FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK DECEMBER 2, 2010
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin
By Timothy Snyder
(Basic Books, 524 pp., $29.95)
‘Now we will live!’... the hungry little boy liked to say ... but the food that he saw was only in his imagination.” So the little boy died, together with three million fellow Ukrainians, in the mass starvation that Stalin created in 1933. “I will meet her ... under the ground,” a young Soviet man said about his wife. Both were shot in the course of Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, which claimed 700,000 victims. “Two hundred thousand Polish citizens were shot by the Soviets or the Germans at the beginning of World War II.” “Only Tania is left,” a little Russian girl wrote in her diary in besieged Leningrad, where the rest of her family and nearly one million other Leningraders starved to death. “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive,” a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in Belarus wrote to her father. “She was among the more than five million Jews gassed or shot by the Germans.”
So begins Bloodlands, a genuinely shattering report on the ideology, the political strategy, and the daily horror of Soviet and Nazi rule in the region that Timothy Snyder calls the bloodlands. In 1933, when the murderous madness began, the bloodlands were made up of independent Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as (within the Soviet Union) Belarus, Ukraine, and some of Soviet Russia’s western provinces. A glance at a map of the same area in 1941 shows that in the intervening years the bloodlands had become two countries: the German Reich and the Soviet Union. Acting in harmony, these two countries swallowed the region’s other countries. Clearly, then, Bloodlands is not only the story of hunger, war, and massacre, but also of imperial conquest. And rather than satisfying the two monster states, their imperialism caused them to turn against each other until one disappeared from the map, if only temporarily, while the other triumphed, only to disappear five decades later. In sum: the bloodlands are the area, in Snyder’s view, where the two dictators most effectively demonstrated their ability and their desire to kill.
At first the idea of these “bloodlands” strikes one as arbitrary, but on reflection I have come to appreciate the justice of Snyder’s notion. After all, many more people died in the bloodlands in the 1930s and 1940s—of hunger, typhus, frost, arson, forced labor, torture, and murder—than in all the rest of Europe. The major victims of one or the other killer, or of the two killers acting in unison, were Jews, Poles, ethnic Germans, well-to-do farmers, members of the intelligentsia, and religious and ethnic minorities.
One might object to Snyder’s thesis by arguing that other areas of Europe were similarly affected—Germany, with its half-million civilians annihilated in Allied bombings; or Greece, where 100,000 civilians died during the famine of 1941 - 1942; or the northern Netherlands, where thousands starved to death early in 1945; or Romania, where 300,000 Jews were wiped out in that country’s own specific Holocaust; or Hungary, where, in 1944, the authorities handed over more than 400,000 Jews to the Germans for extermination; or Yugoslavia, where the civil war resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties; or elsewhere in the Soviet Union, where many ethnic minorities living east of the bloodlands were deported and partly annihilated at the orders of Stalin during and after the war. Those, too, were unprecedentedly dark times and places. And yet one must agree with Snyder that the doubtful honor of having lost the highest proportion of their inhabitants during the war belongs to Poland, the three Baltic countries, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of western Russia. The tragedy of the other European states pales in comparison.
What made things worse for those in the bloodlands was that while all countries in German hands had to suffer a German military invasion and then, three or four or five years later, another military campaign bringing about their liberation, the people of the bloodlands suffered through three occupations, none of which can really be called a liberation. In 1939, the German army conquered the western half of the bloodlands, and the Soviet Red Army the eastern half. Two years later Germany seized the entire bloodlands. And three years later the Soviets returned, conquering or reconquering the whole territory. Each occupation brought about a complete political, economic, and social reversal. What had been legal and even mandatory in the Polish Republic, for instance, became a crime in German-occupied western and central Poland, as well as in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland; only that in the latter people were punished in the name of principles that were the exact opposite of the principles enunciated in the western or German sector. In 1941, inhuman Nazi laws replaced inhuman Soviet laws, which were again reversed with the expulsion of the German army from Poland in 1944 - 1945.
Despite their antithetical ideologies, Nazi and Soviet rule in Poland bore many similarities, mainly because both the Nazis and the Soviets aimed at the fatal weakening of the Polish nation through the elimination of its military and administrative elite, its clergy, its intelligentsia, and its bourgeoisie. For the purpose of ridding the country of all elements potentially inimical to German and Russian supremacy, it mattered little whether a Polish-speaking merchant in Lwów (Lviv) was deported for being a bourgeois or for being a Jew, or whether a Polish peasant in the Białystok region was shot for being a kulak or for being a subhuman Slav.
