It was all, start to finish, worse than we knew. In the lands between Hitler and Stalin 1933-1945, it was not only worse than we knew then, it was more horrible and cruel than we knew even a few years ago. Timothy Snyder puts the count at 14 million killed, entirely separate from the soldiers and partisans killed in battles and skirmishes. This was primarily in Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus, though massive deaths in Hungary, Russia, Lithuania, and Czechoslovakia are also reported.
Some of the killings were more insane than simply cruel: Stalin demanded more and more grain from the peasants to feed those in the cities, believing the countryside was hiding and hoarding food in an effort to resist the obviously-superior method of collectivsation – and so 3 million of them were starved; Hitler believed that communism was essentially a plot by worldwide Jewry, and so killed Jews wherever they were found, as if they were all somehow involved. Yet intentional cruelty was also an entirely matter-of-fact method of dealing with problems on both sides. Hitler’s intent in invading Russia was to starve up to 30 million Slavs to create room for Germans to grow food. Failing that, he fenced off Soviet POWs in fields behind barbed wire and gave them nothing. 3 million starved.
From 1933-39 Stalin executed more people than Hitler by a factor of a thousand; from 1939-41 they ran even; from 1942 on German forces, aided by thousands of local volunteers, displayed a killing efficiency not since rivaled. (Mao killed many more, and more quickly during the Great Leap Forward, but rather sloppily over a much greater population.) Einsatzgruppen would march hundreds out of a village on a Tuesday to dig huge pits in the forests. On Wednesday they would march out thousands to be forced to kneel at the edge of the pits, shoot, them, and push them in.
It is numbing to read, and I have had to stop when I found myself waking in the morning and immediately picturing some horror from yesterday’s reading. Snyder uses anecdote appropriately, singling out one victim, one particular poignancy from the exectution of 18,000 in a week to stand for the others. A message left for family by a young woman moments before execution, a fleeting memory by a survivor of a lttle boy being eaten, a brief background of a professor trying vainly to escape by train. I contrast this to the dishonest use of anecdote we sometimes encounter now: the story of an outlier or exception whose experience tells against the overwhelming majority but is brought forward because “his story deserves to be told, too.” Only in proportion. It is fair to bring an untold story forward, somewhat less fair to underreport an already-known one. But the overall effect must be close to the reality.
“fascism and freedom are the only two sides battling” Woody Guthrie, 1940 (Note also that this memory of Guthrie is one of the more common one kept into the present.)
Even as Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands came out, there was some complaint from hisorians that he was wrong to compare Hitler’s genocide to Stalin’s mere mass murder. There continues to be resistance to the idea that the Holocaust was not a unique, far-worse episode whose seriousness is diluted by comparison with any other events, that killing lots of the same ethnic group for racial reasons is somehow obviously worse than killing them for political reasons.
On the other side of the divide, one still finds echoes of shrugging at fascism and antisemitism in the service of defeating communism. It is far more common in Europe, but I kept finding it creeping in at the edges in reading about Feeneyism and “traditional catholics.” However doctrinal the motives of most of those folks may be, there remain too many whose less-attrctive motives leak out in their statements. My own political awareness came in the 1960’s, a period I did not consider to be close to the 1930’s-40’s at the time but now perceive clearer lines of descent. Those who are younger may find that this insane ideological dichotomising is ebbing away, and I certainly hope so. To my eyes it is holding firm.
His overarching point, to my reading, is not to compare but to show how both enabled the other to increase in killing. He finds similarity in their totalitarianism. He notes how each learned from the other something of how mass-killing might be accomplished. He notes their cooperation and commonality in the late 30’s. I didn’t see much energy being put into moral equivalence at all. But some reviewers have perceived the work as all-but-explicitly finding moral equivalence, and deploring it. I wonder it it is their own partisanship they cannot let go. Yet I may just be obtuse, here. It’s happened before.
Snyder’s count of of the mass-killing of 14 million is intentionally low – only the mass killings. By his own statement he is being conservative, not counting those who were killed in deportation, in concentration rather than death camps, by increased disease, or civilians in bombings. The dates are not arbitrary, but there is necessarily much explanation – and death – left out on either side, in the 1920’s and 1950’s. Still, it’s a more complete picture than we have had.
The wikipedia article about the book is pretty good, BTW.