Unshared Histories: Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands"

By Menachem KaiserOctober 16, 2012

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

THE SECOND WORLD WAR is, in a sense, too big for history. It’s a subject too massive and unwieldy, comprised of too many branches of more-local histories, for any standalone account to comprehend. The historian understands this, at least implicitly: any World War II history is an attempt of organization, of curation; is a commitment to a more or less narrow perspective. History isn’t concerned only about what factually happened, which (hopefully, eventually) gets worked out; it’s also concerned about the telling of those happenings, their narrative corraling and shaping. This makes less claim on accuracy — historical scholarship is a sort of useful myopia, a way to filter out what’s not immediately necessary to the story and hone in on what is. It’s an imposition of story.

Thus the narratives of our history books, courses, and museums, which tend to be organized nationally, ethnically, militarily, socially, politically, religiously, thematically — anything, really, that lends a coherent structure. (There are, of course, many — and a few excellent — overview books, but these are usually about the military side of the war, which is less the essence of than the catalyst for the bulk of World War II history.) An exhaustive examination of, say, the political structure of the Third Reich, or the wartime economy of peasant Ukrainian Jews, will be much more relevant to one narrative than another.

The selection and formation of these narratives — the context, scope, frame, emphases, etc. — is the extrahistorical, or historiographical, aspect of historical scholarship. Though it’s not often examined closely, it’s here that biases and under-, over- and misrepresentations are played out; what the historian leaves out can be far more significant and telling than what she puts in. How the story is told, in other words, can be much more politically and even morally complicating than the story itself. Holocaust denial is different than a World War II history work that omits or barely mentions the murder of Jews, the latter might beget a touchy discussion, but it isn’t necessarily the blatant and blatantly insane anti-Semitism of the former.

So when it comes to the period of the Second World War — because “World War II” as a phenomenal (or even temporal) indicator is way too loose — what are the narratives? America by and large has adopted a relatively straightforward and rather easy-on-the-conscience narrative: World War II is known as the ‘good’ war (as opposed to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Korea, Iraq 1 & 2...). There were aggressors (Germany), defenders (US + allies), and victims (Jews, or at least Jews as synechdochal of victims). The Holocaust, as well, understood as a sort of narrative of the war (which it is, even if that feels icky), is even more morally irreducible: here, the victims are, of course, the Jews, the Nazis the closest the world has known to pure evil, and the countries where the murders took place charged with varying degrees of complicity and/or insufficient action.

Let’s put aside Germany (whose narrative hews remarkably close to the American/Jewish one) and Russia (whose war history is almost comically revisionist), and focus on the very crowded space between them. These Central and Eastern European countries (and this is a far less obvious observation than it seems) have produced their own, divergent narratives. As a rule, the more characters and motivations there are, the more complex the story. These countries underwent multiple invasions and occupations, had multiple ethnicities that experienced separate (but often overlapping) persecutions, had their own levels of anti-Semitism and opportunistic (and usually bloody) nationalist campaigns, had their borders drawn and redrawn and redrawn, and then had 40 plus years of Communist rule. The narratives get complicated fast.

Still, in their broadest outlines, these narratives agree. (A unifying commonality: in most of these countries the bad guys are pretty fixed — they really, really hate the Soviets.) But taken in aggregate, there are disparities; how serious these are depends. There are, on one hand, basic, somewhat semantic disagreements, such as, When did the war even begin? When Germany and Soviet Union jointly invaded Poland (September 1939)? Operation Barbarossa, when the Soviet Union was invaded by its former ally Germany (June 1941)? Pearl Harbor (December 1941)? (A teacher of mine in elementary school once said that the Holocaust — which in my Jewish educational system was near-synonymous with World War II — began with Kristellnacht, in November 1938.) These kinds of questions will never be decided, and it may not be useful or possible to do so. But there are also disparities of narrative, of sympathies, that provoke much more difficult questions, like: Who are the war’s aggressors? Are the Russians — and the Russians, remember, did most of the liberating — good guys or bad? How do we measure complicity (or collaboration) of Nazi-occupied countries? How far were citizens of occupied countries supposed to go, generally under threat of death, in helping Jews and other persecuted citizens? Is there any sort of moral allowance for nationalist agendas? Or even bigger: what is moral culpability in a time of widespread suspension of basic morality?

Or, to get right down to it, who, exactly, are the war’s victims?


