Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 - THE SOVIET FAMINES
CHAPTER 2 - CLASS TERROR
CHAPTER 3 - NATIONAL TERROR
CHAPTER 4 - MOLOTOV-RIBBENTROP EUROPE
CHAPTER 5 - THE ECONOMICS OF APOCALYPSE
CHAPTER 6 - FINAL SOLUTION
CHAPTER 7 - HOLOCAUST AND REVENGE
CHAPTER 8 - THE NAZI DEATH FACTORIES
CHAPTER 9 - RESISTANCE AND INCINERATION
CHAPTER 10 - ETHNIC CLEANSINGS
CHAPTER 11 - STALINIST ANTI-SEMITISM
NUMBERS AND TERMS
your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit
Everything flows, everything changes.
You can’t board the same prison train twice.
A stranger drowned on the Black Sea alone
With no one to hear his prayers for forgiveness.
“Storm on the Black Sea”
Ukrainian traditional song
Whole cities disappear. In nature’s stead
Only a white shield to counter nonexistence.
“The Shield of Achilles”
“Now we will live!” This is what the hungry little boy liked to say, as he toddled along thequiet roadside, or through the empty fields. But the food that he saw was only in hisimagination. The wheat had all been taken away, in a heartless campaign of requisitions thatbegan Europe’s era of mass killing. It was 1933, and Joseph Stalin was deliberately starvingSoviet Ukraine. The little boy died, as did more than three million other people. “I will meether,” said a young Soviet man of his wife, “under the ground.” He was right; he was shotafter she was, and they were buried among the seven hundred thousand victims of Stalin’s GreatTerror of 1937 and 1938. “They asked for my wedding ring, which I....” The Polish officerbroke off his diary just before he was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1940. He was oneof about two hundred thousand Polish citizens shot by the Soviets or the Germans at thebeginning of the Second World War, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union jointly occupied hiscountry. Late in 1941, an eleven-year-old Russian girl in Leningrad finished her own humblediary: “Only Tania is left.” Adolf Hitler had betrayed Stalin, her city was under siege bythe Germans, and her family were among the four million Soviet citizens the Germans starved todeath. The following summer, a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in Belarus wrote a last letter toher father: “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death becausethey throw small children into the mass graves alive.” She was among the more than fivemillion Jews gassed or shot by the Germans.
In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimesmurdered some fourteen million people. The place where all of the victims died, the bloodlands,extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States.During the consolidation of National Socialism and Stalinism (1933-1938), the joint German-Soviet occupation of Poland (1939-1941), and then the German-Soviet war (1941-1945), massviolence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region. The victims werechiefly Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts, the peoples native to theselands. The fourteen million were murdered over the course of only twelve years, between 1933and 1945, while both Hitler and Stalin were in power. Though their homelands becamebattlefields midway through this period, these people were all victims of murderous policyrather than casualties of war. The Second World War was the most lethal conflict in history,and about half of the soldiers who perished on all of its battlefields all the world over diedhere, in this same region, in the bloodlands. Yet not a single one of the fourteen millionmurdered was a soldier on active duty. Most were women, children, and the aged; none werebearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.
Auschwitz is the most familiar killing site of the bloodlands. Today Auschwitz stands for theHolocaust, and the Holocaust for the evil of a century. Yet the people registered as laborersat Auschwitz had a chance of surviving: thanks to the memoirs and novels written by survivors,its name is known. Far more Jews, most of them Polish Jews, were gassed in other German deathfactories where almost everyone died, and whose names are less often recalled: Treblinka,Chemno, Sobibór, Beec. Still more Jews, Polish or Soviet or Baltic Jews, were shot over ditchesand pits. Most of these Jews died near where they had lived, in occupied Poland, Lithuania,Latvia, Soviet Ukraine, and Soviet Belarus. The Germans brought Jews from elsewhere to thebloodlands to be killed. Jews arrived by train to Auschwitz from Hungary, Czechoslovakia,France, the Netherlands, Greece, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Norway. German Jews weredeported to the cities of the bloodlands, to ód or Kaunas or Minsk or Warsaw, before being shotor gassed. The people who lived on the block where I am writing now, in the ninth district ofVienna, were deported to Auschwitz, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Riga: all in the bloodlands.
The German mass murder of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the SovietUnion, not in Germany itself. Hitler was an anti-Semitic politician in a country with a smallJewish community. Jews were fewer than one percent of the German population when Hitler became
chancellor in 1933, and about one quarter of one percent by the beginning of the Second World
War. During the first six years of Hitler’s rule, German Jews were allowed (in humiliating andimpoverishing circumstances) to emigrate. Most of the German Jews who saw Hitler win electionsin 1933 died of natural causes. The murder of 165,000 German Jews was a ghastly crime in and ofitself, but only a very small part of the tragedy of European Jews: fewer than three percent ofthe deaths of the Holocaust. Only when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and the Soviet Unionin 1941 did Hitler’s visions of the elimination of Jews from Europe intersect with the twomost significant populations of European Jews. His ambition to eliminate the Jews of Europecould be realized only in the parts of Europe where Jews lived.
