Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

Attempting to write about the 'bloodlands', Timothy Snyder chooses a route few others have taken: a view of the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler through their treatment of minorities - Ukrainians, Belorussians, Balts, Poles, and Jews. But in so doing, more often than not, the author misses the forest for the trees. Specifically, Snyder generalizes too much.

As with a few other recent titles, this volume is a synthesis of research done by other authors and scholars over the past two decades, and at times it is evident how much more we know about the German side of this time period than the Soviet. Snyder deals with a plethora of secondary literature on a subject that has a growing amount of coverage in extensive detail on the topics he chooses to cover. Therefore, there is little new/original information being presented, but the liberties the author takes with the information he has at hand makes me question his reasons for writing this volume.

The introduction sets the stage for the rest of the book. Snyder claims the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were "allies" in the period between 1939 and 1941, at which point the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. This is akin to claiming the Germans were allies of Poland after they signed a non-aggression pact, the Poles and Soviets were allies after they signed a non-aggression pact, and the same can be argued for the Soviet Union and Japan due to their non-aggression pact. Considering that during the invasion of Poland the Red Army regularly issued orders to curb episodes of combat/violence between Red Army forces and the Wehrmacht, and the role Germany played in supplying Finland during the Winter War, this assertion is not based on factual evidence or reality (pg. x). One could argue that the 'secret protocols' were only evident in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact thus making it a different type of 'non-aggression pact', but such a simplification of history ignores the fact that it was the Soviet Union who championed a coalition against Hitler before 1939, when the western allies let the Germans re-militarize the Rhineland, annex Austria, and dismember and then invade Czechoslovakia. Does this not make France and England allies of Germany?

Snyder claims that "...Stalin allowed Hitler to begin a war" (pg. xi). Where is the context? Stalin had no knowledge of what Hitler planned to do after the signing of the non-aggression pact, and there is little evidence that if the pact was not signed Hitler would not have gone ahead with the invasion of Poland, which was already planned for and the Wehrmacht made ready. Just because "The Wehrmacht and Red Army both attacked Poland in September 1939..." (omitted are when the respective attacks occurred) doesn't mean it was an operation the Soviets planned for when the non-aggression pact was signed.

In discussing the annexation of the Baltics, the author omits that this was a direct response to France's defeat (pg. xi). When mentioned once more on pgs. 141-142, no further details are provided aside to say that after France was defeated by the Germans, the Soviets extended their reach to the Baltics. Perhaps the minorities of the Baltics aren't as interesting for Snyder as Ukrainians, Belorussians, Poles, and Jews. Later on, Snyder also generalizes about intelligence on the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union parroting the already familiar line that Stalin was told the invasion would take place and decided to ignore that information, leaving out the highly dubious and ambiguous nature of much of that intelligence and the German counter-intelligence operations taking place at the same time (pg. 165).

The author continually claims Stalin 'directed' the famine of 1932/33 (pg. xiv). More details on the famine can be found in the first chapter, unfortunately, aside from some well-known claims, the author mainly attempts to pull at heartstrings rather than investigate why the famine occurred. What happened during the famine defies words and imagination, calling it a tragedy devalues what truly went on as that kind of suffering is simply incomprehensible. But Snyder spends entirely too much time recounting events on the ground rather than analyzing what the center (in both Ukraine and the Soviet Union) was doing. Thus, saying that Stalin by November 1932 did not suspend food exports, release grain reserves (claimed as three million tons), or give peasants access to local grain storage areas, is sheer nonsense (pg. 42). R. W. Davies, M. B. Tauger, and S. G. Wheatcroft in their article "Stalin, Grain Stocks and the Famine of 1932-1933" (Slavic Review (vol. 54, no. 3)) outline well enough that the grain reserves were nowhere near 3 million (on July 1 1932 there were .641 million tons in the two main stocks that were supposed to be used for emergencies, all stocks (including grain that was in transit) amounted to 1.36 million tons). More so, grain collection plans were reduced while grain was being imported from Persia and transferred to the Far East. 1933 witnessed 1.99 million tons being reluctantly given up by the Politburo, out of a total of 2.2 million tons, to areas that were previously stripped of grain. This doesn't absolve the actions of either Stalin or the Politburo, but shows the trail one must follow in order to understand what happened during the famine. There are also many more variables that come into play than Snyder does not account for - for instance, the Soviets wanted a stock of some 1 million tons solely for the armed forces as they feared Japanese aggression in the Far East, unfortunately such a stock never appeared and the Far East suffered from the famine as well - but the bottom line is that instead of doing a balanced review of the evidence thus far available, the author regurgitates the emotionally abused version of the famine we have come to know well enough since the years of the Cold War.