This sort of wide-lens historical discussion is rare with respect to World War II. Lots of World War II books are published every year, many of them excellent and incorporating recently-available material, but most are either reworking what’s been studied before or burrowing ever deeper into some niche. So Timothy Snyder’s recent Bloodlands is something of a landmark: ambitious enough in scope and breadth to not just add to our existing knowledge of the history of the war, but to change how we look at it.

Bloodlands was unique and original not in its research or findings but in its purview and frame. Bloodlands is primarily, if not solely, a narrative of victimhood, a history of the mass murders committed by Hitler and Stalin. The title isn’t metaphorical: the area called ‘bloodlands’ extends from central Poland to western Russia, covering Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States — the area where 14 million people died, all, as Snyder writes in the preface, “victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them.” This includes Stalin’s deliberate starvation of more than three million Ukrainian citizens, the genocidal POW treatment by both the Germans and the Russians, the Holocaust, postwar ethnic cleansing, and more. It’s an exhaustive and transnational account of who was murdered by Stalin and Hitler, of where and how and (if to a lesser extent) why they were murdered.

This is more significant than one might think. Snyder defocuses the prevalent Western narratives of the war (e.g. Holocaust) and skillfully (if kind of bluntly) demonstrates its multivalency and its incomprehensible man-on-man violence. This hasn’t been done before, or, at least, has never been done before as well. The novel contribution here, again, isn’t original scholarship: even the casual historian will not learn much new (though it’s telling how many American reviewers and readers had no idea of the extent of Stalin’s campaigns of mass murder). What it contributes — even forces — is a new, startling perspective: of the panoply of victims, of just how many, and of how many nationalities, there were; of a history that does not just mention but gives top billing to the atrocities committed by the Soviets; of the War as less a war than a series of overlapping and interrelated massacres.

All of which is historiographically controversial. Expected criticism aside — the consensus was that Bloodlands was excellent and extremely accessible, if guilty of occasionally overdramatic rhetoric — a more nuanced, stranger, and less obviously historical discussion emerged, one about ambition, scope, emphases, relativization, usefulness, and even potential harmfulness.

This was due to Snyder’s juxtaposition of two usually-disparate histories — Stalinist crimes and Nazi crimes — which is, if not the raison d’etre of Bloodlands, pretty close: “This study brings the Nazi and Soviet regimes together,” Snyder writes, “and Jewish and European history together.” It’s a boldly unorthodox treatment of the historical memory of the war (and especially of the Holocaust) — which provoked all kinds of messy questions. Is a narrative of non-ethnocentric victimhood justified? Is it historically or morally problematic? Is Bloodlands redrawing (intentionally or otherwise) moral boundaries? Is this a reworking of proper historical emphases? More pointedly, is it good for (or sufficiently respectful towards) Jewish memory? And more broadly, what is the responsibility of historical memory, and is Bloodlands upholding or abrogating that?

The characteristically astute Anne Applebaum, writing in the NYRB, eloquently framed and defended the implicit comparisons in Bloodlands:

Snyder’s original contribution is to treat all of these episodes — the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust, Stalin’s mass executions, the planned starvation of Soviet POWs, postwar ethnic cleansing — as different facets of the same phenomenon. […] Yet Snyder does not exactly compare the two systems either. His intention, rather, is to show that the two systems committed the same kinds of crimes at the same times and in the same places, that they aided and abetted one another, and above all that their interaction with one another led to more mass killing than either might have carried out alone.

Other critics like Adam Kirsch and Ron Rosenbuam echoed this sentiment, praising Bloodlands for its skillful, sensitive, and noncomparative handling of these histories.

But some seem to refuse the legitimacy of any sort of Nazi-Stalinist comparison, claiming that comparing (even via juxtaposition) is tantamount to equating; and that Bloodlands, whether it means to or not, is positing that Nazi crimes and Stalinist crimes are on some level the same, a position that distorts collective memory (or something like collective memory), specifically of the Holocaust. Snyder’s crime, according to these critics, is that, intentionally or not, he does not differentiate, or does not differentiate enough, between the various mass murders. A sample:

Snyder may not equalize [sic] both, but in reading them as parallel and related histories he distracts from the fact that only the Holocaust aimed for the extermination of an entire people. […] what angers [Snyder] is the preeminent place of the Holocaust in current European and American memory politics including historiography.