The Holocaust overshadows German plans that envisioned even more killing. Hitler wanted notonly to eradicate the Jews; he wanted also to destroy Poland and the Soviet Union as states,exterminate their ruling classes, and kill tens of millions of Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians,Belarusians, Poles). If the German war against the USSR had gone as planned, thirty millioncivilians would have been starved in its first winter, and tens of millions more expelled,killed, assimilated, or enslaved thereafter. Though these plans were never realized, theysupplied the moral premises of German occupation policy in the East. The Germans murdered aboutas many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (more thanthree million) and residents of besieged cities (more than a million) or by shooting civiliansin “reprisals” (the better part of a million, chiefly Belarusians and Poles).
The Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany on the eastern front in the Second World War, therebyearning Stalin the gratitude of millions and a crucial part in the establishment of the postwarorder in Europe. Yet Stalin’s own record of mass murder was almost as imposing as Hitler’s.Indeed, in times of peace it was far worse. In the name of defending and modernizing the SovietUnion, Stalin oversaw the starvation of millions and the shooting of three quarters of amillion people in the 1930s. Stalin killed his own citizens no less efficiently than Hitlerkilled the citizens of other countries. Of the fourteen million people deliberately murdered inthe bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, a third belong in the Soviet account.
This is a history of political mass murder. The fourteen million were all victims of a Sovietor Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, butnever casualties of the war between them. A quarter of them were killed before the Second WorldWar even began. A further two hundred thousand died between 1939 and 1941, while Nazi Germany
allies. The deaths of the fourteen million wereand the Soviet Union were remaking Europe as
sometimes projected in economic plans, or hastened by economic considerations, but were notcaused by economic necessity in any strict sense. Stalin knew what would happen when he seizedfood from the starving peasants of Ukraine in 1933, just as Hitler knew what could be expectedwhen he deprived Soviet prisoners of war of food eight years later. In both cases, more thanthree million people died. The hundreds of thousands of Soviet peasants and workers shot duringthe Great Terror in 1937 and 1938 were victims of express directives of Stalin, just as themillions of Jews shot and gassed between 1941 and 1945 were victims of an explicit policy ofHitler.
War did alter the balance of killing. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was the only state inEurope carrying out policies of mass killing. Before the Second World War, in the first six anda half years after Hitler came to power, the Nazi regime killed no more than about ten thousandpeople. The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of amillion. German policies of mass killing came to rival Soviet ones between 1939 and 1941, afterStalin allowed Hitler to begin a war. The Wehrmacht and the Red Army both attacked Poland inSeptember 1939, German and Soviet diplomats signed a Treaty on Borders and Friendship, andGerman and Soviet forces occupied the country together for nearly two years. After the Germansexpanded their empire to the west in 1940 by invading Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, andFrance, the Soviets occupied and annexed Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and northeastern Romania.Both regimes shot educated Polish citizens in the tens of thousands and deported them in thehundreds of thousands. For Stalin, such mass repression was the continuation of old policies onnew lands; for Hitler, it was a breakthrough.
The very worst of the killing began when Hitler betrayed Stalin and German forces crossed intothe recently enlarged Soviet Union in June 1941. Although the Second World War began inSeptember 1939 with the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, the tremendous majority of itskilling followed that second eastern invasion. In Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Belarus, and theLeningrad district, lands where the Stalinist regime had starved and shot some four millionpeople in the previous eight years, German forces managed to starve and shoot even more in halfthe time. Right after the invasion began, the Wehrmacht began to starve its Soviet prisoners,and special task forces called Einsatzgruppen began to shoot political enemies and Jews. Alongwith the German Order Police, the Waffen-SS, and the Wehrmacht, and with the participation oflocal auxiliary police and militias, the Einsatzgruppen began that summer to eliminate Jewishcommunities as such.
The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperialplans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD andthe German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in thepolitical geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, SovietBelarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are oftenassociated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Unionwas its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of thetwentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are notwhere most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandingsregarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of thetwentieth century.
Germany was the site of concentration camps liberated by the Americans and the British in 1945;Russian Siberia was of course the site of much of the Gulag, made known in the West byAlexander Solzhenitsyn. The images of these camps, in photographs or in prose, only suggest thehistory of German and Soviet violence. About a million people died because they were sentencedto labor in German concentration camps—as distinct from the German gas chambers and the Germankilling fields and the German starvation zones, where ten million people died. Over a million
lives were shortened by exhaustion and disease in the Soviet Gulag between 1933 and 1945—asdistinct from the Soviet killing fields and the Soviet hunger regions, where some six million
people died, about four million of them in the bloodlands. Ninety percent of those who enteredthe Gulag left it alive. Most of the people who entered German concentration camps (as opposedto the German gas chambers, death pits, and prisoner-of-war camps) also survived. The fate ofconcentration camp inmates, horrible though it was, is distinct from that of those many
millions who were gassed, shot, or starved.
