BLOODLANDS: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder Bodley Head, £25
Belarus is a less evocative name than Auschwitz or the Gulag. Yet this former Soviet republic was the scene of more mass killings and displacements of population in the Second World War than anywhere else. A figure of around “two million total mortal losses… seems reasonable and conservative”, says Timothy Snyder.
Add to this more than a million who fled the region, two million who were deported as forced labour by the Germans and another quarter of a million more people who were deported to Poland or the Gulag by the Soviets and the scale of this human tragedy begins to emerge.
“By the end of the war half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved,” says Snyder in this scintillating book. “This cannot be said of any other European country.”
Most of the executed partisans were unarmed civilians. Snyder cites one Wehrmacht report about the shooting of 10,143 partisans from whom only 90 guns were taken. Meanwhile Soviet partisans killed tens of thousands of civilians they deemed to be class enemies.
“Often the Germans and the Soviets goaded each other into escalations,” explains Snyder.
As well as Belarus, the “bloodlands” as defined by Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, included Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States.
Both Germans and Soviets cooperated in the destruction of Poland, killing 200,000 of its educated classes. The gassing and shooting of Jews in the “bloodlands” was intended to be part of a German colonial fantasy.
But the death facilities of eastern Poland, where more Jews were killed than anywhere else, were mainly staffed by Soviet citizens. Stalin encouraged uprisings in Poland without assisting them, knowing that more Poles than Germans would be killed.
Even Western historians are apt to point out Britain and the US lost fewer citizens in the Second World War than the Soviet Union but this statement is misleading. For it was Snyder’s “bloodlands” which suffered the most.
The Soviet version of history, understandably, chose to overlook a salient fact: “Soviet and German occupation together was worse than German occupation alone.”
He ends his cogently argued book with an appeal to range beyond the numbers and the distortions of cultural memory and instead to embrace the humanity of those people, upwards of 14 million, who were deliberately killed throughout the “bloodlands” in little more than a decade.