UP30. Let’s save our humanity

(In memory of the many, by no means nameless, dead of the Second World War; based on the book by Timothy Snyder: "Bloodlands; Europe between Hitler and Stalin"; dtv; 6th edition; 2022).

On 15 October 2023, very important elections were held in Poland, which mobilised a record turnout of around 75%. The hoped-for rebirth of Polish democracy is yet to come. However, when analysing the various statistics on voting frequency, I was struck by a previously inexplicable peculiarity. Most adult (over 60 years old) male villagers in the eastern part of Poland voted almost without exception for the disastrous ruling party of the last eight years. I could not understand the reason for this until I read Timothy Snyder's book. Now I think I understand: These people form the last, still relatively cohesive group of Polish survivors of the Bloodlands. For these people, the instinct to minimise risk in life is still more important than any vision of a better future. How could this situation come about? To understand this, you have to read at least the last sections of Snyder's book. On page 410, for example, we read:

"Each of the 681,692 people shot in Stalin's Great Terror had a different life story: the two at the end could be Maria Juriewicz and her husband Stanislaw Wyganowski. Each of the 21892 Polish prisoners of war shot by the NKVD in 1940 was at the centre of life. The two at the end could be Dobieslaw Jakubowicz, the father who dreamed of his daughter, and Adam Solski, the husband who wrote from his wedding ring the day he was shot in the neck.

The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into figures, some of whom we can only estimate, others of whom we can reconstruct quite precisely. It is our task as scientists to search for these numbers and put them in the right context. It is our task as humanists to turn these numbers back into people. If we don't succeed in doing this, Hitler and Stalin will not only have shaped our world, but also our humanity."

As to the historical background of the book, I quote Snyder's definition of the Bloodlands (p. 395).

"Nevertheless, the consequences of multiple and uninterrupted occupation were most dramatic in the territories that Hitler conceded to Stalin in the secret protocol of the Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, then took back from him in the first days of the invasion in 1941 and lost to him again in 1944. Before the Second World War, these territories were independent Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the eastern part of Poland. Although these states were ruled by authoritarian nationalists and popular nationalism was undoubtedly on the rise, the number of people killed by the state or in riots in the 1930s was only a few thousand in all these countries combined. Under Soviet rule from 1939 to 1941, hundreds of thousands of people from this zone were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia and tens of thousands were shot. The region was the main home of European Jews, and when Germany attacked the newly enlarged Soviet Union in 1941, they were trapped. Almost all the Jews living in this region were murdered. Ukrainian partisans also carried out ethnic cleansing against Poles here in 1941, before Soviet troops expelled Ukrainians and Poles from 1944 onwards.

This zone east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Line was the place where the Holocaust began and where the Soviets extended their territory twice to the west. Most of the NKVD persecutions of the 1940s, over a quarter of the German mass murders of Jews and major ethnic cleansing took place in this particular strip of land within the Bloodlands. The Europe of the Hitler-Stalin Pact was a joint production of Soviets and Nazis."

Some additional explanations by Timothy Snyder also seem important to me. In the "Afterword to the 6th edition" (from the 7th edition) we read, for example: (p. 412)

"I had been inspired to write a dissertation in history before the revolutions of 1989 that ended communism in Eastern Europe. My Master's programme began in 1991, a few weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia had been my main area of specialisation before that, and Poland became my main subject as a Master's student and doctoral candidate. While I was finishing my dissertation and afterwards, I lived in Central and Eastern Europe. I lived for long periods in Warsaw, Prague and Vienna and travelled to the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine. My time in Belarus and Ukraine was particularly important. Poland and Russia have powerful stories of suffering that are based on facts. Belarus and Ukraine are less present in the West, although their inhabitants actually suffered more than the inhabitants of Poland and Russia in the 1930s and 1940s.

The years of living and travelling by train in Eastern Europe also helped me to see the geography of the Holocaust. I discovered that the mysterious Eastern European place names that were misspelled in history books belonged to real places. When American Jewish friends said that the family shtetl no longer existed, they were wrong: it was still there, without the Jews. What Jews in the USA called 'Russia' was usually Ukraine, sometimes Belarus or Lithuania. In the national histories of Eastern European countries, the Jews had been marginalised. It was not only because there was almost no one left to tell the Jewish story. It was also because the communists found it opportune to appeal to ethnic nationalism. After the archives were opened, historians (and the public) were first interested in the communist period, which had just come to an end. Much less attention was paid to the 1930s and early 1940s. Courageous and competent local historians wrote local studies about the Holocaust. Important as they were, the history of the Holocaust could not be written within a single Eastern European country. Any national history was incomplete without the Holocaust, as these pioneering researchers recognised. The Holocaust itself, however, needed a framework that both contained and transcended the national histories.


At the beginning of the 21st century, German Jews had become part of history. But their perspective was atypical of the Holocaust as a whole and in some respects misleading. The number of German Jews was not very large, and most of them survived. 97 per cent of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust had nothing to do with German culture. German Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust died beyond Germany's pre-war borders in places like Łódź, Minsk or Riga. 'The East' became a kind of mysterious vacuum where only forgetting was possible. But it was precisely 'in the East', not in Germany, that Jews had lived in large numbers for centuries. Łódź, Minsk and Riga had been major centres of Jewish life in Poland, Belarus and Lithuania before the war. How places of Jewish life became places of Jewish death cannot be understood without sources from Eastern Europe. (Text marking by P.J.)


How could 14 million non-combatants be murdered in such a short time and in such a limited area? Each murder campaign is important in and of itself, and the account of each one leads us to an account of this terrible whole. What's more, knowing something about each of them helps us to recognise common patterns. Only if we have descriptions of all of them can we follow the course of the Soviet and German murders - and see moments of interaction between the two. It helps to know that Nazi planners knew that Soviet policy had created a terrible famine in 1933, because then we understand that they were aiming for the same thing. It helps to know that the murder of Polish citizens in Katyn in 1940 was carried out using the same methods and sometimes by the same men as the Great Terror. It helps to know that the SS Einsatzgruppen were ordered to exterminate Poland's political elite in 1939 before carrying out a similar task in the Soviet Union in 1941. It helps to know that the brutal SS units that killed civilians in Belarus in 1942 under the guise of fighting partisans were sent to Warsaw in 1944 to put down the uprising. The more pieces we put together, the closer we get to seeing the whole. The closer we come to seeing the whole, the closer we come to seeing ourselves."

(p. 417) "I started from an area that Hitler and Stalin wanted to control and where their measures claimed the most victims."

(p. 419) "American schoolchildren read the diary of Anne Frank, but no one told them that she had died because the US would not give her family refugee visas."

(p. 423) "What should Americans know about the Holocaust? It seems important to know that Hitler admired slavery and the conquest of the West."

(p. 424) "The more history we have, the less confusing the present and the clearer the future." I hope that the new government will lead Poland back onto the path of European and global democracy. The traces of blood in the 'Bloodlands' will only be able to dry up once Poland has once again become a model country for Europe and the world, as it has done several times in history.

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