Snyder's knowledge of Soviet foreign policy seems close to non-existent. No mention is made of Soviet moves against Nazi aggression on the continent before the signing of the non-aggression pact and he wholly omits the fact that Stalin wanted a defensive coalition against Hitler but the allies were dragging their feet. Once again he claims on pg. 116 that "...the Soviet Union had agreed to attack Poland along with Germany" yet offers no evidence to support this assertion. Considering that the non-aggression pact, including the secret protocols, said NOTHING about any invasion and the German move against Poland on September 1 was a surprise to Stalin and the Soviets, this is a preposterous claim. Snyder also claims there was a "joint victory parade" when the invasion of Poland was over, this idea of a joint parade has been contested. The only evidence for it are a few pictures which show German forces entering a town and Soviet forces leaving (the German band, the only indication that this was a 'parade', stood at attention, not playing their instruments, when the Soviets were leaving, meaning they only played when the Germans entered). The author then horribly simplifies the clash at Khalkhin Gol between Japan and the Soviet Union claiming simply that "The Soviets (and their Mongolian allies) attacked Japanese (and their puppet Manchukuo) forces at a contested border area..." (pg. 116). At worst, the Japanese were just as guilty as the Soviets, but if you were expecting to see some detailed coverage of the situation, you'd have been mistaken. A generalized paragraph is all you'll get. It appears that Snyder's concentration on Hitler and Stalin is a weakness for "Bloodlands" as he leaves out the rest of Europe, or at best downplays their actions, while disproportionately enhancing those of Stalin and Hitler.

Similar to his knowledge of Soviet foreign policy, Snyder's knowledge of Soviet military matters is severely lacking. He readily introduces the oft-repeated idea about Siberian troops coming to the rescue in late November/early December 1941 outside Moscow. In fact, divisions from the Far East had been on the move as early as late June of 1941. By November 20th, 17 divisions were either ordered to move west or were already facing German forces, contrary to Snyder's statement that "On 24 November 1941 Stalin ordered his strategic reserves from the Soviet East into battle against Army Group Center of the Wehrmacht" (pg. 210).

When discussing the numbers of Poles (mainly Jews) who refused Soviet passports (pg. 141) and were deported to the East, Snyder forgets that this deportation most likely saved their lives. This doesn't mean what these men, women, and children went through was something to look forward to, but it does put into perspective that post-war more than a few were happy they were deported and not outright killed by the Nazis after the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Throughout this text Snyder seems bent on creating a controversy but he lacks the evidence to do it well. For instance, on pg. 175 he conflates order 270, which threatened the families of officers and political workers with arrest if they deserted or "gave themselves up to the enemy", yet Snyder insists this applied to "Soviet prisoners of war", forgetting or omitting to differentiate between officers and enlisted men. Furthermore, again and again the reader is forced to read baseless and needless comparisons between the famine of 1933 - a famine Snyder never proves was pre-planned or truly man-made, even when attempting to show the government tried to use the famine he leaves out crucial context and facts - to the well planned in advance German starvation of Soviet prisoners of war. The author takes too many liberties with his comparisons and, at best, is reaching when he makes them, adding little to our knowledge of the events in question and in fact muddying and simplifying the context of the issues at hand. For example, on pg. 181 Snyder claims "For hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, this was the second political famine in Ukraine in the space of eight years." What purpose does such a statement serve? It is superfluous at best, and Snyder presents as evidence the recollection of ONE Ukrainian prisoner of war who recalled the hunger of 1933. Extrapolating from limited evidence to suit your needs is NOT the job of an historian.