Thomas Kuhne, “Great Men and Large Numbers: Undertheorising a History of Mass Killing,” Contemporary European History 21, 2012

The overall impression one gets from Snyder’s book is that 14 million people who died in the Bloodlands died against the same backdrop — the ideologies and concomitant murderous policies of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Robert Rozett, “Diminishing the Holocaust: Scholarly Fodder for a Discourse of Distortion,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs VI: 1, 2012

By equating partisans and occupiers, Soviet and Nazi occupation, Wehrmacht and Red Army criminality, and evading interethnic violence, Snyder drains the war of much of its moral content and inadvertently adopts the apologists’ argument that where everyone is a criminal no one can be blamed.

Omer Bartov, Slavic Review 71, 2012

[Snyder] seeks to contribute to a redress of their legitimate grievances by reframing the events of 1932-1945 in such a way that the Holocaust will no longer occupy the center stage it deserves in European history. [...] As shocking as this litany of mass suffering is, the question we must ask is whether Snyder’s decision to combine such disparate tragedies is historically justified.

Efraim Zuroff, “The Equivalency Canard,” Haaretz, 5 October 2012

The claim is, essentially, that in Bloodlands the memory of the Holocaust, even if 100 percent historically accurate in its depiction, is damaged by neighboring information. So if Stalinism is promoted to “just as bad” or “equally murderous” as the Holocaust, then, the reasoning goes, the Holocaust loses its uniqueness and its memory is thereby diluted.

There are two sequential premises to this line of criticism: (1) that the Holocaust is unique, utterly unlike any other genocide/mass-murder ever perpetrated in terms of scope and ambition and intent, etc.; and therefore (2), the subtext of any comparative Holocaust study is necessarily that the Holocaust is less horrific than it really was (because it’s like this or that genocide/mass murder).

The problem with this two-step bit of logic — that the Holocaust is unique and therefore cannot be studied in any context other than itself — is that the second premise does not follow from the first. An event can be unique, and an event can also be compared without impugning said uniqueness. The terms holding up the argument have been assigned unfair semantic values: “Unique” as a historical term doesn’t mean much — every event is by definition unique, and every event has similarities and dissimilarities to other events; and “genocide” has a questionable etymological and political pedigree — the USSR nixed the first draft of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide because it included “political” killings — that should give one pause before using it as an exclusionary device. At its most extreme, this logic denies the term “genocide” to, well, other genocides — it’s genocide as a zero-sum game.

It is true that the scope, ambition, technology, and organization of the Nazi killing machine has no equal, not in Stalinism, not in any other mass murder. This is widely granted, including, of course, by Snyder, in Bloodlands and elsewhere: Snyder is in fact one of the more eloquent and passionate defenders and explicators of Holocaust memory. Bloodlands has detailed, specific chapters on the Holocaust, which is given as much prominence as it should in a book whose scope is geographical, not national or ethnical. “Because this is transnational history, considering multiple regimes, states, atrocities, and peoples,” Snyder responded to a recent Bloodlands critique, “it is uncomfortable to the national histories that most of us take for granted.”

As a Holocaust book, Snyder admits, Bloodlands is a failure. But, he is constantly at pains to point out, Bloodlands is not a Holocaust book:

Central as the Holocaust must be to any history of European mass killing, it was not the only episode. The subject of Bloodlands is a series of policies of mass killing, of which the Holocaust was the largest in scope and most horrible and the only to target an entire group for extermination. Sometimes earlier policies of mass murder help us to understand the Holocaust; sometimes they do not. Because they sometimes do, Bloodlands [DM1] offers perspectives on the Holocaust that other studies have not. Of the many books written about the Holocaust, not one had previously sought to account systematically for the 8 million non-Jews killed in the lands where the Holocaust took place during the years Hitler was in power. Surely there is room in the discussion for one such book. And surely we should attend to the lives of all of the murdered, regardless of how we categorize them, and regardless of whether or not their fate helps us to understand the Holocaust.

‘Unique’ does not mean, or should not mean, ahistorical. The murder of the Jews happened, and it happened in a specific period and in specific places, and it was not isolated or historically independent from what was happening all around — namely, the worst acts of bloodshed in human history. “Many people believe that the crimes of the Nazi regime were so great as to stand outside history,” Snyder writes. “This is a troubling echo of Hitler’s own belief that will triumphs over facts.”


