- he locates the vast majority of the slaughters of civilians in a specific geographic space--from central Poland to Smolensk, taking in territory in Poland, the Baltic lands, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia--and helps us understand the logic of this geography;
- he analyzes the ways Hitler's and Stalin's strategies built upon each other, and how those exterminations in those specific places served their aims;
- he describes the mechanisms of utter forgetfulness--why the vast majority of these fourteen million women, children, and men died without the world noticing, and why their deaths usually remain unremembered even now (hint: many don't fit the conventional GULag/Auschwitz categorizations).
With a single word (Marxists), Hitler united the mass death in the Soviet Union [Ukrainian starvation at the beginning of the 1930's] with the German social democrats, the bulwark of the Weimar Republic. It was easier for most to reject (or accept) his entire perspective than it was to disentangle the true from the false. For people lacking close familiarity with Soviet politics, which meant almost everyone, to accept Hitler's assessment of the famine was to take a step toward accepting his condemnation of left-wing politics, which in his rhetoric was mixed with the rejection of democracy as such.This final quotation from Neal Ascherson's review in the Guardian might help explain why the book is such compelling reading even as it makes my stomach hurt to read it:
Stalin's own policies made it easier for Hitler to make this case, because they offered a similarly binary view of the political world. Stalin, his attention focused on collectivization and famine, had unwittingly performed much of the ideological work that helped Hitler come to power.
* * *
Together, between September 1939 and June 1941, in their time as allies, the Soviet and German states had killed perhaps two hundred thousand Polish citizens, and deported about a million more.
* * *
Hitler wanted the Germans to become an imperial people; Stalin wanted the Soviets to endure the imperial stage of history, however long it lasted. The contradiction here was less of principle than of territory. Hitler's Garden of Eden, the pure past to be found in the near future, was Stalin's Promised Land, a territory mastered at great cost, about which a canonical history had already been written (Stalin's Short Course of 1938). Hitler always intended to conquer the western Soviet Union. Stalin wanted to develop and strengthen the Soviet Union in the name of self-defense against just such imperialist visions, although his fears involved Japan and Poland, or a Japanese-Polish-German encirclement, more than an invasion from Germany.
* * *
[In Hitler's view] Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based on exterminatory colonialization and slave labor.
The figures are so huge and so awful that grief could grow numb. But Snyder, who is a noble writer as well as a great researcher, knows that. He asks us not to think in those round numbers. "It is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 different people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber." The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. "It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people."Snyder's frequent comparisons of Hitler and Stalin, two of Earth's all-time champions of mass evil, are fascinating (and horrifying). Hitler and his colleagues often come across, at least in their earlier years, as amateurs compared to Stalin and the well-developed apparatus of the NKVD. It reminded me of a comment made by our friend in Buzuluk: "Nazi Germany was a Kindergarten compared to Russia. Next to Stalin, Hitler was just an amateur." Tens of thousands of Stalin's political opponents were executed, and millions died of avoidable starvation, disease and cannibalism in the Soviet Union, during the 1930's; civilian exterminations on this scale under Hitler did not occur until the war--but at that point Hitler more than made up for lost time.
Do I still believe what I said a couple of years ago in "Are you adequately ashamed?"? There I expressed my dislike of foreigners practicing atrocity voyeurism at Russia's expense. I didn't like--and still don't like--the idea of Americans and others feeling either pity or superiority because of the depth and scale of the Soviet descent into mass brutality and the apparent lack of an adequate reckoning to this day. Snyder's book reminds me that, in that lack of reckoning, there may be both denial and political pragmatism, but there are also very clear reasons why people simply don't know what happened. For those who don't--even for those who think they do!--he is a disciplined and humane guide into the planetary pathology of the "bloodlands."
Snyder's concern isn't to shame this or that party or politician in any country. (At least not in what I've read so far!) But simply as human beings, we have a sacred job to do: to remember these forgotten victims, to listen to the traces of their voices provided by Snyder's dedicated research, and to understand the global criminals who organized, argued for, recruited for, and justified their slaughter, with the active or passive complicity of millions just like us. The slogan "never again" loses all power if we think this is a national problem requiring strictly national expiation. It's a problem that makes nonsense of inane patriotism and glib liberalism alike. It is a problem of our species.
Bloodlands, part two
"Meet Patrick Ball, a statistician who's spent his life lifting the fog of war." (Link from Arts and Letters Daily.)
Like many Friends publishers, the Press is in a difficult financial position these days; if you request this PDF from this page, I hope you also make a contribution to Argenta Friends Press on this page.
Linah Alsaafin: "My grandfather passed away and I was denied the right to see him." (Original article here.)
"New! Improved! Russian political ads!" The presidential election is three days away.
Book review of James Cone's and John Piper's books on "coming to terms with our [racist] inheritance." "Both authors skillfully claim the redemptive possibilities resident in their inheritance. But one must accept the full inheritance. And the full inheritance includes the Christian hands that shed innocent blood. Herein lies my criticism."
"It was a dark and stormy night. There was a knock on Tuffy Tooth's door. 'Why it's Dr. Friendly, the dentist.' 'Hello, Tuffy.' 'And a little girl.' 'My name is Judy--and I'm afraid.'" The Internet Museum of Flexi/Cardboard/Oddity Records takes it from there--but it's just a brief sample. Once upon a time I collected thin plastic and cardboard records like this, but I have no idea what happened to my collection.
"You don't need no ID, you don't need no membership card."