Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
ArticleComments [1]
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Timothy Snyder
Basic Books, 2010
560 pp., 40.00

Buy Now
Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II
Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II
Michael Burleigh
Harper, 2011
672 pp., 29.99

Buy Now

Donald A. Yerxa

The Moral Imperative of History

Lessons from World War II.

Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands is a powerful history of the Soviet and Nazi political mass murders from 1933 to 1945 in the contiguous area from central Poland to western Russia. By focusing on the deliberate killing of approximately 14 million people in the zone where Soviet and German power overlapped, Snyder makes a convincing case that the mass murders in this region constitute a "distinct phenomenon worthy of separate treatment." In the process, Snyder significantly improves our understanding of what could well be humankind's worst catastrophe.

The "bloodlands" were that part of Europe where the most Jews lived, where the imperial plans of both Stalin and Hitler overlapped, where the huge armies fielded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought savagely, and where the Soviet NKDV and German SS concentrated their deadly efforts. During World War II, the bloodlands witnessed multiple continuous occupations, especially in those parts of Poland and the Baltic states that Hitler conceded to Stalin in a secret protocol of the nonaggression pact of 1939. Snyder notes that the sector of the bloodlands east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line was where the Holocaust began and where most of the NKVD persecutions of the 1940s took place. "Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe," a joint production of the Soviets and the Nazis, was also where more than a quarter of the German killings of the Jews occurred, as well a massive amount of ethnic cleansing.

The killing began with the deliberate starvation of 3.3 million Soviets, mostly Ukranians, in 1932-33. It continued in the Great Terror of 1937-38, during which approximately 700,000 more Soviet citizens—most of them peasants or members of national minorities—were shot. The Germans and the Soviets cooperated in the destruction of Poland; between 1939 and 1941, the two regimes killed some 200,000 Poles, including many intellectuals. The German invasion of the Soviet Union led to the starvation of another 4.2 million people, including Soviet prisoners of war as well as inhabitants of Leningrad. In addition, the Germans shot or gassed some 5.4 million Jews. Finally, in the partisan wars for Belarus and Warsaw the Germans killed another 500,000 civilians in reprisals.

Although Snyder does not subscribe to Hannah Arendt's thesis that the Nazis and Soviets were totalitarian twins, he does show how the policies of Germany and the Soviet Union often functionally mirrored each other. Stalin wished to rapidly collectivize the Soviet Union; Hitler sought to colonize the western Soviet Union for Nazi Germany. And when they encountered failure, both dictators revised their utopian visions and shifted the responsibility elsewhere for the catastrophes they unleashed—Stalin the kulaks, Ukrainians, and Poles; Hitler the Jews: "After collectivization starved millions to death, this was adduced by Stalin to be evidence of a victorious class struggle. As the Jews were shot and then gassed, Hitler presented this, in ever clearer terms, as a war aim in and of itself. When the war was lost, Hitler called the mass murder of the Jews his victory." Snyder reveals how adept both Stalin and Hitler were in using romantic justification and, later, rationales of preemptive self-defense to make mass killing appealing or at least seem like the lesser evil. For example, young Ukrainian communist activists who took food from the starving were convinced that they were contributing to the triumph of socialism. And many Wehrmacht officers claimed that letting Soviet prisoners of war and citizens starve to death would enable their own men to eat and live.

Snyder asserts that "Europe's epoch of mass killing is overtheorized and misunderstood." He argues that our understanding of the Holocaust is skewed by the hold that Auschwitz has on our collective imagination, which has in turn generated theorizing on the deep dysfunctionality in modern society. Before we draw such theoretical conclusions, he contends, we need a better factual foundation of "what actually happened." Without in any way reducing the horror of the concentration camp experience, Snyder notes that the "tremendous majority" of Germany's victims were killed outright in gas chambers, killing fields, and starvation zones. A sentence to the concentration camp at Belsen, for instance, was one thing, whereas transport to the Belzec death factory was something else: "The first meant hunger and labor, but also the likelihood of survival; the second meant immediate and certain death by asphyxiation." In fact, almost none of the 14 million people killed in the bloodlands by both regimes saw a concentration camp. The timing and geography of liberation by American and British forces "placed German concentration camps at the center of the most important cinematic images, whereas in fact American and British forces never entered the bloodlands and never saw the sites where the Germans (or for that matter the Soviets) carried out their worst crimes."[1]