The distinction between concentration camps and killing sites cannot be made perfectly: peoplewere executed and people were starved in camps. Yet there is a difference between a campsentence and a death sentence, between labor and gas, between slavery and bullets. Thetremendous majority of the mortal victims of both the German and the Soviet regimes never saw aconcentration camp. Auschwitz was two things at once, a labor camp and a death facility, andthe fate of non-Jews seized for labor and Jews selected for labor was very different from thefate of Jews selected for the gas chambers. Auschwitz thus belongs to two histories, relatedbut distinct. Auschwitz-as-labor-camp is more representative of the experience of the largenumber of people who endured German (or Soviet) policies of concentration, whereas Auschwitz-as-death-facility is more typical of the fates of those who were deliberately killed. Most ofthe Jews who arrived at Auschwitz were simply gassed; they, like almost all of the fourteenmillion killed in the bloodlands, never spent time in a concentration camp.
The German and Soviet concentration camps surround the bloodlands, from both east and west,blurring the black with their shades of grey. At the end of the Second World War, American andBritish forces liberated German concentration camps such as Belsen and Dachau, but the western
none of the important death facilities. The Germans carried out all of theirAllies liberated
major killing policies on lands subsequently occupied by the Soviets. The Red Army liberatedAuschwitz, and it liberated the sites of Treblinka, Sobibór, Beec, Chemno, and Majdanek aswell. American and British forces reached none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major
killing sites. It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where theSoviets killed, leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the Cold Warand the opening of the archives. It is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed,
meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long. The photographs andfilms of German concentration camps were the closest that most westerners ever came toperceiving the mass killing. Horrible though these images were, they were only hints at thehistory of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even anintroduction.
Mass killing in Europe is usually associated with the Holocaust, and the Holocaust with rapidindustrial 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 ofwar killed in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, more than half died because they weredenied food. Europeans deliberately starved Europeans in horrific numbers in the middle of thetwentieth century. The two largest mass killing actions after the Holocaust—Stalin’s directedfamines of the early 1930s and Hitler’s starvation of Soviet prisoners of war in the early1940s—involved this method of killing. Starvation was foremost not only in reality but inimagination. In a Hunger Plan, the Nazi regime projected the death by starvation of tens ofmillions of Slavs and Jews in the winter of 1941-1942.
After starvation came shooting, and then gassing. In Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-1938,nearly seven hundred thousand Soviet citizens were shot. The two hundred thousand or so Poleskilled by the Germans and the Soviets during their joint occupation of Poland were shot. Themore than three hundred thousand Belarusians and the comparable number of Poles executed inGerman “reprisals” were shot. The Jews killed in the Holocaust were about as likely to beshot as to be gassed.
For that matter, there was little especially modern about the gassing. The million or so Jewsasphyxiated at Auschwitz were killed by hydrogen cyanide, a compound isolated in the eighteenthcentury. The 1.6 million or so Jews killed at Treblinka, Chemno, Beec, and Sobibór wereasphyxiated by carbon monoxide, which even the ancient Greeks knew was lethal. In the 1940shydrogen cyanide was used as a pesticide; carbon monoxide was produced by internal combustionengines. The Soviets and the Germans relied upon technologies that were hardly novel even inthe 1930s and 1940s: internal combustion, railways, firearms, pesticides, barbed wire.
No matter which technology was used, the killing was personal. People who starved wereobserved, often from watchtowers, by those who denied them food. People who were shot were seenthrough the sights of rifles at very close range, or held by two men while a third placed apistol at the base of the skull. People who were asphyxiated were rounded up, put on trains,and then rushed into the gas chambers. They lost their possessions and then their clothes andthen, if they were women, their hair. Each one of them died a different death, since each oneof them had lived a different life.
The sheer numbers of the victims can blunt our sense of the individuality of each one. “I’d
Requiem, “but thelike to call you all by name,” wrote the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in her list has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.” Thanks to the hard work ofhistorians, we have some of the lists; thanks to the opening of the archives in eastern Europe,we have places to look. We have a surprising number of the voices of the victims: therecollections (for example) of one young Jewish woman who dug herself from the Nazi death pitat Babi Yar, in Kiev; or of another who managed the same at Ponary, near Vilnius. We have thememoirs of some of the few dozen survivors of Treblinka. We have an archive of the Warsawghetto, painstakingly assembled, buried and then (for the most part) found. We have the diarieskept by the Polish officers shot by the Soviet NKVD in 1940 at Katyn, unearthed along withtheir bodies. We have notes thrown from the buses taking Poles to death pits during the Germankilling actions of that same year. We have the words scratched on the wall of the synagogue inKovel; and those left on the wall of the Gestapo prison in Warsaw. We have the recollections ofUkrainians who survived the Soviet famine of 1933, those of Soviet prisoners of war whosurvived the German starvation campaign of 1941, and those of Leningraders who survived thestarvation siege of 1941-1944.