Timothy Snyder did archival research in English, German, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Russian, and French. His learning is extraordinary. His vivid imagination leads him to see combinations, similarities, and general trends where others would see only chaos and confusion, and this inevitably invites heated debate. While Snyder writes with great verve and to highly dramatic effect, he also likes statistics, and his frequent citation of casualty figures, no matter how well researched, leaves him vulnerable: as he himself knows, statistical data on Eastern European or Soviet war deaths are often mere guesses, and tools to bludgeon political adversaries.
Snyder operates with the fundamental statistic that in the bloodlands, between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million civilians fell victim to the rage of soldiers, bureaucrats, policemen, and fellow civilians. Snyder also claims that one-half of all the soldiers killed in World War II died in the bloodlands, which in my view is an exaggeration. (Think, for instance, of the uncounted Chinese soldiers who perished during the war.)
The three main groups of civilian victims of comparable size were Jews killed by Germans, non-Jews killed by Germans, and Soviet citizens killed by their own government. To this, Snyder might have added the Jews and non-Jews killed by Germany’s allies. After all, without non-Germans in German service, far fewer Jews, or Poles, or Russians, would have perished. And as Snyder shows, without the Jewish police, who made sure that no Jew would escape the ghetto, more Jews might have been able to avoid deportation to the death camps.
Individual wartime adventures could be incredibly complex for those in the bloodlands. It is not difficult, for example, to conjure the image of a young Ukrainian patriot in what used to be eastern Poland who, just before the outbreak of World War II, is drafted into the Polish army, but following the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939 automatically becomes a Soviet citizen and is drafted into the Soviet army. Captured by the Germans in 1941 and confronted with the choice of starving to death in a POW camp or becoming a policeman in German service, he chooses the latter, and in the next few years he fights Soviet partisans and shoots defenseless Jews. In 1943 or 1944 he goes over to the partisans, as so many other Ukrainian policemen were doing. Soon we find him in a Soviet uniform again, serving in a combat unit. He makes it across Central Europe, fighting against the Germans, but at one point he deserts, joining the countless other Red Army deserters who are indistinguishable from bandits, and who drift behind the combat units. Finally caught and accused of desertion, he ends up in the Gulag. (Let me record here, for what it is worth, that, in January 1945, when the Red Army liberated the great ghetto in Budapest, Jewish survivors urged each other to shed the yellow star because it was rumored among them that the Soviet troops included a great number of Ukrainian former policemen and nationalist guerrillas whose hatred for Jews and Communists continued unabated.)
Snyder’s book rightly traces the origin of the two tyrannies to World War I, which “brought an obvious opportunity to revolutionaries.” When Hitler’s revolution triumphed in 1933, the Communists had long been governing the Soviet Union, but only simultaneously with Hitler did they seize complete control, after politics and society, also of the economy. Both Stalin and Hitler lived in dread of encirclement, one by the capitalist powers, the other by Jewish capitalists and Jewish Bolsheviks. This fear caused them to pursue economic self-sufficiency for their respective countries: “Hitler and Stalin, for all of their many differences, presumed that one root of the problem was the agricultural sector, and that the solution was drastic state intervention.” For Stalin, drastic intervention translated into forced collectivization; for Hitler, it meant war, which would allow the assimilation, deportation, and enslavement of the Polish and Russian people, as well as the colonization of the eastern lands by armed German farmers. While Stalin wanted to colonize his empire, Hitler hoped to expand the German empire into Poland as well as deep into the Soviet Union. Millions were to die in the effort to bring these dreams to fruition.
The story of Stalin’s collectivization drive and the ensuing mass starvation forms perhaps the most dramatic chapter of the book. The description of the Holocaust is too well known to create the same shattering effect. Yet unlike the Holocaust, the hunger in Ukraine of the early 1930s—what the Ukrainians today call the Holodomor, “murder by hunger”—aimed “only” at the partial extermination of the Ukrainian nation.
