24 October 2010

Bloodlands

Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin looks like the history book of the moment. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy, based on several positive comments from trusted sources.
Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | *Bloodlands*

The author is Timothy Snyder and the subtitle is Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I learned that this period was even bloodier and more brutal than I had thought:
Mass killing in Europe is usually associated with the Holocaust, and the Holocaust with rapid industrial killing. The image is too simple and clean. At the German and Soviet killing sites, the methods of murder were rather primitive. Of the fourteen million civilians and prisoners of war killed in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, more than half died because they were denied food. Europeans deliberately starved Europeans in horrific numbers in the middle of the twentieth century.
It is a very powerful book and I can recommend this review and this review. Along somewhat related lines, some of you may wish to read Paul R. Gregory's Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina.
I learned a lot about the Stalinist-Lysenkoist forced famines in the Ukraine by listening to this EconTalk interview with Gregory about his Bukharin book. Not only were people starved because of Stalinist policy, they were shot for trying to leave famine-ravaged lands to find work and food. EconTalk also did a good episode about Trotsky. Early Soviet history is a subject that was (and is) lacking in my knowledge base.
EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Bloodlands
I haven't finished the first chapter of Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, but I'm ready to highly recommend the book. Just one great passage:
As Stalin interpreted the disaster of collectivization in the last weeks of 1932, he achieved a new height of ideological daring. The famine in Ukraine, whose existence he had admitted earlier, when it was far less severe, was now a "fairy tale," a slanderous rumor spread by enemies. Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat...

[...]

Stalin never personally witnessed the starvations that he so interpreted, but comrades in Soviet Ukraine did... Forced to interpret distended bellies as political opposition, they produced the utterly tortured conclusion that the saboteurs hated socialism so much that they intentionally let their families die... Even the starving themselves were sometimes presented as enemy propagandists with a conscious plan to undermine socialism. Young Ukrainian communists in the cities were taught that the starving were enemies of the people "who risked their lives to spoil our optimism."
These self-righteous socialist horrors could almost be out of Eugen Richter, but not quite. His shortcoming: not dystopian enough.
The Economist had a great review you can find here.  More interesting perhaps is an interview they conducted with Snyder, which you can listen here or below.



Snyder also responds convincingly to his critics in the Guardian.

I am very interested in Bloodlands because it is a book I very much wish I had when I was in middle and high school. The Holocaust was taught to me as the central event in 20th century world history. And not just in my history or social studies classes: it was addressed in several English classes at some length as well. I would estimate that I spent four or five binary orders of magnitude more time discussing the Holocaust than the rest of WWII together. Like Snyder's critics, my teachers explicitly disallowed attempts to put the Holocaust in context, either in terms contemporaneous events or other modern genocides around the world.  Stalin was treated as a good guy, because anyone who helped fight Hitler couldn't be that bad. (I was yelled at at one point for trying to bring up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.) Also particularly maddening to me was the way the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were taken as nothing but big misunderstandings: Mao meant well and only wanted to rejuvenate China economically and culturally, freeing it from the shackles of ancient Confucian superstitions and the legacy of imperialism, but then things went wrong — oh well!  The only event which was admitted as being somewhat comparable to the Holocaust was, of all things, Hiroshima & Nagasaki. (The fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, and the bombing of Warsaw, were irrelevant to that discussion though.)

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the curriculum committees in charge at Montgomery County Public Schools.

I never wanted to get into some foolish "is atrocity X worse than atrocityY" rumble, but I recognized it as foolish even then to pretend that the Holocaust happened in isolation.  Not only foolish, but dangerous.  If you think this horrible thing is the isolated work on one mad man rather than the most eggregious event in a lengthy string of terrible 20th century events all around the world then you're going to think that bad things won't happen again, or happen close by.

2 comments:

  1. You said "The Holocaust was taught to me as the central event in 20th century world history. And not just in my history or social studies classes: it was addressed in several English classes at some length as well. I would estimate that I spent four or five binary orders of magnitude more time discussing the Holocaust than the rest of WWII together."

    I couldn't agree more. I grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, and it was the same there. I kid you not when I say that in my 20th century history class, we spent 6-8 weeks studying the Holocaust, and then the day before the test the teacher mentioned (a) there was a war on during that time, and (b) the defining battles of that war were the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden. No mention even of the German invasion of Poland, Pearl Harbor, or the D-Day landings!

    This is a significant chunk of why I am anti-public-school.

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  2. The only time I remember the invasion of Poland is when I did a presentation about it.

    At least we got a couple of minutes about D-Day from a teacher though!

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