There are many studies available that document the most brutal chapters of 20th-century history. The Holocaust is well-covered in both scholarly and popular volumes, and even lesser-known subjects, such as the Soviet ‘Great Terror’, the Warsaw Rising and the postwar expulsions of the Germans, have all found their own champions in print.
Yet, to date, nobody has sought to place all of these grim examples of man’s inhumanity to man into a single all-encompassing narrative. That is the task that the Yale historian Timothy Snyder has set for himself with his new book Bloodlands.
Snyder concentrates his attentions on the very epicentre of those horrors – the ‘Bloodlands’ of the title – the territories between Germany and Russia comprising mainly Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, which bore the brunt of the killing in the mid-20th century.
It was there, Snyder suggests, that the two most murderous totalitarian regimes of the time competed, co-operated and overlapped through 20 of the darkest years of human history.
Consequently, it was there that as many as 14 million lives were lost; not through military action, but through deliberate state policy – starvation, execution, maltreatment and gassing.
Professor Snyder is an excellent guide through this man-made hell. A talented historian and an accomplished storyteller, he expertly negotiates an extremely complex story, debunking myths, correcting misconceptions and providing context, analysis and human interest in equal measure, always with a sympathetic ear for the victims themselves.
His holistic approach is a novel one. Modern scholarship and political convention prefer to view Nazi and Soviet crimes in isolation. It is also not uncontroversial, as there are vested interests who would seek to proclaim one or other episode as unique, or especially worthy of study.
Yet, as the author explains, the myriad victims of those events did not have the luxury of drawing such distinctions; they were often condemned to compare, most immediately when the two regimes worked in nefarious concert with each other, or when one totalitarian overlord was replaced by his rival.
History demands that we, of later more blessed generations, do not shrink from such difficult comparisons. Snyder himself certainly does not, addressing the thorny issue in a thoughtful and thought-provoking final chapter.
If there are any quibbles with this book, they are minor. Though stylistically strong, Snyder’s text is dense, packed with information and nuggets of wisdom. It therefore demands positive engagement from the reader.
Moreover, there is a suspicion that the author has been a little too inclusive in his selection of events. Snyder’s overarching argument would have been just as well made, for instance, without the addition of a chapter on the Stalinist anti-Semitic purges of the 1950s, which after all delivered only a handful of victims, and for all their distaste, sit rather incongruously alongside other, more murderous, chapters.
Yet, these are petty concerns. Bloodlands is an excellent, authoritative and imaginative book, which tells the grim story of the greatest human and demographic tragedy in European history with exemplary clarity.
Snyder set out to give a human face to the many millions of victims of totalitarianism. He has succeeded admirably.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital, 1939–45 (The Bodley Head, 2010)