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Originally published Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Book review

'Bloodlands': An account of Hitler and Stalin's frenzied era of mass murder

Book review: "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin" is Yale historian Timothy Snyder's account of one of the bloodiest epochs in human history, when the regimes of Hitler and Stalin murdered 14 million civilians and noncombatant soldiers between 1933 and 1945.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin'

by Timothy Snyder

Basic Books, 544 pp., $29.95

The 20th century was the bloodiest 100 years in human history, and nowhere was more blood shed than in the lands of Eastern Europe, roughly the territory stretching from central Poland in the east to the western edge of Russia, from the Baltic States in the north to the southern fringes of Ukraine.

This unhappy expanse Timothy Snyder calls the "bloodlands," where between 1933 and 1945 14 million civilians and noncombatant soldiers were murdered in the greatest frenzy of mass violence ever before seen.

To us in the West, the horrors of World War II are associated with the names of Auschwitz, Iwo Jima and Hiroshima. Without denying the significance of these places, Snyder, an immensely talented historian at Yale University, radically alters our understanding of the mass murder that went on during these years by showing in convincing fashion where and how most victims met their end.

"Bloodlands" overflows with startling facts and revelations. Snyder points out that fewer than 3 percent of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were German. By the time Auschwitz became a major death factory in 1943, most of the Jews killed in Eastern Europe had already been exterminated.

"Auschwitz," Snyder writes, "is the coda to the death fugue," not its central movement. Even more importantly, Snyder corrects the notion that the camps with their bureaucratic, mechanized means for murder were the primary killing sites of the Nazis. Many more of their victims were starved to death or shot.

The victims in the bloodlands were largely Jews, Belarusians, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians; most were women, children and the aged.

In Snyder's account, the killing began in the U.S.S.R. in the early 1930s, when Joseph Stalin directed a starvation campaign against Soviet Ukraine as part of his program of collectivization that left some 3 million dead.

Stalin's Great Terror of the late 1930s, when 700,000 Soviet citizens were arrested and shot, marked the second stage of the violence. The killing reached its apogee during World War II, as the German and then Soviet armies invaded, colonized and subjugated Eastern Europe.

As early as 1941, the Nazis had created a so-called "Hunger Plan" according to which the German army and people would be fed by starving the people of Eastern Europe.

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"This was the Nazi Manifest Destiny," Snyder observes. "As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians."

By the end of the war, the Nazis had starved to death 4 million people living in the western territories of the Soviet Union. None of the 14 million in Snyder's account were casualties of war: All were civilians or prisoners of war, defenseless victims of Soviet and Nazi violence.

In a conclusion that should be required reading for all, Snyder addresses the moral questions raised by this murderous history with insight and recognition of the shades of culpability that make it difficult at times to neatly separate victims from perpetrators.

He also shines much-needed light on the dangers of "competitive martyrology" of the recent past, as the nations of the bloodlands have tried to claim greatest victim status.

If there is one question Snyder is unable to answer, it is why so many millions died. At its base, he attributes their deaths to the utopian political visions put forward by Stalin and then Hitler. To a point he is right, but to write that utopian designs began with Stalin in 1932 is to overlook the willful leap into an unattainable future that began in 1917 with Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution.

That tragic turn, born in part by the bloody carnage of World War I, ushered in five years of civil war and famine that claimed millions of lives. When seen from this perspective, these lands were even bloodier than "Bloodlands" would suggest.

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