Through a glass darkly – 73

My younger brother died on Tuesday evening. Peacefully in a hospice some two miles from their home in Leamington Spa. In the middle of the twentieth century about 14 million people were killed in Eastern Europe; today’s Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. I guess it may be a preaching cliché to say that one death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.

Peter, in Montmartre, 1975

When we were in Kyiv at Christmas [it starts to seem a long time ago], a friend in Lyon said that I ought to read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. I have just finished reading it, and it is one of the gloomiest books that  have read for a long time.

Timothy Snyder is an American writer and historian, born in 1969 in Dayton, Ohio He did a doctorate at Oxford, subsequently held fellowships in Paris and in Vienna, and is now Professor of History at Yale. He is said to speak five languages and to read ten, and he specialises in the history of Eastern Europe. His best-known book, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, was published in 2010. Reviews rated from the rapturous – “An original, wonderful, and horrifying book … … this beautifully written and superbly researched work is undoubtedly one of the most important to emerge for a long time”, wrote Antony Beevor,  to the highly critical. One Holocaust scholar, Andrew Ezergailis, thought the title was eye-catching and the writing good, but maintained “it is not a book of high scholarship”.

Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’ extended from central Poland to western Russia, embracing Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. During the consolidation of National Socialism and Stalinism [1933-1938], the joint German-Russian occupation of Poland [1939-41], and the German-Soviet War [1941-45], mass violence was visited on this region on an unprecedented scale. Snyder calculates that the Nazi and Soviet regimes together murdered some 14 million people. The victims were chiefly Jews, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts. The majority of them were the victims of murderous policy rather than casualties of war. The majority of them were women and children, and the elderly; none were bearing weapons, and many of them were stripped of all their possessions, including their clothes. The worst of the killing began when Hitler betrayed Stalin, and the German forces invaded the recently enlarged Soviet Union in June 1941.

Snyder acknowledges that the sheer scale of the killings can blunt our response. Compassion fatigue. “I’d like to call you all by name”, wrote the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in her Requiem, “but the list has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.” Snyder’s book looks at the Nazi and Soviet regimes that perpetrated the atrocities; it describes the ideologies and the plans, and the systems employed, for killing on an industrial scale. At the same time, by calling as witnesses some of the survivors, such as Anna Akhmatova and Hannah Arendt and Günter Grass and Vasily Grossman,  it seeks to give a voice to the victims and their families.

Hitler and Stalin

In the early 1930s both the Soviet and Nazi governments seemed to offer a response to the world economic collapse; a more dynamic vision than liberal democracies who seemed unable to rescue people from poverty. The Nazis proposed to address Germany’s shortage of foodstuffs by exporting its farmers to a new eastern empire, by taking agricultural land from Polish and Soviet peasants. Stalin’s first Five Year Plan was based on the expansion of heavy industry, which in turn depended on collectivised agriculture. The policy was a disaster, especially for the Soviet Ukraine. Famine was widespread; a boy born in 1933 had a life expectancy of seven years. Rafal Lemkin, the international lawyer, called the Ukrainian action “the classic example of Soviet genocide”.

Stalin’s second revolution in the Soviet Union, collectivisation and the subsequent famine, was overshadowed by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Both Stalin and Hitler worked to build one-party states with a powerful police apparatus capable of massive violence. Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia declared war on internal enemies. For the Nazis this meant the Jews, and also “asocial elements”, homosexuals, vagrants, alcoholics and drug addicts, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The repression of these undesirable groups led to the creation of a network of concentration camps. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Stalin and Yezhov embarked on the physical liquidation [shooting] of the entire ‘counter-revolution’,  prominently the kulaks and Ukrainian nationalists.

People belonging to national minorities “should be forced to their knees and shot like mad dogs”. This is not an SS officer speaking, but a communist party leader in the spirit of Stalin’s Great Terror. Stalin was a pioneer of national mass murder and Poles were the leading victims among the Soviet nationalities. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union found common ground in their shared desire to destroy Poland. In the twenty-one months that followed the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, the Germans and the Soviets would kill Polish civilians in roughly equal numbers as the two allies each sought to master its half of occupied Poland.

