Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Bloodlands

I read this chilling book at the recommendation of Mike Corkery, the warden at Selwyn College. It is a book which, because of its subject matter, was difficult to finish but which I am very glad I have read.

Published in 2010, it describes the history of that part of Europe caught between the competing totalitarian Empires of Nazi Germany and The Soviet Union between 1933 and 1945. In that 12 year period, approximately 14 million non combatants were deliberately killed by these murderous regimes each under the sway of an ideologically driven dictator.

The Bloodlands are the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, parts of Russia, and the Baltic states. It was here that Stalin deliberately starved 3 million people to death; here that the overwhelming majority of the victims of the Holocaust met their ends; here that millions were murdered or transported in vast programmes of ethnic cleansing. Adolf Hitler had his objective of a racially pure Germany with enough living space in the East to establish a utopian Aryan empire. Stalin sought to consolidate control over a vast and diverse Soviet Union and pre-empt dissension by eradicating or moving any possible locus of rebellion. In co-operation or in competition these two powerful systems unleashed cruelty on the peoples of Eastern Europe whose scale defies the imagination.

The book is meticulously researched and footnoted and there are lengthy appendices. The sheer volume of material makes Snyder's case inarguable. His style is measured and objective. He avoids the temptation of wallowing in salacious detail or emotive sensationalism and instead allows the bald facts of history make their own staggering impact. He makes the point that by far the majority of victims of  both regimes did not die in concentration camps. They were slaughtered in or near their own villages by gas, bullet, fire and starvation and were buried in vast communal graves. The secrecy surrounding the Soviet Union and its satellites, which account for all of the Bloodlands, means that little Western attention has been focused on these atrocities but Snyder corrects that oversight with clarity and quiet, relentless attention to detail.He traces the origins of the conflict back to the division of Europe in the Treaty of Versailles, and further back to the ethnic tensions and rivalries of Europe. He convincingly outlines the motives of Hitler and Stalin, which altered as the Second World War took its course. He examines some of the lasting after effects of the slaughter on the modern States which occupy the Bloodlands.

This is a great and necessary piece of historical writing. It is also a sobering call to reality. These horrific acts, unprecedented in the history of humankind, happened less than a century ago. Only two or three generations ago the ancestors of the current protagonists in the Ukraine were being butchered in their millions. Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians and others were killed or driven from their homes which were then settled by forced migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union. It's no wonder they're fighting today.

Two things struck me particularly about Snyder's analysis. Firstly that none of the atrocities performed by both sides in this conflict would have been possible without the willing and sometimes enthusiastic help of the local populations. Secondly that both Hitler and Stalin were acting from what they believed to be a strong moral imperative. I leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.

This is a book I highly recommend as an insight into the recent past of Europe and into the human condition generally. But don't imagine that you can read it and remain unmoved and unchanged by it.

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