December 31, 2010 | 11:27 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
I’ve been running a Polish film festival in miniature at my house with a series of war movies by Andrzej Wajda, including “A Generation,” “Kanal,” “Ashes and Diamonds” and “Katyn.” As a Polish film historian observes on the commentary track, these are movies that only a Polish director could make — and only a Polish audience can fully appreciate — if only because the blood-soaked soil of Poland was, in a real sense, the ground zero of World War II.
That observation came to mind as I read Yale history professor Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (Basic Books: $29.95), a brilliant, important and highly original look at a swath of territory that includes not only Poland but also Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states. As Americans, we may be stirred by heroic memories of Guadalcanal and Normandy, but in terms of sheer brutality and carnage, they cannot be compared to what happened in central and eastern Europe. And, as Snyder insists on pointing out, the tragedy was not limited to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
To be sure, the concentration camps and killing fields of the Holocaust were located in what Snyder calls the bloodlands, but he seeks to make a different and larger point. Between 1933 and 1945, the death toll in the bloodlands reached a total of some 14 million souls. “Yet not a single one of the fourteen million murdered was a soldier on active duty,” he writes. “Most were women, children and the aged; none were bearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.”
What’s more, Snyder’s ringing “J’Accuse” is not confined to the usual suspects. “The fourteen million were all victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them,” he explains. “Stalin’s own record of mass murder was almost as imposing as Hitler’s. Indeed, in times of peace it was far worse.”
Snyder also calls our attention to some of the myths and misconceptions that have shaped our perception of the Holocaust. Auschwitz may have been an industrial-scale murder factory, but he argues that “[t]he image is too simple and clean.” More than half of the fourteen million civilians and prisoners of war who died in the bloodlands were simply starved to death, and many of the other victims were shot, one by one. “The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust,” Snyder notes, “never saw a concentration camp.” And he forces us to confront the intimacy of death even as he considers the casualties that are measured in the millions.
“No matter which technology was used, the killing was personal,” he writes. “People who starved were observed, often from watchtowers, by those who denied them food. People who were shot were seen through the sights of rifles at very close range, or held by two men while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull. People who were asphyxiated were rounded up, put on trains, and then rushed into the gas chambers.”
For the Jewish reader, “Bloodlands” can be especially challenging as when he asks us to contemplate the special quality of Polish suffering. “A non-Jewish Pole in Warsaw alive in 1933 had about the same chances of living until 1945 as a Jew in Germany alive in 1933,” he argues. “Nearly as many non-Jewish Poles were murdered during the war as European Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.”
Snyder’s book of history ends with a moral admonition. “Each of the living bore a name,” he reminds us in “Bloodlands.” “Each of the dead became a number. Each record of death suggests, but cannot supply, a unique life.” He demands that we recall the humanity of each victim, regardless of religion or nationality, and he refuses to concede even a statistical victory to the murderers: “The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers,” he concludes. “It is for us as humanists to turn the number back into people.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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