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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Donald Rayfield
Killing Fields
Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
By Timothy Snyder (The Bodley Head 400pp £20)
Stalin's Genocides: Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity
By Norman M Naimark (Princeton University Press 163pp £18.95)

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Bloodlands is as apt a title for a history of Poland, Belarus and the Ukraine under Stalin and Hitler as it is for one of modern Cambodia or Rwanda. Timothy Snyder focuses on the horrific mortality among civilians in the vast area between Germany and Russia: Ukrainian peasants in the collectivisation of 1929-33, Jews between 1941 and 1945, Poles between 1939 and 1945, and Belarusians from Stalin's 'Great Terror' in 1937 to the retreat of the Germans in 1944. The six million Jews annihilated by the Holocaust is the most familiar figure, followed by the 22,000 Polish officers shot by Stalin, and between three and seven million Ukrainians starved to death by him. What fewer readers will be aware of are the sufferings of Belarusians: of nine million inhabitants, one and a half million were murdered and another three million deported (many to their deaths) - figures emulated in our times only by Pol Pot.

Snyder has used countless monographs, articles and archives in German, Russian and Polish; his use of Polish sources makes this book almost unique for English-language readers. As for Germany and the USSR, he builds on the work of previous historians, from Robert Conquest to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Anne Applebaum. Much has been said before, but however often and graphically the story is told, it will still struggle to supplant the Hollywood version of the Second World War. One should be wary, of course, of any attempt to deal with Hitler and Stalin in tandem: every psychopath is unique, and comparisons can be unhelpful. Hitler's frenzy of murder lasted just four years and took place largely outside Germany. Stalin's murders came in waves over a period of twenty-five years, affected the 'homelands' even more than conquered territories, and can be seen as the resumption, after the lull of the mid-1920s, of Lenin and Trotsky's worse documented massacres between 1918 and 1921. If Hitler and Stalin were both gamblers, they played different games - Hitler staked everything on Blitzkrieg, Stalin played cold-blooded poker. Above all, Hitler lost and Stalin won. Snyder, however, justifies his dual approach: Hitler and Stalin, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, had synergy. They provided each other with bogeymen; they each won over Western supporters with the spectre of the other; and their shared conviction that Poland should not exist inflicted horrors on the Poles in proportions so unimaginable that the perverse tolerance by today's Poles of Germans and Russians looks like an extreme form of Christian altruism.

The thesis of Bloodlands is that both dictators unleashed their fury on the outsider: this is certainly true of Hitler, whose murders of German Jews amounted to only 1 per cent of his murders of all Jews. But in the case of Stalin's artificial famine of the early Thirties and the Great Terror of 1937-8 Snyder's thesis does not hold. It certainly was the worst 'artificial' famine inflicted in history up to that point (easily exceeded, however, by Mao Zedong's murder of Chinese peasantry). But, while the Ukrainians suffered disproportionately, the famine killed just as many 'insiders', Russians in the Volga region and the Kuban (between the River Don and the Caucasian foothills). Recognised by many authorities as genocide, the Ukrainian holodomor (death by hunger) was more a collateral, if foreseeable, effect of collectivisation and confiscation. It was not specifically aimed at exterminating the Ukrainians. In the Kuban, where Cossacks were the chief enemy, Ukrainian villagers were singled out by the OGPU (which later became the NKVD) for survival and recruited to round up and burn their Cossack neighbours in barns and cinemas. The Kazakh nation (which Snyder does mention) was brought far nearer to extinction than the Ukrainians by the famine inflicted on them in the early 1930s. As for the Great Terror, it was even more murderous in Leningrad, Moscow and Siberian cities than in the Ukraine or Belarus. In this respect Snyder's scheme is unconvincing.

Distinguishing his 'bloodlands' from the rest of the USSR, Snyder makes questionable assertions, implying that life elsewhere was less harsh: he underestimates the death rates in the Gulag of the Far North, the Urals and Siberia between 1933 and 1945: his statement that over 90 per cent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive applies to the milder camps in the early 1930s and in the 1950s. In many areas, especially between 1941 and 1947, mortality reached an annual 25 per cent. Even according to official figures, for every 100 prisoners given a ten-year sentence in 1937, on average fewer than forty-four were alive when released (or re-sentenced) in 1947. Nor were party members, pace Snyder, spared by following Stalin's lead in 1937: two-thirds of the 1,200 delegates to the Central Committee plenum of 1937 were dead by 1939. The NKVD, Stalin's instrument of terror, was steadily Russified in the 1930s, as those with Polish, Latvian and Jewish surnames were purged, and, again pace Snyder, Beria's arrival in Moscow did not result in Georgians being over-represented: fewer than a dozen were appointed to senior positions. Furthermore, though Snyder claims otherwise, Stalin did witness the starvation he enforced: in August 1933, on his way to his holidays on the Black Sea, he spent a week touring the worst affected regions by train, boat and car - 'Koba kept soaking it all up like a sponge,' remarked his stooge Kaganovich. Elsewhere, Snyder is misleading: Trotsky is said to have 'left the country', as if voluntarily. Stalin's decapitation of his own army in 1938 is not mentioned as a reason for his desperate hope and gamble that Hitler would not attack in 1941.

