A Journey to Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands”

I often get flummoxed or feel like an impostor when friends refer to me as someone who studies “Eastern Europe.” I’m not precisely sure what I am, but they probably have in their mind Russia … and those other places around it … which include — well, few people are quite sure, and even if they know where the countries are, they often get them confused, or can’t quite tell the difference between Ukraine and Belarus, let alone between Western and Eastern Ukraine. As the work of historians like Tarik Amar has emphasized, and as longtime residents of the region will know, many of the identities associated with the countries of Eastern Europe were grafted onto them after the war by Communist regimes. In some cases, most notably Poland and Belarus, borders were shifted dramatically from 1939-1945 as a result of the Second World War. In short, the area is terrifically complex, interesting, and dynamic, but it seems to have a perpetual PR problem in the eyes of Anglophone audiences. Many, in my experience, are dismissive of the region and harbor crypto-racist attitudes towards Poles and Ukrainians. The region has a huge Jewish history prior to the Shoah, too, but American memorialization of the Holocaust as tied with Israel has, works like Everything is Illuminated excepted, caused fewer American Jews whose grandparents come from the region to rediscover their pasts there, too.

One of many plausible definitions of Eastern Europe, although defining the region is practically a scholarly discipline unto itself

Fortunately, I had the opportunity the other day in Oxford to attend a book talk by Timothy Snyder, a fellow Oxonian historian, who was in town to promote his recent book, Bloodlands, a history of mass killing in the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe — as he defines it, roughly the region where both Nazi and Soviet power were active, between the Black and the Baltic Sea, between, roughly, Berlin and Smolensk. Not only that, but fellow Oxford Eastern Europeanists — a clunky title that is hard to apply to anyone given the huge linguistic demands of studying the region, and the number of historians who only speak German or Russian (or even both) and claim to be “Eastern Europeanists” — Timothy Garton Ash and Norman Davies were in the audience, too, making for a rich crowd, with Robert Service moderating.

Timothy Snyder

I’ll try not to merely summarize the talk; instead, I’ll seek to provide some of my own commentary to Snyder’s thoughts, as some friends have asked me as to my thoughts on the book and the direction in the historiography that it represents. Snyder began the talk (and the book, which I read in April) by noting that he started from the observation that 14 million non-combatant civilians were killed in this region between 1933 and 1945. That enormous number of deaths by innocent people demands explanation unto itself, but especially so if we put it into broader context regarding the regimes of Stalin and Hitler. The former’s USSR killed a total of approximately 17 million people via state-sponsored violence (mostly, Snyder emphasized, not in Russia per se but in three borderlands areas: Eastern Europe, Kazakhstan, and the Far East, which itself is an interesting observation. I might add that a Snyder student, Sarah Cameron, who reads both Russian and Kazakh, is working on the second for a dissertation at the moment, which should produce interesting work in the next few years). What is striking, however, is that of this 17 million, 14 million were killed in a small window of time (mostly 1933-1945) in this little region.

A rough definition of Snyder's "Bloodlands"

(More speculatively, this line of argument makes me wonder whether the focus on numbers [as an impetus for enquiry] might productively lead historians to look at other times, places, or regions. I have to imagine that archives, security, and languages are all epic challenges for getting any coverage of the Congo Wars and the conflicts in Central Africa since 1998; to cover a conflict which has killed or made refugees of more than six million people, you’d need to travel in active war zones and know French and Swahili for a start, but I suspect it might tell us a lot more about state-building and institutions in Africa than much of the material that appears to come out of development studies departments today. Closer to home, the Soviet war in Afghanistan turned a country of around 15 million people in 1979 into a region with 5 million refugees and many millions either wounded or homeless. Investigating these conflicts from the point of view of the overlap of the relevant forces might tell us a lot about Soviet Communism, Islamism, African states, etc. in the same way Snyder aims to do so for Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR).

1980s Afghanistan - Another "Bloodland"?

