Bloodlands: Worthy – With Reservations

An Austrian historian finds Snyder’s history has forgotten the plight of the soldiers

TVR Books | Oliver Rathkolb | May 2012

When Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin was first published in English in 2010, it met with almost universal acclaim in the United States; they saw it as a taboo-breaker, with the crimes of Hitler and Stalin seen in relation to each other, sharing a time and place, and thus a history of the era reconsidered. But the critics in the German-speaking world were more reserved – and with justification.

That is not to say that it wasn’t a worthy achievement: Yale professor Timothy Snyder had taken on a chapter of history that had been marginalised, of a violent region between the Baltic States, Central Poland, the Ukraine and western Russia. Between 1932-33 and 1945, an estimated 17 million civilians and prisoners of war were murdered by the regimes of Stalin and Hitler. In Belarus alone, about half of the entire population died at the hand of the Soviet and Nazi terror.

Timothy Snyder has succeeded in reconstructing countless details of these violent years – including an array of individual stories – in a well-written and engaging book. But the comparison between the two regimes remains very blurred, never successfully argued.

The author is no historical revisionist, or trivialiser of Nazi crimes. But he fails to deliver his readers any new explanatory model for understanding the excesses of violence. This is, at least in part, because he fails to take on the question of all the military casualties, so that the essential question remains unanswered, of why almost 50 per cent of the military losses of World War II, as well as the civilians, were precisely in this very same area. The radicalisation on the battlefield simply cannot be separated from the human contempt of the brutality against civilians.

That Bloodlands was awarded a prize from the Leipzig Book Fair has primarily to do with the fact that the author broke with the fading awareness in the West of the martyrdom of eastern European peoples, and described in minute detail the spiral of violence that characterised the wave of Stalinist terror and the Nazi campaign of annihilation. Snyder succeeded in delivering both an absorbing retelling of the Ukrainian famine and deportation, and reconstructing the horrific details of the National Socialist death machine.

In the end, however, he fails in the interpretation of why the two terror regimes worked the way they did, and the resistance in the Soviet and German societies remained marginal. It would have been important to give some thought to the previous history of the bloodlands in the World War I, in the civil war in the Soviet Union and the pogroms against the Jews. It is particularly frustrating because Snyder has already published pieces addressing these issues.  The previous experience of violence is surely an important precondition for an overall interpretation of these issues.

So in this sense one must agree with the historian Dan Diner: "It is not without ambiguity, in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, that under the Nazi Regime, the Jews were murdered without exception, while under Stalin’s Terror, it was unpredictable and affected everyone, but one could also be spared."


Univ. Prof. Dr. Oliver Rathkolb heads the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. This article originally appeared in the Austrian daily Kurier. Trans.: DMN

For Justin McCauley's review of Bloodlands from the May 2012 TVR, see here.

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