"I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years,” says Timothy Snyder, a leading historian of Eastern Europe. “This” is the unspeakable carnage he chronicles in Bloodlands, the first comprehensive overview of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the Soviets as they successively ruled the region between them. “The Soviets were trying to transform their own internal empire,” Snyder explains. “The Germans wanted to destroy the Soviet Union to create a racial utopia. Those violent visions met there with catastrophic results.”
Why call this region “bloodlands”?
The killing starts there before the war. By 1939, millions are already dead under Soviet rule. They are overcome by German power, and then again by Soviet power. The accumulation of Soviet-German-Soviet killing makes this region special. You have a German occupation that is worse than anything in the West, and Soviet power, which is totally unknown in the West. They don’t just add to each other; they multiply. By 1945, you have not only the greatest military death tolls anywhere in the war by far, you have about 14 million civilians dead and a roughly equal number of people fleeing or being ethnically cleansed.
Why does that happen there?
It’s where two conflicting utopian visions meet. Since the British control the seas, for Hitler and Stalin empire means land, fertile soil, food. The Soviets make their try for a European revolution from 1917 to 1920, are stopped at Warsaw, and then create their own empire with internal colonization. Hitler’s empire requires external colonization. But the territories he and Stalin are concerned with are essentially the same. For Stalin, the western Soviet Union is a center of industrialization. Hitler wants to de-industrialize it and create a pastoral utopia for racial Germans.
Don’t they cooperate in Poland?
They’re both trying to govern conquered Poland, and in large measure they’re killing the same kinds of people: the Polish educated classes, who might pose a political threat. But the Germans are also putting Jews in ghettos.
Did the Nazis and Soviets approach cleansing differently?
The German vision was even more violent. For them, it didn’t matter whether they hid their killing or not: if you’re going to win in a few weeks, you’ll be able to do whatever you want with the population, so you don’t have to be concerned about propaganda or how you look. The Soviets were always extremely concerned about that. In their killing operations they made sure no one knew exactly what was happening, so it stayed vague until recently. But both were indifferent to life, which sometimes made them unwitting accomplices.
The Germans killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Belarus in so-called reprisals. They use it as cover for the Holocaust and for killing villages of Slav women and children, while taking the men as slave laborers. One reason that happens is that Soviet partisans are not only unconcerned about reprisals, they often think they’re good: whoever is left has nowhere to go but to them.
Did Hitler plan mass extermination from the start?
He came to power with the idea of somehow eliminating the Jews from Germany. We don’t know exactly how he thought about it. In the late 1930s, as Germany began to move into territories with lots of Jews, there’s no sign of an immediate plan to kill them all. What plans we have evidence of involved violent, murderous deportation that would have killed many people and left the rest in places where they would eventually die, like Madagascar or beyond the Urals; but no gas chambers.
Why did plans change?
The Germans didn’t take Moscow. They planned for a war lasting nine to twelve weeks. As early as July, it’s clear to some German commanders that things aren’t going as planned. By September it’s clear to pretty much everybody. The deportation plans are all discredited by this failure. Meanwhile, between June and October, Himmler shows how Jews can be eliminated—by murder. That sounds strange to us now, but it wasn’t clear to people before that that you could actually murder such large numbers. By Christmas 1941, the Germans kill about a million Jews, most by shooting. This is Himmler’s demonstration of how racial consolidation could work. Also, Hitler needs an explanation for why things aren’t going as planned, and a campaign he’s actually winning. So in December 1941, he makes the war into a war against the Jews, which gives him both. Jews, he insists, are why this strange international coalition—the U.S., UK, and USSR—has lined up against Germany. Ironically, this gives the Nazis hope: the war against the Jews can be won, at least in Europe. That’s when extermination of all Jews became the policy.
How was it carried out?
The most common misconception is that concentration camps were the main killing method. In general, they weren’t. For both the Soviets and the Germans, camps were a form of punishment and economic exploitation. Many people died in concentration camps, but they weren’t where the Soviets and the Germans meant to kill, and they’re not where most of the victims actually died. In the Soviet case, most were starved where they lived or were shot. In the German case, Jews who died in the Holocaust at first were shot, almost always close to where they lived. By 1945, about half the victims were still shot. Starting in December 1941, after successful experiments with Russian POWs, they were also gassed—not in concentration camps but in places like Treblinka, which were killing facilities: you came off the train and were immediately killed.
What about Auschwitz?
Auschwitz is special and very confusing, because it is both camp and death facility. We know about Auschwitz because there were relatively many survivors. So we think of the other killing sites as being like it: you worked for a while and then were gassed. Unfortunately the truth is much worse. For almost all Jews almost all the time, you were simply taken to a ditch and shot, or taken to a gassing facility. The huge majority of the six million Jews who were killed never even saw a concentration camp.
What were the camps for?
Primarily for slave labor, but also for the second major area of Nazi killing: prisoners of war. The Germans starve millions where they have total control, which is really only in Leningrad and POW camps. Starving the POWs is a horrible crime that is almost totally forgotten. If the Holocaust hadn’t happened, it might be remembered as the most horrible crime of the 20th century. Some 3 million POWs died in horrible conditions: work camps that were really death camps, people put behind barbed wire and expected to die.
How does that differ from the Holocaust?
When the war doesn’t go the way the Germans expect, they’re willing to use Slavs and Soviet POWs as laborers, so they reverse their policy to save some of them. That happens at precisely the moment the Final Solution is becoming the Holocaust.
What is the Wehrmacht’s role?
The Wehrmacht, not the SS or anyone else, sets up the POW camps—the first death camps. The security police come in and shoot a lot of prisoners, but starving them is a Wehrmacht operation. It also plays a part in the Holocaust—at Babi Yar [where Kiev’s Jews, and later Ukranians and Soviet POWs, were massacred], for example. But it’s much more thorough-going than that. When the Germans take a town, the Wehrmacht consults with the police about how many people are going to be saved for labor and how many will be immediately killed. Even when it isn’t directly involved in the killing itself, it’s clearly taking part in the larger policy. The death rate for Soviet POWs is something like 58 percent—three times the death rate of German POWs in the Gulag.
By 1945, what is Eastern Europe like?
Destroyed and ready to be remade: almost entirely without Jews, where borders can be redrawn and populations moved. Of course, the Soviet Union does the remaking. You end up with states that are much more ethnically homogeneous under Soviet domination. They have particular versions of this history they start to tell themselves. There’s a Soviet perspective, a Polish one, a German one, a Ukrainian one, a Jewish one, and so on. It’s been very difficult to bring these
perspectives together: the suffering has been divided into national and ethnic stories that run in parallel without ever touching. That’s one reason it was so hard for us to look straight at what actually happened here for so long.