Communism has brought mass starvation in its wake on a number of occasions (2010 also saw the appearance of Mao’s Great Famine, by Frank Dikötter, a harrowing account of the death of millions during the Chairman’s Great Leap Forward), but what distinguishes the Ukrainian Holodomor (a coinage that means murder by hunger) is that, as Snyder demonstrates, this particular famine was not just incidental to the business of fashioning utopia. It was deliberate, a weapon designed to break a class enemy, Ukraine’s embattled peasantry, and the battered nation of which it was the backbone.
It is this national element that some historians would like to deny. It unsettles the conventional narrative under which the ethnically based mass murders of mid-20th-century Europe are associated almost exclusively with Nazis, and, in so doing, it raises some awkward questions about those in the democratic world who looked so longingly to Moscow in the 1930s. The details of the Holodomor might have been obscure or obscured, but there was a fairly widespread awareness in the West that something
had occurred. How else to explain all that talk of omelet and eggs? Those who claimed to have turned to Communism only because of the growing Nazi threat must have believed that those millions of dead Ukrainians counted for very little.
And it wasn’t just Ukrainians. As the Thirties curdled on, the list of peoples brutalized by Stalin grew ever longer. The “national operations” that were a murderous subset of the Great Terror of 1937–38 accounted for some 250,000 deaths, including those of at least 85,000 Soviet Poles. The hideous ethnic persecution developing in the Third Reich throughout the 1930s may have been more overt than its Soviet counterpart, but it was in the USSR that the cattle trucks were already rolling. At that stage Hitler’s haul of victims lagged far behind.
That was to change. The second part of Snyder’s book details how the Nazis brought their own flavor of hell to the territories he dubs the Bloodlands. With his feel for neglected history, Snyder restores focus to the terrible fate of the Soviet POWs who had fallen into German hands: “The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more.”
He correctly sees this not just as a matter of callousness and cruelty but as an adjunct to Hitler’s wider plans for a region that was to be emptied of most of its original inhabitants and re-peopled by the master race.
And then, of course, there were the Jews. In page after grueling page, Snyder depicts the pogrom that erupted across the Bloodlands. After all these years, after all the histories, there are still details that appall: “By spring 1943, fires burned at Treblinka day and night. . . . Women, with more fatty tissue, burned better than men; so the laborers learned to put them on the bottom of the pile.”
In an interesting twist, Snyder reveals how the usual Western understanding of the Holocaust, centered on the almost clinical danse macabre of deportation and eventual extermination in a camp far from Paris, Amsterdam, or Rome, fails to reflect the more typical experience to the east. The frenzied killings that swept the Bloodlands in the wake of the German invasion — within six months one million Soviet Jews had been butchered — are the clearest possible evidence of a primeval savagery unleashed.