Friday, March 9, 2018

Book review: "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin" by Timothy Snyder. And the value of reading books that make you feel sick.

Oh everyone. The book I'm going to talk to you about today is of the sad and gory and heavy sigh inducing variety. And then after the book review I want to talk about why we should read books that make us just, sick to our stomachs at the thought of the actions wherein.

The book today is Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin and it's by a man named Timothy Snyder. Timothy also wrote a book called Black Earth  which is a book devoted to exploration of the Holocaust. This book is also set around World War II but focuses more solely on the countries that were often caught in between the crossfire of Stalin and Hitler as they raged for land and supremacy during the second world war (the countries that feature the most prominently - besides Germany and the Russia/Soviet Union - are Poland, present day Belarus, present day Ukraine, present day Latvia.). This book has a wide array of great maps which helps immensely. 

I honestly don't know if I can do this book justice, or even review it in a logical and sensible way, so I'm just going to go through my notes and try to really emphasize the things that stood out to me/got me thinking the most/made me the most upset. (Honestly almost all of these quotes come from the conclusion, he just summarizes and ties everything together so succinctly. If you are interested in this book but don't think you can handle the 350+ pages of this kind of thing, just read the conclusion.

To understand the terror of the bloodlands you have to try to wrap your mind around the scale of the killing: "Between them, the Nazi and Stalinist regimes murdered more than fourteen million people in the bloodlands. The killing began with a political famine that Stalin directed at Soviet Ukraine, which claimed more than three million lives. It continued with Stalin's Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, in which some seven hundred thousand people were shot, most of them peasants or members of national minorities. The Soviets and the Germans then cooperated in the the destruction of Poland and it's educated classes, killing some two hundred thousand people between 1939 and 1941....Germans starved the Soviet prisoners of war and the inhabitants of besieged Leningrad taking the lives of more than 4 million people...the Germans and the Soviets provoked one another to to even greater cries, as in the partisan wars for Belarus and Warsaw where the Germans killed about half a million citizens".

"Victims left behind mourners. Killers left behind numbers".

Just to build off that paragraph there - 
-Poland was dismantled and mangled in an incredibly methodical way, by the Germans and Soviets working together and separate. It was incredible to just watch pieces of the country be carted off and there was nothing the Polish could really do to stop it.
-This book gave me the most information I've found about the Warsaw uprising. I never really knew a lot of the details about it, just the large strokes of it in general, but it was chilling and was one of the things that shook me to my core the most. 

So when you think of Auschwitz you probably think of this terrifying place where most of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were killed. That's actually not true (the terrifying part is true). "Auschwitz was also not the main place where the two largest Jewish communities in Europe, Polish and the Soviet were exterminated. Most Soviet and Polish Jews under German occupation had already been murdered by the time Auschwitz became the major death factory. By the time the gas chamber and crematoria complexes at Birkeneau came on line in spring 1943, more than three quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the holocaust were already dead.....Auschwitz is the coda to the death head fugue." 

This chunk of text maybe was the most surprising thing to me that I read in the whole book, sorry it's long but it's important to hear all of it for the right context: "The image of the German concentration camps as the worst element of National Socialism is an illusion, a dark mirage over an unknown desert...The concentration camps did kill hundereds of thousands of people at the end of the war, but they were not (in contrast to the death facilities) designed for immediate mass killing. Hews who were sent to concentration camps were among the Jews who survived...the ones who survived would have been worked to death eventually. but were liberated at war's end. The German policy to kill all the Jew of Europe was implemented not in the concentration camps but over pits, in gas vans, and at the death facilities in Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz". 

This book is full of terrible stories, people placed in terrible situations and having to make terrible choices that we can't comprehend. One way that this book is something that I felt like I could even make it through is that the author is just so skilled at writing. He has this lovely and elegant writing style even when the subject matter is hard.  

So I do a lot of my reading over my lunch half hour at work. People have gotten used to seeing me read some books about weird things. When people would see this book and ask me "so how's that book going?" I always was puzzled on how to answer. This is an incredibly well researched and written book so sometimes I would say "It's going pretty well." But that seems like a weird thing to say about a book where you are learning about, millions of people being starved to death in the Ukraine for no reason. (But then people who are just trying to be polite don't want the whole backstory on Stalin's Great Terror.) I've decided that the best answer I can give when someone asks me about a book like this or asks "why would you read a book like this, it sounds awful and depressing". My answer is: "It's important. We have to remember the heartbreaking soul crushing stories more than any any other stories". Which I know sounds pretentious and contrived but it's true. It's a thing that rolls around in my brain a lot and I'm still trying to get it together.

Anyway, this book is important/well written/well researched/anguishing/informative. First 5/5 for the year.


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