None of this minimizes anything. But some have argued that the proffered historical narratives in Bloodlands are not just historiographically misguided, but are politically irresponsible and dangerous, as well. A few, but a very vocal few, accused Snyder of being complicit (or of being an unprotesting accessory) in what they have coined the “double genocide” theory. This theory posits that in several Eastern European countries — most notably Lithuania — certain ultranationalist individuals, groups, and/or institutions are pushing for further inquiry into and exposure of Soviet crimes as a means to downplay the severity of their own crimes against their Jewish populations. And Bloodlands, according to at least one critic, has become their “Bible.” Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, wrote in response to a 2010 article by Snyder that previewed the general theme of Bloodlands:

Stalin was, indeed, a ruthless, murderous dictator, but he was no Hitler, and the Soviet Union was not Nazi Germany. To posit otherwise is to deflect the full measure of well-deserved blame from the major culprit of the Second World War and to provide a scholarly basis for the historically-inaccurate “double genocide” theories, so prevalent recently in the post-communist world, which dangerously distort the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Strip away the bluster — the assertion that Snyder posits that Stalin was Hitler, or that the Soviet Union was Nazi Germany, is preposterous — and underneath is a very serious accusation of historical whitewashing. But before one can determine whether Snyder is guilty of providing a “scholarly basis,” one must determine if there is a basis at all.

This is deceivingly difficult to do. A major, foundational problem of the double genocide debate — carried on in newspaper op-eds, book reviews, blogs, and the very occasional scholarly article (which cites the newspaper articles as source material) — is that it is opaque, resistant to any quick n’ neat op-ed-style analysis; and, worse, its complexity isn’t readily apparent, partly because it seems so overwhelmingly terrifying. A phrase like “Lithuanian ultranationalists are pushing an agenda of commemoration of Soviet crimes as a means of Holocaust obfuscation” is, while hair- and blood pressure-raising, a complicated, layered, not-easily-parsed, and highly instigative claim.

Here, very briefly, is the Lithuanian history asserted to be under revisionist attack. In 1941, Soviet-occupied Lithuania was invaded by Germany, who, many Lithuanians hoped, would grant independence — there was, at least at first, a strong nationalist motivation behind Lithuanian collaboration. (The Lithuanian Jews of 1940 were understandably more partial to a Soviet authority then a German one, and many of the early Communist activists were in fact Jews. And despite the fact, as is often said, that not all Communists were Jews and not all Jews were Communists, an equation was planted in the Lithuanian mindset of Jews = Communist, which, though mostly baseless and entirely pernicious, persists in some form to this day.) The Germans were efficient: Lithuania, for generations the most important center of Jewish culture in the world, lost 95 percent of its Jewish population, more than 190,000 people. Most of these were shot in Ponar, a forest about 10km outside of Vilnius, or deported east to camps, usually in Estonia or Latvia, where they were gassed or shot.

The manpower to pull off such a logistically-impressive cleansing was largely supplied by Lithuanians. There is no question that Lithuanians murdered Jews, both as German subordinates — the Nazis commandeered the police force and mobilized volunteer units — and on their own volition: more than 24,000 Jews were killed by locals in hundreds of pogroms, some of them occurring even before the Nazi invasion. (The precise number of perpetrators/collaborationists is contested, though it seems to me to be an irrelevant, empty statistic — Lithuanians carried out the German orders of deportation, ghettoization, and execution, too.)

From the vantage of local Jewish history, then, there are questions of what to commemorate, what to educate about, what should be apologized for, how to not “dilute” or “obfuscate.” And for starters: Is Lithuania doing enough to commemorate and properly historicize the Jewish tragedy? No. Not even close. It’s a pretty damning litany of insensitivities and inactions. Here is a partial list. Aside from a few token plaques and barely-relevant statues, there is virtually zero commemoration of the ghettos. Proper acknowledgment of Lithuanians’ crimes has either not happened, or when it has, has been far too hedged and qualified. (Last year, though, the government agreed to pay more than $50 million in compensation for confiscated Jewish property, which isn’t the same as admission, but it’s a start.) The educational system, though it has made enormous strides in the last few years, is still breathtakingly blasé about the whole thing — schoolchildren learn an abridged and bowdlerized history, and depressingly few Lithuanians have visited Ponar. There is a sort of institutionalized apathy, a comfortable semi-ignorance, which is more dispiriting than antipathy. The Genocide Museum in Vilnius is, depending how you look at it, either exceptionally anti-Semitic or outrageously misnamed — it contains only a token mention of the Jewish genocide. (I am actually partial to the possibility of this being a somewhat innocent nominal error. Despite the title, the Genocide Museum isn’t really about genocide, it’s about the KGB — it’s housed in the former headquarters, in whose basement Lithuanians were routinely interrogated, tortured and shot.) There has been insufficient action taken against neo-Nazis and other extremists. And there have been no shortage of diplomatic boners — Lithuania has repeatedly failed at proper extradition and prosecution of Nazi criminals, and ministers have gone on record with statements that are the very least insensitive, at worst anti-Semitic and anti-Holocaust.