So, you might ask: why don’t we know more about this already? Or do we? The problem, Snyder maintains, is that we really have three historiographies — Eastern European history, Soviet history, and Holocaust history — that can’t really grasp at the problem. Eastern European history remains very, very national in its approach. With some exceptions — I think of Oxford seminars on the grain trade in rural Kent in the 13th century — many historians of England and Britain now realize that it’s important to place their country in regional or global perspective, as work like James Bellich’s fine Replenishing the Earth does. Unfortunately, many Eastern European and Russian historians still feel content to focus on really, really obscure topics within small countries or regions. This is not necessarily intellectually illegitimate, but it renders the discipline opaque to outsiders, and makes it difficult for scholars to investigate what were often really transnational problems. Soviet historians tend, for reasons of archives, to focus primarily on Moscow, and in my experience with a younger generation of Russian and Soviet historians (I mean here people who research the area, not necessarily people from Russia), it’s usually enough of a struggle to learn Russian that adding Polish, German, or, good Lord, Hungarian, is seen as out of the question. This problem is exacerbated in a generation of advisors who generally only know Russian, as well as in the structure of some grant competitions, where you can get money nowadays to go to Russia and Turkmenistan, but not necessarily Russia, Germany, and Romania all in one go. As far as the Holocaust historians go, there are two problems, in Snyder’s view: on the one hand, there’s a tendency to tell this as a story, as Saul Friedländer has, of German anti-Semitism prior to 1939 morphing into something far more sinister with the outbreak of war. Which is partly fine, but it obscures the role that local populations of, say, Estonians, Belarussians, and others played in killing Jews — most of whom were of course not German but Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarussian.

Victor Klemperer, linguist, Holocaust survivor, and frequent historical source, although potentially a problematic one

This is the second problem: when you rely on German Jewish sources like the diaries of Victor Klemperer, a cosmopolitan German Jew who survived the war, you’re often unwittingly buying into a narrative about the Holocaust that German Jews specifically would tend to make about it: one of a decline of German civilization (which assimilated German Jews often played an outsized role in making) into barbarism. This is not necessarily how Belarussian Soviet Jewish peasants might have seen the situation. From their point of view, the relevant criterion might be the destruction of the state. As Snyder pointed out, one thing we miss about the Second World War in Eastern Europe was that it destroyed at least four states: the independent Baltics and the Polish Republic. Sure, if you were a Hungarian or Croatian Jew, your chances of survival were not good, but in areas like Poland, where the state was destroyed and transformed into a bizarre construction in the form of the General Government, your chances of survival were minimal. Some of the specific analysis here aside, I strongly agree with Snyder’s basic point here: that it’s important to know the languages of the conquered as well as the conquerors. As he emphasized, it’s a weird thing about Soviet history, compared to, say, South Asian history (which had a renaissance after historians started to work not only with British Imperial but also “subaltern” sources in Hindu, Urdu, Tamil, etc.) that people tend to assume that having “just” Russian gets them the full picture. Frustratingly, this isn’t true if we want to have a fuller picture events — which is part of the reason that it’s so maddening that the US Department of Education recently announced it was suspending Fulbright-Hays, one of the most important US programs for encouraging international education and the development of professionals with cross-cultural competencies.

Subaltern Studies is always fun, but Eastern Europeans are always a nice addition to a party

Without recapitulating the content of the book too much, what else was interesting about the talk? Snyder emphasized a few things that I thought were relevant. One was that this was not supposed to be a comparative history, in the sense that he was trying to set apart two things that were seen as different, and then stack them against one another. This is one of the areas in which Bloodlands has been received controversially: some have taken it to amount to a relativizing of either Stalinist or Nazi crimes, which it isn’t. Perhaps the real problem with comparison, as Snyder emphasized, was that when you do it, you tend to lose sight of place, people, and things in the regions involved. Even the best comparative works, like Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, leave you with great closing sentences to chapters, where you’re flown from Moscow to Berlin in an instant, with little regard for what the man in Krakow, Lviv, or Kharkiv thinks. Rather than giving into an impulse to break down and classify, we have to emphasize how regimes, ideas, bureaucrats, and institutions interact in real territories.