When discussing the actions of the Red Army during the Polish Warsaw Uprising, Snyder contends that the Red Army was "halted, by unexpectedly strong German resistance, just beyond Warsaw", but makes it seem as if the Red Army simply stood by and "watching the Germans defeat the Home Army" rather than describing the many attempts by both Soviet and Polish soldiers (under Red Army command) to help the uprising or the continued fighting against the Germans that was taking place all around Warsaw by various Red Army units (pg. 305, 312). Similarly, Snyder once again takes events that are well known and simply regurgitates them with eye-witness accounts for emotional effect, but backs away from any real analysis. This is evident with his descriptions of the Red Army on German territory (mentioning nothing of Soviet orders to curb violence against Germans and the penalties for Red Army soldiers who were caught). Furthermore, while the author mentions that the Soviets took German men (and sometimes women) as to perform labor in the Soviet Union, he omits to mention that this was done as agreed at Yalta and part of Germany's reparations to the Soviet Union.

A further claim I disagree with is Snyder's idea that Russia proper "was more distant from the experience of the war" and cannot be compared to the suffering experienced by Ukraine and Belorussia (pg. 336). While it is true that in terms of occupation Ukraine and Belorussia suffered greatly and in fact were 'totally occupied' by the Germans, Snyder never even mentions the Siege of Leningrad in this 'comparison' or the Leningrad region in general, which did stay under occupation for years rather than months (this also omits Rzhev, the Stalingrad area, etc.). Furthermore, in simplifying the experience of Ukraine as belonging solely to Ukrainians, or Belorussia as belonging solely to Belorussians, Snyder muddies the issue. Instead of taking away from the Soviet myth of the Great Patriotic War, he is creating a new myth by omitting various events, episodes, or details and crafting generalizations.

Whatever benefits there are to "Bloodlands" as a study, they are highly diluted by the well evident liberties taken by the author with both the subject matter and the evidence at his disposal as well as the author's/publisher's decision to put endnotes at the end of entire paragraphs, listing all sources used, and thus leaving the reader wondering which ideas are Snyder’s and which belong to the author(s) he's listing. There are some interesting incites throughout the chapter on Stalinist terror ("Class Terror") in 1937/38, the chapter on "Resistance and Incineration" is also enlightening in regards to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the role of the Home Army, as well as some discussion of why Goebbels chose to propagandize Katyn when he did, but again, it becomes impossible to tell where some of the ideas originate. This is a difficult book to recommend because it leaves out too much and insists on drawing attention to tragedies without the proper context for an in-depth analysis. If you're interested in stories from the famine, there is plenty of literature on it. If you're interested in German policies in the east, plenty on that as well, and offered with an attention to detail that's all too often missing from this text.


Keir said...

I really appreciate the quality of your reviews, and this one in particular is especially intersting. I certainly agree that whilst everyone can reel off an half-dozen names of Nazi KZs, few could name a single site of a Gulag. I do however think there could be room for nuance in the term "alliance." The 1939 pact was, as it says, a non-aggression pact and not an alliance, but the reality was that Stalin provided Hitler with the means to age war in the west- radio towers directing the Luftwaffe, naval bases near Murmansk, punctual shipments of resources for war, voluntary handovers of Jews and communists to the Nazis, regular meetings to work together as occupying partners in Poland...
I think FDR was right to label the USSR as much in league with the axis in his February 1949 speech as Stalin invaded Finland the same time as Hitler made his own conquests. A bit too emotional perhaps, but I believe the film 'The Soviet Story' is the first real attempt to show the partnership between National Socialism and Socialism in one Nation as it was.

T. Kunikov said...

Getting into the sordid details of the German-Soviet relationship gives me pause when I see it referred to as an 'alliance.' I simply do not agree with that idea and while the Soviets might have tried their best to appease the Germans, when the western allies did the same they were not made out to be Germany's allies. Taking into consideration how much the Soviets tried to do to stop Hitler during the mid-late 1930s, Chamberlain was more of an ally to Hitler than Stalin ever was.

struck down said...

How can you not see thee "alliance"? These monsters were almost atop one another attempting to see which one could eradicate the minorities with the most gusto! I respect your credentials, but have to question your interpretation of the word "alliance".

T. Kunikov said...

I'd rather you question the definition of the word 'alliance.' As pointed out already, the actions of both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany toward each other did not merit such a title.