Bloodlands: Book Review

In 1951 Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, coined the pseudo-Latin term Reductio ad Hitlerum, which stood for making an argument, political or otherwise, that used Adolf Hitler as its substitute for logic, the classic example being, 1) Hitler is bad, 2) Hitler was a vegetarian, 3) Therefore vegetarianism is also bad.

Just a few months ago Gavriel Rosenfeld wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Adolf Hitler has been dead for more than 70 years, but he has gained immortality as a historical analogy.” Certainly this is the case. Hitler is invoked often, now just as much as then, as the worst of all possible political realizations, in either part or in whole. In high school we were taught the horrors of Auschwitz. One of the most popular video games of my childhood was called Medal of Honor, a game in which endless streams of Nazis poured forth from Normandy bunkers to be shot one after the other.

It’s also the case that American public policy and culture, up until this very moment and surely well beyond it, has been deeply influenced by a contentious relationship with the Soviet Union and now Russia. From the Cold War to Vietnam to wars in the Middle East to Donald Trump, America has defined itself as a global superpower committed to minimizing the influence of communism in its many forms but most often its Russian variant. And well before Donald Trump and the recent rise of global nationalism and populism each of these European specters, Nazism and Stalinism, haunted certain types of American political discourse, standing in as shorthand for our enemies on the left-right spectrum. Once upon a time “commie” used to be a popular insult for those on the left, which has evolved into “SJW.” Then and now we use versions of “fascist” and “Nazi” for those on the right.

Given how large Nazism and communism still loom in the public consciousness, I was surprised to find just how little I really knew about the Holocaust and Soviet atrocities during WWII after reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.

The typical account learned by American students unsurprisingly focuses on America’s involvement in WWII and therefore misses much of what really happened and why it happened. For instance, I had always assumed Auschwitz was one of the larger Nazi death camps. It wasn’t. Camps like Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec, and Chelmo killed far more and were designed for that purpose. I had also always assumed the Holocaust was primarily about German Jews. It wasn’t. German Jews were about 1% of victims. The majority of Jewish victims lived to the east of Germany in the Baltic States. And most of them were not killed in concentration camps but shot over death pits.

Bloodlands corrects many misunderstandings but most importantly it reframes the struggle for 20th century Europe around these atrocities. The title ‘bloodlands’ is meant to refer to the geographic locations in which these killings took place. Another surprise: there was much overlapping territory. But Snyder goes further. Not only was there overlapping geographic territory but overlapping justifications made by both Hitler and Stalin for killing huge numbers of ordinary citizens, including women and children.

I knew even less about the Soviet side of this coin because there were only very vague references to the Great Terror in school, maybe because it makes Americans (and FDR) look not-so-great foreign policy wise. The Great Terror (or “The Great Purge”) was carried out by Stalin in the 1930s, with the express goal of ridding the USSR of political dissent through terror and intimidation. The Great Purge was not carried out in concentration camps but through politically-enforced starvation, Gulags, and mass shootings. Snyder estimates 3.3 million Ukrainian peasants were killed.

Bloodlands is a well written and terribly depressing book; the story of how 14.4 million people were brutally tortured and killed using mechanized terror; a black hole around which much of our political imagination still orbits. Snyder takes the fuzzy details from American popularizations and sharpens them.

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