I reviewed Timothy Snyder's excellent new book, "Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin" for "Policy Review." Here's the opening:
There were moments reading this book when I was forced to shut it closed, an experience utterly alien to me. Like any reasonably historically-aware individual, I considered myself familiar with the carnage that overtook Europe in the earlier half of the 20th century: the gas chambers and the gulags, the mass shootings and show trials, the wanton disregard for human life and the heinous ideas which compelled people to, actively or passively, play a part in the deaths of tens of millions of fellow human beings. Reading about this period, there comes a point when the sheer scale and horror of the events which took place -- the instant incineration of tens of thousands of civilians, for instance -- desensitizes one from appreciating the sheer terror and physical pain that individuals endured.
Even with the knowledge of these attrocities, there is still little than can prepare a reader for the grisly accounts of the Ukrainian Famine that Timothy Snyder details in "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin." Of course, I knew something about the widespread starvation that afflicted Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933. This mass culling was directly caused by Josef Stalin's collectivization policies, which were comprised of seizing private farms and exporting whatever food was grown to the rest of the Soviet Union and beyond. Those who have studied the event in depth will not find anything new in Snyder's account. But most readers, I imagine, will reevaluate their conception of the depths of human depravity when they read, in particular, about the widespread cannibalism that became rampant in what Robert Conquest has referred to as "one vast Belsen." These are tales that one imagined lay only in the realm of zombie films: parents cooking and eating their own children, children in a nursery eating each other, a starving toddler literally eating himself.
The lack of popular knowledge about the Ukrainian Famine, or Holodomor, is largely attributable to two factors. The first is that, unlike the Nazi Holocaust, the question of whether the famine constitutes a premeditated act of genocide on the part of Stalin (as opposed to, at worst, a symptom of callous neglect, or, at best, a tragedy brought upon by environmental factors) remains a topic of a highly politicized historical debate. In modern-day Ukraine, a nation still struggling to find an identity for the post-Soviet age, this question is a contentious issue, to say the least (the first act of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, after his inauguration last year, was to remove a section on the presidential website dedicated to the Holodomor).
Memory of the famine has also not been served well by the various apologists for communism, from Walter Duranty (who, as "The New York Times's" man in Moscow at the time, not only denied that it was happening but won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so) to the celebrated Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who, when asked in a television interview, "had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?" simply answered, "Yes."
Secondly, the Holocaust of European Jewry in the subsequent decade has overshadowed the Ukrainian tragedy, in both scale and intent. Today, denial of the Nazi Holocaust is a crime in many European countries. While some former Soviet states have passed similar laws regarding the crimes of communism, minimizing or rationalizing said crimes as the result of poor leadership as opposed to the inevitable results of an inherently unjust doctrine remains, in some Western intellectual circles, a mark of erudition.
Read the rest of the review here.