Review: Bloodlands

If you can read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and feel fine, go about your life as normal, I suggest you see a doctor. Death in this book is so omnipresent, so banal in a way, that it’s pretty much impossible to feel nothing. This book shows what happens if human lives (or some human lives) are reduced to nothing. Worthless in view of the greater good.

Bloodlands describes the fates of people who lived in the most dangerous area of Europe in the second world war. These were the lands which were either first Soviet, then German, then Soviet again (Ukraine, part of Belarus), or independent, German and then Soviet (Poland and the Baltic states). Both German and Soviet regimes had very little regard for human life. In Stalin’s USSR human life always came second to the greater good, as history came second to the greater future. Germans regarded only German life as valuable, counting the Slavic peoples as lesser humans and Jews as vermin. Jews were a substantial minority in these countries, and they suffered disproportionally from the Germans.

Snyder’s book is gross. It minutely describes dying, in all it’s messiness. For example the bodies of gassed Jews covered in vomit, feces and urine. Or the bodies of starving Ukrainians in the thirties, and the cannibalism that took place there after Stalin had decided they were not important enough to feed. These are just some examples of the horrors which were hard to read, there are countless more. I wonder wether it was necessary to go into such horrible detail, time and time again, to prove the point that people in these countries suffered beyond what anyone in the West can imagine. I also wonder wether it’s not, to some readers, a kind of voyeurism. A bit like watching Game of Thrones.

I learned a lot from this book, especially after all the dying is over and Snyder talks about the reception of the war. In Stalin’s Soviet Union and its satellites, perhaps it’s not surprising that the story of the war was changed to suit political needs. For example, as history could not show that one nation suffered more than others, non-Jewish death tolls were exaggerated to bring them at a comparable level to Jewish deaths. In the NATO allied states of the West, the particular suffering of people in Eastern Europe was given very little attention. And to this day, we remember Nazi atrocities by way of Auschwitz. This factory of death killed a staggering number of people, about one in six of all the Jews who were killed during the war. However, it was by no means the most deadly of the death factories. People survived, and as Snyder points out, that’s why we remember it.

This book powerfully drives home the point that thinking of current day Islamic State crimes as medieval is erroneous. Examples of barbarism can be found much closer to home, in time and in geography, than we in the West would like to believe.

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