Why do these distinctions matter? Snyder observes that, to this day, nationalists throughout the bloodlands have "indulged in the quantitative exaggeration of victimhood." Russian leaders, for example, conflate Soviet and Russian losses and arrive at a highly exaggerated Russian death count. Given this "politics of inflated victimhood," a sober history of mass killing is needed to "unite the numbers and the memories" in an impartial reckoning. "By repeating exaggerated numbers," Snyder maintains, "Europeans release into their culture millions of ghosts of people who never lived. Unfortunately, such specters have power. What begins as competitive martyrology can end with martyrological imperialism [—the wars for Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for example]." He concludes that "[w]hen history is removed, numbers go upward and memories go inward, to all of our peril."

But more is needed than just getting the numbers right. We must resist the understandable temptation to let the numbing enormity of these deaths lead us to abstraction. Rather than harboring a generic mental image of some Jew dying, multiplied by the millions, we need to recall, whenever possible, individuals like Dobica Kagan, a girl in killed in a Ukrainian synagogue. This leads Snyder back to the numbers. He notes perceptively that the "cultures of memory are organized by round numbers." But if we use the specific number of 780,863 as the tally of individuals killed at Treblinka, for example, the three people at the end of that number "might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber."

Bloodlands is a depressingly important book. It is a scholarly and moral act of the highest order to get this history "right"—as far as that is humanly possible. Similarly, it is an act of moral and intellectual cowardice to ignore such horrific aspects of human sinfulness—a theological category the author does not employ—because of their manifest unpleasantness. To his credit, Snyder prompts us to attempt to understand the logic of the perpetrators along with the suffering of the victims. In fact, he argues that it is "morally more urgent to understand the actions of the perpetrators." There is never the "moral danger" that one might become a victim, but it is indeed possible that someday under some circumstances "one might be a perpetrator or a bystander."

A similarly discomfiting sense of urgency informs Michael Burleigh's Moral Combat. This is not a standard operational history of World War II; rather, it is an examination of the "prevailing moral sentiment of entire societies and their leaderships" as well as of the moral reasoning of ordinary individuals who had to make choices under the most difficult of circumstances. Burleigh is well-suited for the task. He is one of Britain's leading historians and an eloquent wordsmith. After his award-winning The Third Reich (2000), he left the academy to concentrate on his writing. American readers may know him best for his two-volume study of political religion, Earthly Powers (2006) and Sacred Causes (2007).

Moral Combat is not an exercise in abstract moral theory; nor does Burleigh adopt a preachy voice. He masterfully shapes his historical narrative in such a way that the reader cannot miss how the war strained conventional morality, frequently ripping it to shreds. For Burleigh, while no war has ever been good, World War II was necessary. And without whitewashing its many moral compromises or dismissing the monstrous conduct of the Soviets, he defends the overall Allied war effort.

The North African campaign was probably the "cleanest" active theater of the war. But elsewhere there was much savagery, especially in the Nazi-Soviet "bloodlands" (to borrow Snyder's fitting term) and the war in the Pacific. Burleigh devotes the most attention to the primal contest of wills, machines, and ideologies between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union from 1941 to 1945. The rape of Poland in 1939 previewed the bestiality and gratuitous violence that became routine in the gigantic war of attrition and retaliatory violence in Russia. Burleigh notes that it is impossible to maintain the fiction that German generals were unaware of the murderous intentions of the Nazi regime. They knew what the SS was doing in occupied Poland and Russia, and attempted to abdicate moral responsibility almost as rapidly as possible. What is striking is that the German occupiers often felt sorry for themselves for having to do such brutal things in the name of duty, discipline, racial purity, or the German mission in the east, and they constructed twisted moral codes that emphasized order and efficiency to help rationalize their murderous behavior.

