Europe between Hitler and Stalin
By Timothy Snyder
Basic Books, 524 pages, $36
BETWEEN 1933 and 1945, more than 14 million people in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and western Russia were killed, not for anything they did but simply for who they were.
Their political beliefs were suspect, they were the wrong religion or nationality or social class, they were too educated, or were simply judged to be in the way.
This mind-numbing figure does not include the millions of soldiers killed in combat on the eastern front during the Second World War. It describes only non-combatants who were killed as the result of decisions knowingly made by Nazi and Soviet policy makers.
This is why Yale University historian Timothy Snyder calls his comprehensive analysis of this European catastrophe Bloodlands.
He argues that the deaths he describes were the result of competing Nazi and Soviet ideologies reinforced by the mutual tensions that existed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
For the Nazis, Eastern Europe and the western Soviet republics were to be the basis of a new German empire, emptied of their inhabitants and peopled by Germans, embodying Nazi principles and providing food and raw materials for the fatherland.
For the Soviets, control of Eastern Europe provided defence in depth and security for their vulnerable western borders in the war with capitalism that Stalin believed was inevitable.
In 1939 Stalin decided that his best bet for avoiding war was to make a deal with Hitler. Thus when the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, the Soviets moved in from the east, while later annexing Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and parts of Finland and Rumania.
Nazis and Soviets did not simply occupy their new territories. They imposed their political ideologies. Anyone judged to be a threat was eliminated.
The Soviets had been doing this in their own country since at least 1929 when Stalin decided that the Soviet Union must industrialize rapidly no matter what the human cost. National survival was at stake.
Agriculture was collectivized; food was seized; factories were built; enemies, real or imagined, were eradicated or deported to the Gulag labour camps. Millions died and mass killings became routine.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and then the Soviet Union and the Baltic states in 1941, they carried their racist ideology with them. Jews were marked out for annihilation. Poland and the Soviet Union were to be wiped off the map. Non-Germans were to be enslaved, starved to death, or killed.
Snyder begins with the Ukrainian famine engineered by Stalin in the early 1930s, moves on to Stalin's Great Terror, and then focuses on the repercussions of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which opened up Poland and the Baltic states to Nazi and Soviet purges.
He then describes the atrocities resulting from the 1941-45 war in the east, devoting several chapters to the Holocaust, before ending with a chapter exploring Stalin's postwar anti-Semitism.
Aided by the partial opening of Soviet and Eastern European archives, historians have done much work on these subjects in recent years, but, as Snyder says, they have usually been treated separately. By contrast, he combines them into one narrative whose theme is the mass killings of civilians between 1933 and 1945.
Snyder's decision to put aside the brutalized nature of combat on the Eastern front and the resulting millions of military deaths between 1941 and 1945 detracts from the grim story he has to tell. Life and death in the bloodlands were even more horrifying than he describes.
Even so, Bloodlands deserves to be read. It is instructive history in every sense of the word.
Ken Osborne is a professor emeritus of education at the University of Manitoba.