Today, I’m proud to introduce our first guest blogger, and there’s no better person to fill that role than Peter Rutland, a long-time contributor and friend of TOL (as well as being a professor of government at Wesleyan University). Here is his post:


Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

A seminar at Harvard University on March 8, 2011 saw Yale history professor Timothy Snyder respond to commentary on his new book by a distinguished group of historians. The panel consisted of Terry Martin, Henry Rosovky and Serhii Plokhy of Harvard, and Devin Pendas of Boston College.

Snyder’s book is a study of the genocidal violence unleashed on the lands of East Europe by the dictatorships of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Snyder made clear that his purpose is not to suggest any moral equivalence between the men – nor even to attempt a direct comparison between the Nazi and Soviet regimes. As a historian, Snyder resists trying to squeeze these regimes into some sort of artificial comparative frame – not least because a comparison implies that they are distinct phenomena, while in reality these regimes were intensively interacting with and learning from each other. In the process, they radicalized each other to even greater depths of violence. At the same time, Snyder is not trying to exonerate the Nazis by arguing that they were responding to the Soviet threat – one of the canards of the German revisionist debates of the 1980s (the Historikerstreit ).

Snyder seeks to correct what he sees as popular misconceptions of the Holocaust – as primarily involving German and other West European Jews going to their death in “concentration camps.” In fact, the vast majority of the victims came from and were killed in the East. Mass killing was far broader than just the industrial death camps. Of the Nazis’ Jewish victims, 2.8 million were shot, 2.6 million died in death camps, and 200-300,000 died in concentration camps. (The largest single cause of death of Hitler and Stalin’s victims combined was starvation.) The standard historiography – and popular treatments in the movies – explain the Holocaust as a logical outgrowth of the anti-Semitism campaigns in Germany in the 1930s. However, Snyder argues it must be seen as a product of East European history and not just German history, leading him to conclude that “national frameworks are inadequate for explaining national histories.”

Hitler’s genocidal policies claimed 10 million victims, while Stalin directly killed some four million. Hitler, unlike Stalin, was committed to waging wars of aggression, which makes it hard to unscramble his genocidal goals from his military objectives. On the thorny question of intent, Terry Martin reads Snyder as placing Hitler at the intentionalist side of the intentionalist-instrumentalist spectrum, while Stalin’s mass murder was mostly for ‘instrumental’ reasons – not killing for its own sake, but killing to achieve a political goal. Snyder argues – controversially, for some – that Stalin did not set out to kill millions of Ukrainians in the 1932 collectivization drive. On the contrary, the famine was a ‘disaster’ for Stalin that was a serious threat to his regime, second only to the Nazi invasion of June 1941. Snyder suggests that Stalin invented a political rationale for the famine ex post by looking for someone to blame – so political goals were more effect than cause. Snyder does acknowledge that Stalin was culpable in that he did not take steps to mitigate the famine, and manipulated the flow of grain to target certain groups. Also, given that the 1930 famine in Kazakhstan was preceded by a two-year collectivization drive in Ukraine, Stalin must have been fully aware that the same thing could happen in Ukraine.

Snyder also noted that Stalin carried out mass ethnic killings in the 1930s (shooting 110,000 Poles who were living inside the Soviet Union in 1937), whereas Hitler only started such mass ethnic killings after the war broke out. Collectivization ‘only’ involved 20-30,000 shootings, while the Great Purge of 1937 saw 700,000 executed within 19 months. (The Great Purge produced surprisingly little response from Hitler, perhaps because the extent of the killing was concealed from the outside world.) Again challenging conventional wisdom, Snyder argued that it was not true that the Germans were better organized that the Soviets. Stalin had the capacity for organizing mass killing with precision (in terms of targeting specific individuals and social groups) and secrecy.

Terry Martin found persuasive Snyder’s core argument that both regimes deployed utopian ideologies in the service of imperial expansionist ambitions. The only available space for expansion was East Europe because the British had pretty much shut out other powers from other under-developed parts of the world, such as Africa and the Middle East. Snyder also notes that neither Stalin nor Hitler expected the British Empire to go away anytime soon – something that we with the benefit of hindsight now take for granted. Snyder argued that the Nazis were pursuing a deliberate campaign to demodernize the region, reversing Stalin’s efforts to urbanize those territories, and reducing the population which had grown by 30 million since 1918. Snyder noted that “The Germans used soviet institutions to carry out the starvation campaign, notably collective farms” – despite the fact that some Nazi officials wanted to abolish the collective farms on ideological grounds.

Henry Rosovsky – himself a refugee from Gdansk – expressed appreciation for Snyder’s skill in combining macro analysis with attention to the micro dynamics of the mass killing at local level. Clearly, some of the causation percolated up from below, and was not all top-down – for example, in the escalation of atrocity and reprisal between Nazis and partisans on the ground in Belarus. Rosovsky also found the geopolitical approach persuasive, noting that the mass killing zone is a fairly compact area, some 900 miles deep by 700 miles wide.

Serhii Plokhy noted that these “lands in between” roughly coincide with the old Kingdom of Poland, and include the Pale of Settlement of the Jews. As a historian of early-modern Europe, he said he was shocked to realize just how cheap human life was in the bloody twentieth century. Even medieval nobles would have attached more value to their serfs than did totalitarian dictators. Though this was not discussed in the seminar, it seems clear that technology played a crucial role in enabling these modern states to exploit land without needing so many inhabitants – especially if they were politically or racially unacceptable.

As a diplomatic historian, Plokhy also drew attention to the importance of diplomatic maneuverings in laying the groundwork for slaughter. Stalin saw Ukraine as an unreliable borderland, and it was not a coincidence that the collectivization came after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Poland in July 1932. Likewise, Hitler feared that Poland would join the anti-Nazi alliance, hence his non-aggression pact with Poland in 1937, and then with Stalin in 1939, clearing the way for the genocide.

The panelists praised the ambition of Snyder’s work; its ability to synthesize a broad range of material and to reopen the dialog between historians of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Though he is dealing with issues of intense moral and political debate, Snyder manages to maintain an objective, neutral stance – at least that was the conclusion of the Harvard panel.

–By Peter Rutland

Buy Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin at the TOL Store.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email:

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