The causes and the motivations of the collectivization drive, and of the ensuing catastrophic starvation in Soviet Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union, are still being ardently debated, but at least no one would today pretend that the Great Hunger did not happen. This was not always the case. In 1932 - 1933, and in some cases thereafter, all Soviet leaders, and also such Western observers as the journalists Walter Duranty and Louis Fischer, as well as the former French Prime Minister Édouard Herriot, were in complete denial. The honest reporting of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones and the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was censored by the Western media, so great was the world’s sympathetic fascination with the Soviet experiment. And even those who admitted that there was hunger in many parts of the Soviet Union generally advanced the appalling principle of “you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs”—that is, while hunger was regrettable, it was also an economic and political necessity, an indispensable element of modernization.
Snyder rightly sides with those who believe that forced collectivization was not meant to annihilate the Ukrainian population: the atrocity was not a genocide. By reforming agriculture, Stalin hoped to free masses of rural laborers for rapid industrialization. But once hunger set in, due to administrative incompetence and peasant resistance to collectivization, Stalin used the opportunity to crush all real and imaginary enemies in order to prevent the rise of Ukrainian nationalism. Hence the Moscow Party center’s violent attacks on the Ukrainian Party bosses, who were alternately accused of being too hard and too soft on the peasants. The Kremlin also blamed Polish military counterintelligence for creating the famine.
Snyder demonstrates that instead of alleviating the suffering in the Ukrainian countryside, the Soviet leadership did its best to aggravate the consequences of the bad harvest and the ensuing starvation. The peasantry as a whole was treated as a bunch of saboteurs and wreckers. Since delivery quotas were impossible to fulfill, brigades made up of mobilized industrial workers descended on the countryside to beat up the peasants and to sweep their granaries clean. Those suspected of slaughtering their livestock were shot or taken to concentration camps. Having been denied internal passports, the starving peasants were forbidden to enter the cities. They could not even go to a hospital. Thousands died at railroad stations, on the roadside, or in the villages. Historically, at times of hunger, producers have more to eat than consumers, but in this instance the producers were worse off then those in the cities, who received ration tickets denied to the peasants.
A part of the peasantry, usually but not always the more prosperous among them, were branded “kulaks” and subjected to particular persecution. In some ways, kulaks were treated like the Jews in Nazi Germany—for example, the authorities publicly proclaimed that kulak criminality was hereditary and could not be alleviated even by the family’s surrendering its land to the state. Indeed, the idea of hereditary kulak criminality thrived even after the war, encompassing the entire Soviet bloc. In Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania, “kulaks and kulak brats” were sent to prison for failing to feed their livestock, but also for trying to buy fodder or bread in the cities in order to feed their livestock. They were accused of sabotaging socialist production, and of conspiring with the Titoist and American enemy.
The most terrible pages in Snyder’s account of the Great Hunger are the ones that describe incidents of cannibalism. Ukrainian villagers first ate corpses, but later some also killed and devoured their own children, or children devoured their parents. Someone, a hardy soul, ought to write a scholarly study of cannibalism in Eastern Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, not only in Ukraine but also in besieged Leningrad, among Soviet soldiers in German POW camps, and even, occasionally, in Soviet POW camps for German and other soldiers. Intriguingly, there seem to exist no reports on cannibalism among Jews in German concentration camps. This must have been due to the fact that such Jews who had not been shot or gassed were put to work, and given some food. Death by hunger began in the German concentration camps only in the last few months of the war, when the Nazi system of semi-starving the inmates was no longer functioning.
In the first years of Operation Barbarossa, Soviet POWs in German camps were given nothing. I recall, from 1944, the skeletal Soviet POWs who were working on a railroad in Transylvania, to whom members of a neighboring Hungarian Jewish labor company tried to pass some bread—and were punished for their daring. It is, incidentally, one of Snyder’s many theses that inmates in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps had a much better chance of survival than Jews in the hands of the German security police in Belorussian and Ukrainian towns, or Jews expedited to such death camps as Treblinka, or the Soviet POWs in German camps, or Ukrainian peasants during the great hunger.
What did Stalin achieve with his brutal collectivization drive? Industrialization and modernization could have been more successful by attracting peasants to the cities and the factories, rather than killing them in the villages. As for the crushing of Ukrainian or other minority nationalisms: in the summer of 1941, when the German army raced through Ukraine, there was certainly no shortage of Ukrainians who hailed the new arrivals as ushering in the dawn of their freedom and independence.
