruthless polity. He spoke of his own duty to remain strong. He would alone be incorruptible. He would purge all others, sometimes before they had notably grown weak, because he saw their weakening as inevitable. He also enjoyed the purging–in a terrible way he was righteous about it–and he also did it to maintain his power. “Paranoia” seems too simple an explanation.

Too few seem to want to talk about it, however. Philosophers and historians of ideas and anthropologists and primatologists sometimes seem not inclined to think about this side of us. Nor beyond anthropology and some psychology do we seem to have done much formal attacking of the issue.

Stalin may have been poisoned to death in his old age–characteristically, we’ll most probably never be sure–but he was invincible for decades in the deadliest daily game of power politics, surrounding himself with other of the deadliest monsters–yes, he must have been the greatest genius imaginable at pure power politics based on the deepest intuitions and sharpest instincts, undefeated in a seemingly endless gladiatorial combat. His massive horrors began before Hitler and went almost a decade beyond Hitler. In some dimensions, they surpass those of Hitler. In a terrible sense–could there be a much more terrible sense?–Hitler was no Stalin.

Stalin was the Great Redeemer of the Bestial, the Great Maestro of the Monstrous, the Great Prophet of the Primal.

We don’t have the science, the tools, the insights to begin yet to fathom him nearly as much as we should. He remains in hiding.

He can make you afraid of yourself, others, and the world. Fear is indeed what we most have to fear.

Snyder has made a brave descent into darkness, one that should have been made.

Perhaps he raises even more questions than he might have supposed.