One sketch of the long-term plan for Europe under the Nazis after "Generalplan Ost" -- economics backed by ideology

In what I thought was the most compelling part of the talk, for example, Snyder gave his analysis of the importance of ideology to both the Nazis and Soviets. Rather than undertaking, as Arendt or a historian raised in the totalitarian school might, a side-by-side comparison of “Nazi ideology” and “Soviet ideology” as ideal types, we have to understand some of the concrete differences in the situation both faced in the Bloodlands. On one level, both of the ideologies, or the states that carried them, were on different timelines: the Nazis viewed Eastern Europe as step one towards creating a German Eurasian Empire that would stretch all the way to the Urals, whereas the Soviets were in the process of consolidating power. Not only that, but the clash in Eastern Europe (which in Snyder’s view came down to Ukraine as the one region where there could not be a modus vivendi between Hitler and Stalin) came down to different ideas about economics (ideology is often about economics). For the Nazis, at least a wing among them, Eastern Europe had to be de-modernized, stripped of industry and population (genocide) in order to serve as a vast, vast agricultural zone to be populated by virtuous German settlers. Ukraine would have to be destroyed for this to happen. For Stalin, meanwhile, Ukraine was also crucial, but in the reverse: Eastern Europe had to be industrialized, urbanized, and saddled with collective farms (to ensure state control and exert punishment towards Ukrainians in the case of the Holodomor). All of this together explains why the two states could come together over digesting the Polish state, but had to try to destroy one another when Ukraine and Belarus were at stake. It was impossible for either state to realize its more international ambition of international war (Hitler) or international revolution (Stalin) that would eventually crack up the British Empire and America without having firm control over these strategic regions of Western Eurasia, and that’s why the most people died in southeastern Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.

First Poland and Ukraine, tomorrow, the World!

So what to make of it all? At the end of proceedings, I asked Snyder a question about what he thought the biggest promises and challenges were for a new generation of historians working on these questions. In his view, the biggest promise was, fortunately, languages: there are younger historians working today on the participation of Romania in World War II (Romania was a major Nazi ally) — historians who have a good command of both German and Romanian, or the example of Sarah Cameron, working on Soviet Kazakhstan, whom I mentioned earlier. Topics like the deportation of Soviet Koreans to Central Asia still remain open, to my knowledge. On the flip side, Snyder worried that there was too much of a focus among younger scholars on microhistory and the history of memory. Microhistory of individual episodes, locations, etc. can tell us a lot, but he seemed to play up the importance of looking at institutions, broad regions, and ideology as it played out among large groups, rather than an emphasis on the individual life or episode. As far as the second pitfall is concerned, he warned of a risk to assume that history was ever “done,” and that we could now move to look at how new generations remembered history — the history of history, as it were. It’s important, he emphasized, to do “just history” first, do it well, and then revise that, before focusing on how people have remembered events about which we’re not precisely sure. Given the huge number of Fulbright and DAAD projects I have heard of, not to speak of senior theses, that focus on some and such aspect of German memorialization of the Holocaust (which I agree is interesting, but not as important as the Holocaust itself), I’m inclined to agree.


Still, I wonder: how much can we hope, as historians, that the history of Romania in World War II will reach popular consciousness? Snyder himself inveighed quite a bit (and rightly, I would add) against the sacralization of the Holocaust as an utterly unique event, unparalleled in human history and almost outside of human comprehension. His work represents an important public intervention towards a correction of this view, which often reflects political agendas more than scholarship. And yet it seems that historians always face the challenge, especially in an anti-intellectual, celebrity-obsessed America, of explaining why their work on ____stan matters. Snyder is performing with Bloodlands an act of impressive revisionist scholarship, one that is subtle and needed, but it seems that the platform for a historian of Eastern Europe to make this kind of public intervention, to have a book that can be marketed the way Bloodlands is, is precisely because of the way the Holocaust has been memorialized and remembered in Europe and the United States since the 1970s. I respect Snyder a ton for his scholarship, and for creating a public presence for himself as a historian in forums like the NYRB and elsewhere, while still maintaining a humbling sense of modesty. Still, I’m in search of suggestions, models, and wisdom on how American scholars / intelligentsia can bring in-depth analysis of the kind Snyder offered with this book to more unknown areas that haven’t already been so colonized in the popular imagination as the Holocaust has. My only answer for the time being is that scholars, writers, and researchers have to go utterly international – finding histories that aren’t even trans-regional in the impressive way Bloodlands is, backed by multiple, different languages, but rather really international, say about the Vietnam War told from Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and Hanoi, or 1980s Afghanistan from Moscow, Kabul, Islamabad, and Riyadh. How American historians (who are probably still best equipped from a funding perspective) can do this today in a time when the humanities have been questioned, and funding stands to be cut, repeatedly, is what gives me anxiety all the time.


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