Things in eastern Europe got even worse in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. Some ten million soldiers died fighting on the eastern front. And during this war Snyder estimates that the Germans killed another ten million civilians, including five million Jews and three million prisoners of war. The German prisoner-of-war camps in the East were deadlier than the German concentration camps. Ivan Shulinskyi, a Ukrainian prisoner, the son of a deported kulak, kept himself alive in German captivity by singing a Ukrainian song:

If I only had wings,

I would lift myself to the sky

To the clouds

Where there is no pain and no punishment.”

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

Belarus was the centre of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Its cities were battlefields for advancing and retreating armies; its towns contained Jewish settlements destroyed in the Holocaust. Minsk was a centrepiece of Nazi destructiveness. German policy in occupied Minsk was one of savage and unpredictable terror. The Nazis planned to level Minsk to the ground and to replace it with a new city, Asgard, named after the mythical home of the Norse gods. But Jewish resistance in Minsk and in Belarus was stronger than elsewhere in Europe, and young people were caught in a deadly confrontation between German forces and Soviet partisans.

The centre of urban resistance to Nazi rule in occupied Europe was in Warsaw. Both Poles and Jews led uprisings against Nazi rule, separately and together, in April 1943 and August 1944. The Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 was planned as part of Operation Tempest, a national uprising that would give Poles a prominent place in the liberation of pre-war Polish territory. Neither the British nor the Americans were in a position to offer any meaningful support. Stalin appeared to encourage the uprising, but then declined to provide any Soviet assistance, as the Red Army halted operations at the Vistula. Both George Orwell and Arthur Koestler protested: Orwell wrote of the “dishonesty and cowardice” of the Allies who refused to become involved; and Koestler called Stalin’s inaction “one of the great infamies of the war”. No other European capital suffered as Warsaw did: the city was destroyed physically and lost perhaps half of its population. Churchill seemingly did ask Stalin to help the Poles, but received no response. Snyder points up the irony with great precision: “Great Britain had gone to war five years earlier on the question of Polish independence, which it was now unable to protect from its Soviet ally”. 

Many years ago, as a would-be cineaste, I sat in the Vogue cinema in Tooting to watch  the Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s war trilogy. [As I recall the Vogue still had usherettes selling Kia-Ora drinks from trays in between films. And I think the usherettes also sold cups of tea. It was certainly a very draughty cinema. But I may be confusing it with the Tooting Classic.]   A Generation [1955] is about a group of young men and women fighting in Occupied Poland; Kanal [1956] is the terrible story of the Warsaw Uprising; and Ashes and Diamonds [1958] is about a bungled attempt to assassinate a newly arrived Communist party official. Derek Malcolm calls the trilogy “one of the finest achievements of Eastern European cinema”. The films are characterised by a deep sense of a fractured national identity, yet pay tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and the struggle for personal and national freedom.

I didn’t enjoy reading Bloodlands. There were just too many acts of bestiality and too many killings. But Robert Gerwarth, in the Irish Times, thought that “the book brings back to life some of the forgotten voices of those who died in the bloodlands. The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, but Snyder reconnects the broad narrative of Eastern Europe’s unparalleled tragedy with its intimate impact on the lives of individuals.


Sadly, the book reminded me that the recent atrocities and war crimes committed by Russian forces in places like Bucha and Chernihiv and Izyum, and above all in the wastelands of  Mariupol, are nothing new in that part of Europe. We pray on, for peace for the people of Ukraine, and for a better world.

April 2022

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

One thought on “Through a glass darkly – 73

  1. I always appreciate your book summary/reviews. Thank you for reading this one and sharing your observations, so that I don’t have to read it. What a tragic part of the world, especially, as you point out, as we see it all happening again.


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