The Soviet leadership proceeded, with almost no transition, from killing off the peasants to killing off the Party members and the elites in general. By the time the Great Terror started, in 1937, Soviet diplomacy had changed from isolationism to a Popular Front policy, favoring co-operation with all progressive patriots against the fascist Hitlerite menace. Yet at home the terror campaign reached its height at that time, including the Great Show Trials, a uniquely nightmarish procedure. During its course, countless alleged conspirators, saboteurs, wreckers, German, Polish, and Japanese spies, Trotskyites, and Social Democratic traitors were tortured, tried, and executed, or executed without a trial.
No doubt Stalin’s fear of a capitalist attack on the Soviet Union played a role in this horrendous affair: after all, Japan and Germany had signed the AntiComintern Pact in 1936, and they were soon joined by other countries. Still, the Great Terror was madness. Snyder calls the Great Terror the third revolution in the Soviet Union and argues, convincingly yet controversially, that this “third revolution was really a counterrevolution, implicitly acknowledging that Marxism and Leninism had failed.” In other words, the Great Terror was a recognition that people were defined not by class, by their place in the socioeconomic order, but by their personal identities and their cultural connections.
Snyder explains well how the original Bolshevik emphasis on class struggle changed to an emphasis on fighting foreign infiltrators: even kulaks were branded as foreigners or foreign agents, and so were the foreign Communists who had sought asylum in the Soviet Union. The principal victims of the Great Terror, however, were not Nikolai Bukharin and other Soviet Communist leaders, and not even the Polish or other foreign Communists, but ordinary foreign nationals, many of whom had been living in Russia for generations. “In 1937 and 1938,” writes Snyder, “a quarter of a million Soviet citizens were shot on essentially ethnic grounds.... Stalin was a pioneer of national mass murder, and the Poles were the preeminent victim among the Soviet nationalities.” To be more precise, “of the 143,810 people arrested under the accusation of espionage for Poland, 111,091 were executed.”
What could so many people have spied on? But the charge of mass spying was no more absurd than the accusation raised against others that they had conspired to assassinate Stalin. The renowned Hungarian-American ceramicist and designer Eva Zeisel, who lives in New York and at the age of 103 may be the last survivor of the Great Terror, was arrested in 1936 while working in Moscow, and was accused of being among those who plotted the murder of Stalin. After one and a half years of interrogation and imprisonment, she was suddenly expelled from the Soviet Union. In Paris, she met her old friend Arthur Koestler, to whom the story of her experiences was of great consequence when writing Darkness at Noon.
Besides the kulaks and the Polish, German, Finnish, Latvian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Bulgarian, and other settlers, the Great Terror targeted Communist political refugees so thoroughly that, after 1938, only a fraction of the Polish and Hungarian Communist Party leaders were still alive in the Soviet Union. Famously, foreign Communists had a suitcase packed at all times in their Moscow hotel rooms while awaiting and dreading their arrest.
Lastly, there were the purges carried out within the high and even the highest Soviet leadership. No one will ever satisfactorily explain why 98 out of the 139 members of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and one-half of the generals in the Soviet armed forces were executed. It must be admitted that, at least with respect to the military, Stalin’s madness was only temporary, and that the German General Staff made a great mistake in interpreting the Great Terror as a sign of the fatal weakness of the Soviet armed forces. In part, Soviet officers released from the Gulag were the ones who, between 1941 and 1945, defeated the Nazis.
Snyder makes the reader grasp the fundamental differences in how Eastern Europeans perceived the Soviets and the Germans. At the start of the war in 1939, the German invaders appeared as invincible demigods, while the Soviet invaders often inspired ridicule: “The Soviet citizens who ruled eastern Poland were falling off bicycles, eating toothpaste, using toilets as sinks, wearing multiple watches, or bras as earmuffs, or lingerie as evening gowns.” In Budapest in 1945 we had the same impression, and thus the same sense of superiority over the “Mongols” of the Red Army. To which the soldiers might have retorted that if they were so poor and so backward, why did the Germans, the Hungarians, and others come to their country to steal and to destroy what little they had?
