Just finished reading “Bloodlands,” a book by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. It was published in 2010, but now has a lengthy afterword that discusses the book’s reception and ties the theme to current events. I was inspired to read this book because of events in Ukraine and I believe that I have a much better understanding of the current conflict from having read it.

The bloodlands refers to the territory lying between central Poland and, roughly, the Russian border, covering eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. It was here that ca. 14 million people were killed by purposeful policies of mass murder implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1945: the Ukrainian Holodomor in 1932-33, the Stalinist purges in Ukraine, Lithuania and Belorussia of 1937-39, the murder of the Polish intelligentsia and deportations to the Soviet eastern lands in 1941, the starvation of Soviet POWs by the Wehrmacht, the shootings and gassings of Polish, Ukranian, Belorussian and Baltic Jews by the Einsatzgruppe and SS, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s deportations of Poles, Ukranians and Belorussians to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Snyder is fluent in Russian, Ukranian and German, as well as other European languages, and relies on original source materials. I can’t possibly summarize this book and do justice to the scholarship that it represents without seeming to trivialize it.

Why subject oneself to a book on this sordid topic? Well, one good reason is that it holds lessons for the potential for human catastrophe in the future. Think the United States is immune? Believe that the US stands outside human history and that US exceptionalism vaccinates this country from human frailty? Think again.

“The Nazi and Soviet systems arose in a world of empire, and in rivalry with it. Great Britain was the world power at the time, but both Nazis and Stalinists recognized the United States as the rising empire. The American system displayed its power and worth in different kinds of confrontations with both, but it, too, faces the logic of rise and fall. As the American age of empire comes to an end, as anti-Semitism and racism become more evident in public life, what do Americans do next? Can Americans face history, and extend republican and democratic ideas? Or does the country slip toward minority rule, a one-party state, and an impossible pursuit of renewed empire at the expense of minorities and neighbors?” (p. 408)

Bloodlands is gruesome to read. I found myself having to put it down every few pages. The only other history I can recall having read that is as relentlessly horrific is Harrison Salisbury’s “900 Days,” which is an account of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Given the time and place, though, an honest history could not have been otherwise. Snyder was attacked after the book was published by those who consider the Holocaust to be outside history and who believed he was making comparisons between the purposeful slaughter of Jews by Hitler and the purposeful slaughter of Soviet citizens by Stalin. Snyder denies that his book makes comparisons, and that contemporaneous events in a common landscape driven by despotic political philosophies can be described as parallel history without requiring comparisons. Having read the book, I agree with Snyder. If you are interested in how current events in Ukraine are grounded in history, and if you have the emotional fortitude to stomach this grisly history, I strongly recommend this book.