Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Millions of dead

One difficulty in teaching middle class Midwestern adolescents about 20th century history was convincing them how much difference there is among types of government in the degree of evil. They had no frame of reference. Dictatorships are different and those that justify their actions by a Utopian vision are very different. I intentionally spent time teaching about the purges, planned famines, and the Holocaust because otherwise there was a tendency to assume an equivalency of guilt among types of governments and regimes. I have previously noted the studies that demonstrate that, although the wars of that century resulted in massive numbers of dead, even more people were murdered by the governments that ruled over them. In a Guardian review of a new book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, Neal Ascherson details what happened in one of the most horrific periods:
.... The time is between about 1930 – the start of the second Ukraine famine – and 1945. The zone is the territory that lies between central Poland and, roughly, the Russian border, covering eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. Snyder's "Bloodlands" label is jarring, a title those beautiful lands and those who now live there do not deserve. But it's true that in those years and in those places, the unimaginable total of 14 million innocent human beings, most of them women and children, were shot, gassed or intentionally starved to death.

.... To start with, the public in western countries still tends to associate mass killing with "Nazi concentration camps", and with Auschwitz in particular. Stalin is thought to have killed far more people than the Nazis by consigning millions to the gulag. But neither assumption is accurate.

In the Soviet Union, it now appears that, although about a million men and women perished in the labour camps, nine out of 10 gulag prisoners survived. Stalin's great killing took place not in Siberia, but in the western Soviet republics, above all in Ukraine where in the 30s at least four million people died in man-made famines and in the slaughter of the "kulak" peasantry.

In the concentration camps of the Third Reich, a million prisoners died miserable deaths during the Nazi period. But 10 million others who never entered those camps were shot (mostly Jews), deliberately starved to death (mostly Soviet prisoners of war) or gassed in special "killing centres" which were not holding camps at all. At Auschwitz, the overwhelming majority of Jews were taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. And Auschwitz, terrible as it was, formed a sort of coda to the Jewish Holocaust. By the time the main gas chambers came on line in 1943, most of Europe's Jewish victims were already dead.

Some – the Polish Jews especially – had been gassed in the three killing centres set up on Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. But most had been shot and pitched into mass graves by German police units operating far to the east in Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus, the Einsatzgruppen who moved from village to village behind the front lines of war. ....

.... The three gassing centres built in occupied Poland, followed by another at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were designed to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe west of the old Polish-Soviet frontier. East of that line, in the lands where most of Europe's Jews had once lived, the job had already been done by the firing-squads..... Snyder reinforces this by aligning the Holocaust with the fate of the Soviet prisoners of war. Herded into enormous wired enclosures with little or no food or shelter, they were intentionally left to die. In German-occupied Poland alone, half a million Soviet prisoners starved to death. Counting the hunger victims in besieged Leningrad, this most primitive method of mass killing took something like four million lives in the course of the war.

Snyder insists that the colossal atrocities in his "bloodlands" have to be set inside a single historical frame. To look at them separately – for instance, to see Hitler's crimes as "so great as to stand outside history", or Stalin's as a monstrous device to achieve modernisation – is to let the two dictators "define their own works for us". .... He is saying that both tyrants identified this luckless strip of Europe as the place where, above all, they must impose their will or see their gigantic visions falter.

For Stalin, it was in Ukraine that "Soviet construction" would succeed or fail; its food supplies must be wrested from the peasantry by collectivisation and terror. And foreign influence – which meant above all Polish – must be flamed out of the western borderlands. (Snyder reveals the little-known fact that the Polish minority were the main ethnic victims of the great terror between 1937 and 1938: well over 100,000 were shot for fictitious "espionage".)

This book's unforgettable account of the Ukraine famine shows conclusively that Stalin knew what was happening in the countryside and chose to let it run its course (some 3 million died). For Hitler, too, seizing Ukraine and its produce for Germany was crucial for his new empire. ....
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder – review | Books | The Guardian