The highly civilized Germans had no trouble with toothpaste; but their soldiers stole with abandon in the occupied Eastern territories, and they immediately began shooting Jews as well as captive Polish soldiers and civilians. The killings and the expulsions were at first sporadic, but gradually it became clear that both the Germans and the Soviets were aiming at the decapitation of Polish society. Whereas the Germans deported entire university faculties, the Soviets found a harsher solution for getting rid of the Polish elite: at Katyn, and elsewhere in Russia, they murdered at least 22,000 Polish reserve officers (that is, civilians in uniform) and other members of the middle class. Snyder writes: “The chief executioner at Kalinin.... was Vasily Blokhin. He had been one of the main killers during the Great Terror.... At Kalinin he wore a leather cap, apron and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform. Using German pistols, he shot, each night, about two hundred and fifty [Polish] men, one after another.” None of his victims ever saw Blokhin because he shot them from behind.
For the Soviet forces in Poland and the Baltic countries, Jews were a useful prop, because in their fear of local anti-Semitism many Jews were prepared to offer their services to the Soviets. Yet other Jews were deported to the Soviet East as bourgeois capitalists, and hundreds of them were shot at Katyn and elsewhere as officers in the Polish army. For the Germans, the sudden presence of a huge number of Jews represented an immediate dilemma. Snyder is persuaded that, until 1941, the Germans did not plan to annihilate European Jewry. Terror and shootings, yes—but the main goal was to push the Jews outside the continent, to Madagascar, or to Stalin’s empire. Only when it turned out that the Madagascar solution was not practicable, and that Stalin would not want them, and that not even Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of central Poland, would accept any more Jews, did the Nazi leaders begin to think of a more drastic solution.
And even then, Snyder says, the Nazis’ decision to murder all the Jews of Europe was hastened by their inability, after June 22, 1941, to defeat the Soviet Union. When the sacred goal of wiping out Bolshevism proved impossible, the great task remaining was ridding Europe of the Jewish menace. It is conceivable that if Hitler had been victorious against the Soviet Union, then the Jews, the Poles, and millions of other Eastern Europeans might not have been killed, but shoved instead east into Soviet territories that the German agrarian interests did not covet for themselves. According to Snyder, the same Wehrmacht generals who at first were convinced that murdering the Jews would somehow bring the war to a triumphant conclusion later decided that “the killing of Jews was necessary, not because the war was about to be won, as Himmler and Hitler could still believe in summer 1941, but because the war could easily be lost.” Whatever the justification, the Nazi Party bosses and the SS and Wehrmacht commanders in the East were in agreement that the Jews had to die.
There could never be any doubt regarding extreme German brutality toward the inhabitants of the Soviet Union. Nazi plans, conceived even before Barbarossa, envisioned the razing of such great Soviet cities as Leningrad and Kiev, and the starving or shooting of millions of Slavs and Jews. Hitler, Göring, Himmler, and others were persuaded, especially following the failure of the 1941 campaign, that the choice was between feeding those in the occupied Soviet territories and feeding Germans. As the Germans were the ones to be fed, the others would have to die. Only late in the war did it occur to some Nazi leaders that the millions of Jews and Soviet POWs represented an invaluable labor force, and that many non-Jewish Soviet citizens would even be prepared to fight on the German side. By the end of the war, one million Soviet citizens were helping the Germans with arms. Many more were working in the factories and the fields. Jews, too, were put to work in huge numbers in the German war industry, such as at Auschwitz. What the Germans never really understood was that in order to make slave labor a success, slaves must be humanely treated and decently fed.
With the start of Barbarossa, in Snyder’s account, the bloodlands entered their third and last period. The first was between 1933 and 1938, when the Soviets alone did the killings; the second phase, from 1939 to 1941, was marked by Germans and Soviets sharing in the task; and the third lasted from 1941 to 1945, when the Germans were mainly responsible for the mass murders.
It is well known that the proportional distribution of Holocaust casualties in Europe was very uneven. In Denmark and Bulgaria, almost no Jews were killed; in Poland, the Baltic countries, and (surprisingly) the Netherlands, almost all the Jews were killed. With the exception of an extraordinary case such as the Netherlands, the highest proportion of victims was concentrated in the bloodlands. The German and Austrian Jews had emigrated to the West in their absolute majority, and in Hungary and Romania, around forty percent survived the war—but in the bloodlands the survival rate was much smaller. In areas within the bloodlands that the Germans occupied in 1939, their long presence made the “success” of the Final Solution inevitable. While shooting was the fate of most Jews in the areas of the bloodlands that the Germans conquered in 1941, gassing was the lot of Jews from central and western Poland as well as from the rest of Europe. It should be noted that the gassing started much later than the shooting, and that its first victims were not Jews but mostly Soviet prisoners of war.
