Some awareness of Nazi mass murders, almost all carried out during the war years 1939-45, survives in the west, though Snyder maintains our mental images are inaccurate, incomplete. Mostly, we're far less conscious of Stalin's crimes; these seem very far away in a very foreign place. Snyder's account begins with the intentional famine that collectivization of agriculture brought about in Soviet Ukraine. In the Soviet belief system of the era,
To defend the world's only socialist country, it was rational and moral to extort from farmers everything they grew in order to accomplish rapid industrialization. Soviet party workers, many Ukrainian themselves, were dispatched methodically to seize Ukrainian peasants' harvests and even their seed grain .
Snyder estimates 5.5 million direct deaths by starvation. While some in the West let their hopes for Soviet socialism blind them to what was happening in the "workers' state," they were particularly likely to disbelieve news of the famine because of who was then trumpeting the story: the newly installed German dictator, Adolf Hitler.
Consolidating and industrializing the most geographically and ethnically diverse empire the world had ever seen was a bumpy project. The Soviet leadership was convinced that everything that went wrong -- and naturally much did -- as evidence of sabotage. Somebody had to pay. In the Great Terror of 1937-38, some three quarters of a million Soviet citizens, again peasants and non-Russian minorities, were methodically charged with chimerical offenses, tortured, and executed by shoots to the head.
The worst of the Soviet state's mass murders took place before World War II; Hitler's murderous crimes began with the dismemberment of Poland in 1939 in which the Soviets cooperated. Snyder explains the impetus for the Nazi-Soviet (Molotov-Ribbentrop) pact of that year which so distressed Western leftists:
The immediate losers were the Poles and the Baltic states in which both powers massacred intellectuals, political leaders, and, only sometimes as yet, Jews. Western Europe fell to the Nazi onslaught, but Britain held on. The logic of Hitler's vision led to invading his Soviet ally:
And so the worst era of Nazi mass murders began. Here's Snyder's summary of what German invasion meant in Belarus:
That's what Snyder means by "bloodlands." The "bloodlands" were as well where most of the "Final Solution," the extermination of European Jews, was carried out.
After terrible suffering, the Soviet Red Army carried the fight through the bloodlands and into Germany itself, enabling the Allies to redraw the map of Europe and leaving the Soviet Union with a vast area of compliant satellite states where its hegemony lasted until 1989. In the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the long Cold War (1948-1989), on both sides understandings of the history of the terrible Stalinist and Nazi period became distorted. In particular, Stalin developed a paranoid fear of surviving European Jews who he viewed as conspiratorial internationalists might break the intellectual wall between western capitalist degeneracy and his socialist republics.
This long set of quotations doesn't begin to do justice to what Professor Snyder has done in this book. The histories of Nazi Germany by Richard J. Evans about which I've written recently achieve their power through dispassionate piling up of evidence of crimes and barbarism. Snyder is passionate. He weaves particular human stories into a grand narrative. For him, clearly writing the history of mass murder is a necessary moral activity. Much of academia repudiates this kind of engagement. I think it what history ought to be. Let the pedants quibble -- this forces me to think and feel.