By Timothy Snyder
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
It’s difficult to think of a topic more written about than World War II. It was the single largest and deadliest conflict humankind has ever fought, and, despite being over, it still looms over contemporary life. Thousands of books have been written about it, and that’s not counting fictional works in which it features. Even now, Barnes and Nobles awards WWII its own shelves, distinct from History (this from a store that considers Fiction and Literature equivalent). Any author attempting to enlarge this body of work must be hard pressed to contribute something novel.
Most of the extant non-fiction about WWII focuses on nations or regimes, or on the conflict itself. ‘Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin’ is Timothy Snyder’s attempt to examine the combined effect of the Nazis and the Soviets on the region where they did the most damage: Eastern Europe, occupied by both the Nazis and the Soviets during the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, from 1939 – 1941, then by the Nazis during Operation Barbossa and the German advance into Soviet Russia, and then by the Soviets as they pushed the Nazis back into Germany and built the greater USSR.
There are advantages to taking a geographical perspective: because World War II was a struggle of nations, often dominated by personalities, it is usually related narratively, with emphasis on active protagonists. In popular imagination, WWII is a battle between Great Men and Evil Men, Churchill and Roosevelt against Hitler and Mussolini. This focus de-emphasizes the local experience of a single place or people, what it must have been like for someone who occupied a single town, a single country for the entirety of the conflict. We are used to following men and armies from place to place, not at watching them march past us. By holding attention in the brutalized lands of Poland, Latvia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and the rest of Eastern Europe, Snyder refuses to let our minds wander from the constant barrage of violence to which the occupants of these countries were subjected.
This constancy makes for extremely grim reading. It was a horrifying ordeal which was experienced by the population, Jewish and otherwise, of Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1953. Snyder lays before us the mass starvation in the Ukraine, the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war by the Germans, the Holocaust, the decapitation of the intellectual elite in the Eastern Bloc, the “relocations” of any number of Soviet, European, and German national minorities, and even the later (and somehow especially heart-rending) turning of the Soviet leadership on Soviet Jewry after the formation of Israel. The sadness, loss, destruction, and horror is unrelenting. Nevertheless, it is real, it did happen, and I would argue that everyone has an obligation to read this book, or a book very much like it, to trouble themselves to see, as best they are able, what happened.
Snyder’s presentation is clear, well-researched, and extremely thorough. He assumes almost no familiarity with the history of the war, or of the protagonists. Those with little background will be able to pick up ‘Bloodlands’ and not be confused, as long as they are willing to wade through dense and, at times, dry historical prose. I don’t fault Snyder for this, though: military history is almost always dry, and his intention is clearly to present an objective and balanced account. There is some anecdote, but his emphasis is on the greater movements of troops and people. The book will leave anyone who reads it with a strong and relatively complete understanding of the experience of the inhabitants of the Eastern Front.
But I’d like to be clear: that experience, the subject of ‘Bloodlands’, is brutal. At times, ‘Bloodlands’ becomes almost nightmarish for the reader, as massacre follows massacre, and the unending parade of human cruelty continues. It’s saturating; it begins to beggar belief. Synder adopts a scholarly, dispassionate tone though out – I got the distinct impression that he needed to, in order to continue. This tone, while dry, is never disrespectful, and the lack of embellishment helped me get through the material, which might otherwise have become overwhelming.
Despite the salve of Snyder’s tone, though, ‘Bloodlands’ isn’t for the squeamish, or for empaths. Snyder isn’t prurient, and doesn’t revel in the gore, torture, and destruction that characterized the treatment of the people of Eastern Europe; nevertheless, their stories would not be complete without mention of the stomach-turning excesses of violence that took place there. Readers with vivid imaginations, or well-developed senses of empathy, may have trouble reading accounts of the rapes and killings, of mothers having husbands and sons torn from them to be shot. I have a strong stomach, blunted empathy, and long experience with emotionally brutal history, and I still found this book enormously difficult to read. Put another way: if it were a novel, I would avoid it: it’s too much suffering, too hard. If it were fiction, it would be gratuitous.
But it’s not. It’s true, and truth should be witnessed, even it’s difficult. And, ultimately, the grinding sense of despair which ‘Bloodlands’ might elicit in the reader is an inevitable outcome of the very narrative perspective Snyder has chosen here. Because he has chosen a location rather than a protagonist, Snyder has denied readers any of the normal relief of protagonist-driven narrative. In wars, someone wins and someone loses. Strongmen rise and they fall. A place, though, endures, and because the suffering of the people of Eastern Europe didn’t end when WWII did, because they were caught behind the Iron Curtain and spent further decades under the yoke of totalitarianism, ‘Bloodlands’ is unable to offer its readers any of the comforts of narrative resolution. The book end with our sure knowledge that terrible things still await. True things, but terrible nonetheless.