The bulk of the book is taken up with outlining this history. It's worth outlining, as separate from the battle deaths of World War II, because over the course of twelve years, "...mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region." Snyder further contends,
Today there is widespread agreement that the mass killing of the twentieth century is of the greatest moral significance for the tweny-first. How striking, then, that there is no history of the bloodlands.
Stalin's plan to turn the Soviet Union into a modern industrial state in the early 1930s led to the decision to wipe out the peasants of the Ukraine and nearby regions. When agriculture was collectivized and peasants deported to labor camps (the Gulag system), food production dropped, and grain quotas were not met. The farming class as a whole was blamed, and all farm produce was seized, causing the death by starvation of over five million people.
In 1937 and 1938, in the Great Terror, another nearly 700,000 peasants and ethnic minorities who had survived the collectivization disaster were were blamed for it and executed by shooting.
In 1939 the Germans and the Soviets simultaneously invaded Poland. Between them they murdered about 200,000 Polish civilians, mainly the educated classes, in an effort to prevent organized resistance. They also deported one million Polish citizens to the Gulag and to German labor camps, and put Polish Jews into ghettos in Poland. Tens of thousands more died in these camps and ghettos.
In 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, intending to starve or work to death its peasant class and colonize the land with German farmers. They were not successful in this aim, but they did starve to death several million prisoners of war and civilians.
Hitler's desire to remove all Jews from Europe evolved from plans to resettle them in Siberia or Africa, to deportations eastward, to mass executions. Beginning with mass shootings, then using mobile gas vans, and finally dedicated gassing facilities, the Germans killed between five and six million Jews. They also killed between 100,000 and 300,000 gypsies by the same methods.
These are numbers that are really too big to comprehend, and Snyder knows this: "The sheer numbers of the victims can blunt our sense of the individuality of each one." A strength of the book is his extensive use of victims' diaries and survivors' memoirs in an effort to convey lives and personalities that were lost--the real suffering behind the numbers.
In the final chapter, "Humanity," Snyder examines theories of cause and effect. He compares the Nazi and Stalinist systems, and how they separately and together destroyed so many lives. He discusses Hannah Arendt's theory of modern alienation resulting in totalitarian systems, but doesn't accept it as a complete explanation for what happened in the bloodlands. He reaches no ultimate conclusion about causes, but frames his history of the bloodlands as a necessary and overdue first step in understanding. Before we can understand why, we must accurately understand what happened:
But before we draw such theoretical conclusions, about modernity or anything else, we must understand what actually happened, in the Holocaust and in the bloodlands generally. For the time being, Europe's epoch of mass killing is overtheorized and misunderstood.
Mixing It Up