In areas where the Germans arrived only in the summer of 1941, it was their grim determination to do a thorough job—as well as the assistance they received from the local population—that led to such harrowing results. And the main reason for the pogroms east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line was that when the Soviets fled, in the summer of 1941, the NKVD—the Soviet secret police—left behind the corpses of thousands upon thousands of political prisoners, whom it had murdered in the last moment. The local population, from Estonia down to southern Ukraine, perceived the Soviet political police as a Jewish institution and the NKVD massacres as the work of the Jews.
Following detailed and lucid analyses of the Eastern European events in the last years of the war, especially of those in Poland (where the author’s heart is), Snyder devotes a long chapter to the orgy of ethnic cleansing that followed upon the Soviet victories, and in which millions of German civilians but also Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others fell victim. As Snyder’s narrative nears its end it becomes increasingly difficult to bear the avalanche of statistics on rape, murder, bestiality, and arson. But this is the historical truth. In the bloodlands and the rest of Eastern Europe, the story of the last year of the war was not of Parisian beauties climbing on American tanks to kiss grinning soldiers. In the East, the story of the last year of the war and of the first postwar years was that of Red Army soldiers raping German women, and not only German women; of refugees freezing to death on the highways leading to Germany; of the Soviets disarming and even arresting Polish anti-Nazi resisters; of Poles and other East Europeans murdering Jews who had had the arrogance to survive the camps and dared to ask for their belongings; of Jewish survivors flocking into the Communist political police; of other Jews being arrested by the Communist political police; and of still other Jews fleeing Eastern Europe forever.
Snyder ends his unbearable tale with an eloquent plea. “The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers,” he writes. “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world but our humanity.” That is exactly right. This is an important book. I have never seen a book like it. But even Snyder does not broach the problem of explanation. Why was there was so much savagery in the bloodlands? The comportment of the Germans remains a mystery. When occupying Western Europe in 1940, German soldiers tried to behave as perfect gentlemen, and they committed occasional atrocities only after heavy provocation by resistance groups. In Poland, by contrast, the German soldiers acted as mass murderers from the very start, and they did so in every Eastern European country they occupied in the following years. The young Austrian policeman who in a letter to his bride described how satisfactory it was to throw Jewish children in the air in order to do target practice with his pistol was not typical, but he was not a great rarity either.
One “understands” the fanatics who engaged in atrocities when their ideology so demanded. But the majority of the Wehrmacht officers were not fanatics, and not even Nazi Party members; in fact, hundreds among them participated in the anti-Nazi resistance movement. And yet they burned down villages and ordered the massacre of villagers without hesitation. Perhaps the Germans (as well as the Romanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Croats, and even the Finns) acted in the old European tradition of respecting international humanitarian agreements in the case of similarly “civilized” enemies—and in disregarding the agreements in the case of “natives.” For Central and Eastern Europeans, everything to their east always seemed less civilized—a territory worthy of colonization.
With regard to the Soviets, we have learned in an abundance of scholarship how millions of Soviet citizens died under the peacetime tyranny of Stalin; and how, during the war, Ukrainians and other ethnic minorities greeted the German troops as liberators; and how a huge number of Soviet citizens would have been happy to join the fight against Stalin had Hitler allowed more of them to do so. But if this was the case, then how do we explain the miracle of dedicated popular defense against the German onslaught: the soldiers who attacked in wave after wave while being mowed down by German machine guns, and the civilians, mostly women, who transported entire factories beyond the Urals and started production there while personally being without shelter? All this could not have been the result of coercion: even the NKVD could not have put a policeman behind every soldier, worker, and peasant. Soviet troops could simply have gone home, as they had in 1917. Instead they fought and worked under physical conditions that we in the West could never fathom. Nor can Russian or Soviet patriotism be the solution to the puzzle, because only one-half of the Soviet citizens were Russians, and because Soviet patriotism was nothing but make-believe. And yet the Red Army utterly defeated the Germans. I would have loved to have Timothy Snyder speculate on the incredible contradictions in Soviet behavior.
István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia and the author, most recently, of Essays on Hitler’s Europe. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.