On Germany Snyder is assured, although he says that Hitler rejected the institutions around him, when the remarkable fact about Nazi Germany is how easily the army, big business, the judiciary, the education system and the Christian churches adjusted to Hitler's needs. The core of Bloodlands, however, is superb: the complexity of Polish anti-Semitism (the Poles had proposed, like the Nazis, to ship the Jews to Madagascar), the reality behind Stalin's paranoiac fear of Polish agents, and the Polish-Japanese alliance, are little-known facts. Above all, Snyder brings out the appalling damage done by the Nazis to Poland's professional classes: they killed at least ten times as many as Stalin shot at Katyn. The lasting impression, however, is the indifference of outsiders. The Allies, the Soviets and the Vatican colluded to pretend that they knew nothing of the extermination of the Jews - an escapee from the Warsaw ghetto, Szmul Zygielbojm, reached London, but in May 1943 gassed himself in despair at the Allies' hypocrisy. (Snyder has him 'burn himself alive in front of the British parliament'.) The second famine inflicted by the Nazis on the Ukraine received very little condemnation, as did the anti-Semitism of the new Poland and, more understandably, the orgy of murder and rape committed against the Germans of Eastern Europe.

In his extended essay, Norman M Naimark focuses on what he calls 'Stalin's genocides'. Rafa Lemkin initially applied the term to the extermination of, or attempt to exterminate, a race: he had in mind Hitler's Holocaust and the Turkish massacres in 1915 of one and a half million Armenians. But successful genocide, like successful treason, may not exist, because none dare call it genocide. Irrecoverable acts which leave not a single survivor, like the British extermination of the Tasmanian aborigines, or the Russian deportation from the Caucasus of the Ubykh in 1864, are rarely mentioned. Genocide is generally recognised only if its perpetrators are defeated in war.

Naimark, like others, classes as genocide cases of mass murder that severely deplete the membership of a nation or social class. Stalin inflicted damage on all nations and classes of the USSR: the damage was literally genocidal when a nation, like the Yenisei Ostyaks, was reduced to a population of less than 1,000. It was effectively genocidal when a nation, such as the Crimean Tatars or the Chechens, was deported in 1944 to the barren steppes of Central Asia, even though some 50 per cent survived. When they returned they were rendered permanently dysfunctional. In the case of the dekulakisation - when the most prosperous or independently minded peasants were culled and the remainder turned into starving slaves - the resulting disappearance of the peasant from Russian and Ukrainian life can be termed genocidal. Perhaps genocide should either be redefined or subsumed under 'crimes against humanity'. Stalin's mass murders are particularly perplexing because the rationale behind them is impenetrable. Stalin killed those on whom his power depended: peasants fed him; the army defended him; doctors treated him; the party supported him; the smaller nations of the Caucasus identified with him; and the clergy had nurtured him. Hitler made anti-Semitism the force that bound his army and population to his own depraved frenzy. He was proud of his crimes. As Snyder points out, there was a Warsaw Baedeker for 1943, and German tourists came to see the mounds of Jewish bodies awaiting burial. Stalin shot victims in secret and told their relatives they were serving a sentence 'without right of correspondence'; in the Gulag foreign tourists were shown prosperous, well-fed party officials in drag. Naimark has no more success than anyone else in explaining what turned Stalin génocidiaire. Neither the brutalities of Georgian history nor the privations of Stalin's childhood explain much, and Naimark has no new data or theories to shed light on a murky but now well-researched subject.

But time heals all things. It is still a crime to worship Hitler in Germany, but Stalinism is ticking over in the former USSR. Nobody objects to Mongolia commemorating Genghis Khan, or Hungarians calling their male children Attila. And we admire Alexander the Great, overlooking the fact that he murdered even more of his own satraps than did Stalin.

Donald Rayfield is writing a history of Georgia for Reaktion Books.