Conflict & Justice

Eastern Europe's Bloodlands'

The opening of Soviet and East European archives has provided historians a tidal wave of new information about the crimes of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Brigid McCarthy reports on one historian's work.

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Yale University historian Timothy Snyder has a special name for the region that lies between Berlin and Moscow: �Bloodlands.� It's also the title of his new book, which looks at what happened in Poland, Ukraine, western Russia, the Baltics and Belarus between l933 and l945, the years when both Hitler and Stalin were in power.

�In that relatively short span of time the Soviets and the Nazis deliberately murdered a combined 17 million unarmed men, women and children,� Snyder said. �This is the central event of modern European history, or maybe even of the history of the modern west.�

It's also the region where Soviet mass killing and German mass killing overlap. Timothy Snyder examines these atrocities through a new lens. He doesn't just look at Soviet terror, or Nazi terror in isolation. Nor does he focus on any single nation or ethnic group. �Bloodlands� is history from the point of view of the victims.

�So Jews, and Belarussians and Poles and Ukrainians and Russians and everyone else who lived in this territory are all represented,� Snyder said. He added that the only way to understand what happened in the l930′s and 40′s is by studying Hitler and Stalin together.

They both targeted entire populations, and used surprisingly similar methods � nowhere more so than in Ukraine.

�It's the place where more people than any other, at least among the countries that currently exist, die,� Snyder said.

Soviet Ukraine felt the full force of both Stalinist and Nazi violence. Between l932 and l933, Stalin deliberately starved to death more than three million Soviet Ukrainians. He also executed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and other Soviet minorities during the Great Terror a few years later.

Then, in June of l941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Ukraine's civilian population endured more than three years of Nazi occupation. Snyder suggested Hitler intended to overthrow Stalin, and transform Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union into a giant colony of Nazi Germany.

�This was a plan which foresaw not only the total elimination of the Jews,� Snyder said, �but also the starvation by hunger of tens of millions of Slavs, and the moving around, enslavement or deportation, sometimes mass murder of tens of millions more, after the war. That's in black and white. Those were the plans.�

Olha Matula grew up in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

�I was 13 years old and living in Kiev when the Second World War started for us,� she said.

Her family survived the Nazi occupation thanks to what she calls a series of miracles. But they witnessed scenes of horror. One of the first things the Germans did after seizing control of Kiev was round up all the Jews.

Some escaped, including Mathula's next door neighbors. But for some reason, Matula said, an old woman was left behind. �We could hear her cry, and people in our courtyard decided two or three of them would take turns and bring her food.�

A few weeks later, German soldiers discovered the woman and took her away.

Between June and December of l941, the Germans rounded up and shot more than a million Soviet Jews. Their mass graves are still being discovered and documented.

But Snyder said other populations vanished without a trace. As the Wehrmacht tore through Ukraine towards Moscow, they captured more than three million Red Army soldiers, and deliberately starved or shot them, in blatant violation of the laws of war.

In many cases, the Germans marched the prisoners of war (POW) into open fields, surrounded them with barbed wire, and left them to die from hunger in the cold.

�These were the first German death camps,� Snyder said. �These were the first camps that were built in order to kill people in very large numbers.�

Mathula saw evidence of that. One day, she said, she saw some German soldiers herding a bedraggled group of Soviet POWs. They were walking past a field of potatoes, covered in snow.

�And those poor prisoners, probably knew, some of them were peasants; they probably knew there were potatoes or beets stored there,� Mathula said. �And they started with their hands to dig it and eat frozen potatoes. And Germans started to shoot. I witnessed that.�

Soviet POWs were victims of both Hitler and Stalin, said Timothy Snyder.

�The reason they were there to be captured was because Stalin, who thought he was a military genius, didn't allow the generals to retreat, which meant that people could be captured.�

It's just one example of how Hitler and Stalin's actions reinforced each other, to the detriment of the populations trapped between them. It's also what makes simple comparisons between Nazi and Stalinist terror difficult. Even survivors like 82 year-old Mathula struggle with that.

�Personally, I experienced more from Hitler, of course, because that touched my life,� Muthula said. �But when looking back, what my parents went through, I don't know which one they would say was worse.�

Snyder said in terms of sheer numbers the Nazis killed more people. Most of their victims perished during the Second World War. The worst years of Stalinist terror, by contrast, were in peacetime, even before the war began.