Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
By Timothy Snyder
The Bodley Head – £25.00
If nothing else, Timothy Snyder’s research for Bloodlands – Europe between Hitler and Stalin must have been unsettling in the extreme. For as interesting, provocative and quintessentially courageous as the book is, it’s also rather heartbreaking. Heartbreaking, not so much because of the sheer amount of superfluous killing involved – which, from a numerical perspective, just like that of the First World War, eventually devolves into that of a literary and subliminal white noise of meaningless numbers – but rather, the sheer amount of inherent and unscrupulous flippancy involved in said killing.
It goes without saying that almost everyone (well everyone with a beating heart at least), is well aware of the fact that both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were deranged lunatics. But reading some of their ghastly rhetoric (myopic and hateful) word by (myopic and hateful) word, still sends shivers down the spine of one’s own conscience: ‘’Stalin spoke of an alliance with Germany ‘’cemented in blood.’’ It was mainly the blood of Polish soldiers, more than sixty thousand of whom died in combat,’’ writes Snyder in the section of the book, ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe.’ A chapter, unfortunately, capable of sending readers into spasms of elongated, prosaic shame – well this one at least.
Shame, because the human race can so easily become so fucking despicable.
And this book lays testament to that fact.
A little earlier in the (same) chapter, the historian writes: ‘’On 22 August 1939, Hitler had instructed his commanders to ‘’close your hearts to pity.’’ The Germans killed prisoners. At Ciepielow, after a pitched battle, three hundred Polish prisoners were taken. Despite all the evidence, the German commander declared that these captured prisoners were partisans, irregular fighters unprotected by the laws of war. The Polish officers and soldiers, wearing full uniform, were astonished. The Germans made them disrobe. Now they looked more like partisans. All of them were gunned down and thrown in a ditch. In the short Polish campaign, there were at least sixty-three such actions. No fewer than three thousand prisoners of war were murdered. The Germans also murdered the Polish wounded. In one case, German tanks turned to attack a barn marked with a red cross. It was a Polish first-aid station. If it had not been marked with a cross, the tank commanders would likely have ignored it. The tanks fired on the barn, setting it aflame. The machine gunners fired at people who tried to escape. Then the tanks ran over the remnants of the barn, and any survivors.’’
As mentioned at the outset, the research for this book must have been nothing short of a very dense and daunting task, even for a writer of Snyder’s formidable high standing. And the reason I mention this again, is because Bloodlands is categorically filled with such revelatory information as that quoted above. Indeed, having utilised scholarly literature and primary sources in all relevant languages, the respected historian pays special attention (and tribute) to the varied testimonies of so many victims: the letters home, the diaries found on corpses, the notes flung from trains.
By focusing on the middle of Europe, in the middle of the twentieth century – during which the hideous Nazi and Soviet regimes either starved, shot or gassed fourteen million people in a zone of death between Berlin and Moscow – Timothy Snyder (who is Professor of History at Yale University) has written something of an intrinsic and vital, historical template. The sort of which, needs to be read over and over and over again – until such time that ceaseless killing simply ceases to be.