This is bad, but is still not the purported sin of historical revisionism. That accusation is more subtle: in promoting Communist commemoration, this argument goes, the Lithuanians are attempting to cement their historical role as one of victims — and only as victims, not as murderers or collaborationists or the like — putting themselves in the same, or at least a similar historical boat as the Jews. According to some critics, Communist commemoration, by evoking notions of double genocide, is precisely a case of minimizing the Holocaust through comparison. And books like Bloodlands — which has been feted in Lithuania — are (the accusation goes) lending this false equivalence a very dangerous legitimacy.

If nothing else, the double genocide critics have raised awareness of these issues, which is commendable; there is much to criticize. But only to a point: to defend one historical obligation by assailing another is misguided and counterproductive.

Because the Lithuanians suffered exceptionally as well, having been thrice occupied, murdered and deported in abundance (it is estimated that up to 30 percent of Lithuanians were either killed or deported during Soviet occupation), and were under an extremely harsh Soviet rule until staggeringly recently. (Indeed, it is useful to discuss Lithuania qua modern country — as intellectually free and open to outside influence and ideas — as really only existing for just over 20 years.) The crimes of Stalin and of the Communist regime have not been studied or commemorated or even exposed nearly enough, and Lithuania and other post-Soviet countries justifiably feel that their victimhood has long been minimized, especially in the West. Holocaust scholarship and commemoration, in contrast, is advanced and expansive — indeed, one might say these countries, far from trying to minimize the Holocaust, are using it as a sort of commemoration benchmark. There are very good reasons why Lithuanians loved Bloodlands.

The double genocide critics have a valid concern: Holocaust memory in Eastern Europe is still in its infancy and occasionally under attack — but the insistence of one historical legitimacy over another is not the vehicle for that worry. Attacking the Prague Declaration — whose most extensive Nazi-Communist comparison is that it calls for “an all-European understanding that both the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes each need to be judged by their own terrible merits” – as having an “ulterior agenda” and “anti-Semitic, racist, and Holocaust distortionist motives” serves nobody’s cause. The process of integrating a nonnational narrative into a national one will be long and intense and complicated; there will always be pockets of anti-Semitism; and there will be, at least (and hopefully only) at the outset, insensitivities and lack of proper commemoration and respect. And it's not only the Jewish narrative that is insufficiently noted: there was incredible wartime violence directed towards Lithuanian Poles and Belarusians, whose history has also been effaced in post-Soviet Lithuania. See Snyder's excellent (and controversy-free) Reconstruction of Nations.

Similar processes of memory rebuilding have been just as unsmooth in most developed European countries, including Germany (most notably in the form of the Historikerstreit), Austria, France, and others. There is a couple generations lag in Eastern Europe: the Lithuanian historical narrative isn’t yet robust enough to handle dual victims (especially when one set of those victims happens to be the sometime murderers of the other); the challenge here is to complexify and, above all, to educate. The dugheeled, aggressive stance of the double genocide critics alienates and provokes, and kills the dialogue that is needed in order to move forward. Indeed, the double genocide critics have criticized state-sponsored Jewish commemoration, claiming the government is seizing on and leveraging “safe” Jewish history. When Lithuania’s treatment of Holocaust memory — which, while nowhere near where it should be, is improving — is perceived as malice rather than negligence, the rift becomes essentially unfixable.

Bloodlands and the controversies surrounding it exposed a fault line: there is, in Lithuania and elsewhere, a very frictional merging of two historical narratives. The process is long and painful, but will decide if ultimately there is to be a shared cultural and commemorative space, if history is to become a little less impossible.


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LARB Contributor

Menachem Kaiser is a writer based in Detroit, MI, and a Zell Fellow at the University of Michigan. He holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, and was a Fulbright Fellow to Lithuania. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, BOMB, Vogue, The Atlantic, New York, Tablet, LARB, and elsewhere. (Photo by Jason Francisco.)


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