Dismissing Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" as little more than a cliché, Burleigh remarks that those involved in the Final Solution had many attributes, "but banality was not one of them. The fertility of their cruelty and malice rippled out to any number of actors in Germany and beyond." And he cautions against seeking too much consolation from the "tiny gleams of light provided by the stirring human-interest dramas" of people like Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg: "Rescue was statistically insignificant in a story of catastrophic bleakness, from which there is no redemptive message [;] … human goodness really did not triumph in the end."

Burleigh is particularly effective analyzing life in occupied France. He rightfully draws attention away from the collaborator celebrities—people like Maurice Chevalier or Coco Channel—to the "grubby complicities" of the common man or woman. He notes that collaboration was partly a function of "geographical or occupational fate. The Germans were unlikely to trouble the isolated farmer, but bar staff, chambermaids, cooks, typists, and waitresses in garrison towns would have frequent dealings with them." He also confronts the reader with the moral dilemmas of violent resistance. The Germans routinely shot French hostages (at ratios ranging from 10:1 to many times that) and rounded up large numbers of workers for deportation to Germany in reprisal for assassinations and sabotage committed against the German occupiers.

Winston Churchill comes off well in Moral Combat. Burleigh notes early on that what perhaps separated Churchill from his colleagues was "the capacity to imagine the diabolic," something which probably "required having a little of the devil in himself." He also offers a nuanced and basically sympathetic treatment of the much maligned Arthur Harris, head of the RAF's Bomber Command and, indeed, of the entire Allied bombing campaign against both Germany and Japan, including the decision to drop the atomic bombs. Burleigh has no patience for those who would argue for the moral equivalency of the Allied bombing campaign and the ruthless bloodletting of the Nazis. "No serious person," he argues, "can compare the hard-fought bombing campaign with slaughtering innocent civilians in circumstances where the only risk the perpetrators ran was to be splashed with blood and brains in some ditch in the Ukraine."

Like Snyder, Burleigh has a keen sense of the importance of specificity and evocative details. Students of World War II are well aware that Germany faced huge logistical obstacles in Russia. But Burleigh makes this point graphically when he notes that German planners anticipated that Army Group Center would need 24 trainloads of supplies per day to operate successfully in the Ukraine and Russia. Even before they ran into unanticipated stiff resistance from Soviet forces in December 1941, only half that number of trains fed the German assault. Again, the superior performance of German troops is a commonplace, but Burleigh drives this home with the stunning assertion that throughout the war—"in attack or retreat, with or without local numerical, artillery and air superiority"—the Germans inflicted 50 percent more casualties on their opponents than they suffered themselves. He also peppers his narrative with memorable anecdotal nuggets. For example, there is the story of Konstantin Rokossovsky, a Russified Pole, who in 1940 went from a NKVD torture chamber (where, among other refinements, he suffered three mock executions, had his fingernails pulled out, and lost nine teeth) to command a Soviet army. This same officer became Poland's defense minister after the war, and in 1956 ordered tanks to put down the Poznan uprising. Then there is the account of the head of the General Government for occupied Poland, Hans Frank, presenting a gold watch at the Cracow railway station in 1943 to the millionth Pole deported to Germany as a forced laborer.

One of the many virtues of Burleigh's book is that it demonstrates the value of intentionally approaching history from a moral perspective. While of course not every sober-minded historian will agree with all of his moral assessments, Burleigh's Moral Combat succeeds even better than Michael Bess' fine earlier work, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (2006), in confronting the moral complexities of that war without resorting to triumphalist nonsense or facile arguments of moral equivalency. Indeed, Moral Combat may well rank, along with Gerhard Weinberg's magisterial A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994), as one of the finest volumes ever written about the war that killed 55 million people. Long after finishing Moral Combat, the reader is haunted by how this necessary war was so far from being good.

1. Interview with Timothy Snyder, Historically Speaking, November 2011.

Donald A. Yerxa is professor of history emeritus at Eastern Nazarene College. He is senior editor of Historically Speaking and editor of Fides et Historia.

Most ReadMost Shared