Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Terrible Toll

Been meaning to share some thoughts on the book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder for some time now but haven’t been able to get around to it. The book is a fascinating and horrific account of the miseries inflicted upon the peoples of eastern Europe during the 1930s and 1940s by the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Like Richard Rhodes’ Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, the details of the atrocities carried out by the Soviets and Nazis often make for difficult reading and there were moments when I literally had to put the book (or more accurately Kindle) down to step away from the depressing descriptions of evil incarnate. While most are probably familiar with the appalling inhumanity of the Nazis, the full scope of the Soviet barbarities are not as widely known. I’ll get more into that in a future post. For now, here are some statistics and other nuggets from the book on various subjects that I found particularly interesting.


- Each of the dead became a number. Between them, the Nazi and Stalinist regimes murdered more than fourteen million people in the bloodlands.

- Fourteen million people were deliberately murdered by two regimes over twelve years.

- Fourteen million, after all, is a very large number. It exceeds by more than ten million the number of people who died in all of the Soviet and German concentration camps (as opposed to the death facilities) taken together over the entire history of both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. If current standard estimates of military losses are correct, it exceeds by more than two million the number of German and Soviet soldiers, taken together, killed on the battlefield in the Second World War (counting starved and executed prisoners of war as victims of a policy of mass murder rather than as military casualties). It exceeds by more than thirteen million the number of American and British casualties, taken together, of the Second World War. It also exceeds by more than thirteen million all of the American battlefield losses in all of the foreign wars that the United States has ever fought.

- As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War.

- In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps.

- Most important of all for the high numbers are the Jews: not the Jews of Russia, of whom only about sixty thousand died, but the Jews of Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus (nearly a million) and those whose homeland was occupied by the Soviet Union before they were killed by the Germans (a further 1.6 million).


- Belarus was the center of the Soviet-Nazi confrontation, and no country endured more hardship under German occupation. Proportionate wartime losses were greater than in Ukraine.

- Of the nine million people who were on the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians).

- A rough estimate of two million total mortal losses on the territory of present-day Belarus during the Second World War seems reasonable and conservative. More than a million other people fled the Germans, and another two million were deported as forced labor or removed from their original residence for another reason. Beginning in 1944, the Soviets deported a quarter million more people to Poland and tens of thousands more to the Gulag. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country.


- In 1939, the Soviets and the Germans invaded Poland together, and carried out a policy of de-Enlightenment.

- Beyond Poland, the extent of Polish suffering is underappreciated. Even Polish historians rarely recall the Soviet Poles who were starved in Soviet Kazakhstan and Soviet Ukraine in the early 1930s, or the Soviet Poles shot in Stalin’s Great Terror in the late 1930s. No one ever notes that Soviet Poles suffered more than any other European national minority in the 1930s. The striking fact that the Soviet NKVD made more arrests in occupied eastern Poland in 1940 than in the rest of the USSR is rarely recalled. About as many Poles were killed in the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 as Germans were killed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945. For Poles, that bombing was just the beginning of one of the bloodiest occupations of the war, in which Germans killed millions of Polish citizens. More Poles were killed during the Warsaw Uprising alone than Japanese died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A non-Jewish Pole in Warsaw alive in 1933 had about the same chances of living until 1945 as a Jew in Germany alive in 1933. Nearly as many non-Jewish Poles were murdered during the war as European Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. For that matter, more non-Jewish Poles died at Auschwitz than did Jews of any European country, with only two exceptions: Hungary and Poland itself.


- The lands of today’s Ukraine were at the center of both Stalinist and Nazi killing policies throughout the era of mass killing. Some 3.5 million people fell victim to Stalinist killing policies between 1933 and 1938, and then another 3.5 million to German killing policies between 1941 and 1944. Perhaps three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in combat or as an indirect consequence of the war.

- Starvation is nasty, brutal, and long, and party activists and local officials had to watch and bring about the death of people they knew. Arendt regarded the collectivization famines as the inauguration of moral isolation, as people found themselves helpless before the powerful modern state. As Leszek KoĊ‚akowski understood, that was only half of the truth. The involvement of practically everyone in the famine, as collectors or as consumers of food, created a “new species of moral unity.”

- Aside from Jones, the only journalist to file serious reports in English was Malcolm Muggeridge, writing anonymously for the Manchester Guardian. He wrote that the famine was “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it happened.”


- The East, until very recently, had belonged to the NKVD. One secret of Himmler’s success was that he was able to exploit the legacy of Soviet power in the places where it had most recently been installed.

- Yet this psychic nazification would have been much more difficult without the palpable evidence of Soviet atrocities. The pogroms took place where the Soviets had recently arrived and where Soviet power was recently installed, where for the previous months Soviet organs of coercion had organized arrests, executions, and deportations. They were a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text.

- Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.

- No major war or act of mass killing in the twentieth century began without the aggressors or perpetrators first claiming innocence and victimhood.

- The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.