I had a thing for military history when I was little. I still do. My mother used to bring home books from the library about the Civil War, World War One and World War Two, in particular. I read everything I could find and, as I continue reading as an adult, I find that what tends to make a book more appropriate for children is the absence of politics.
The big bang comes to mind. If the universe originated in a big bang, what set the whole powder keg alight? Understanding of the origins of war tends to leave a familiar empty place. We take for granted that the great powers were obliterating Europe from behind entrenched fortifications but why are they there? Because Germany invaded France. Because France declared war. France, back to Germany, to Russia, to Austria-Hungary, to Serbia, to Gavrilo Princip, to Otto von Bismarck.
Explaining to an adult that generals threw men against trenches by the tens of thousands, day after day is hard enough. Explaining that to a child is still more difficult. How does one explain to a child (or even an adult) that millions upon millions of people died honoring outdated treaties and ambitious nineteenth-century notions of empire, that aged generals killed hundreds of thousands of men for a handful of miles simply because they refused to admit that the warfare in which they were trained was no longer applicable in a new century? The American Civil War is complicated enough without tiptoeing around slavery. But then, we end up with a grossly distorted concept of what war is and why we make it so often; unable to wrestle with complex and shameful combinations of self-interest, pride, honor, ideology, defense, strategy, and plain inertia that comprise armed conflict. We end up with ideas like that of World War Two as “The Good War.”
On the back cover of his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder (or his editors or publisher or something, not quite sure how that works) expresses frustration with this notion:
“Americans think of World War II as the ‘Good War.’ But this view overlooks the horrors perpetrated by America’s own ally, the Soviet Union.”
A large hardback on World War Two with brown cover, sans serif font, and perhaps a hundred and fifty pages stands out as my favorite of the books from the library. Its chronology of the war was typical: Hitler encroaches on the European order in Austria, the Sudetenland, and the Rhineland. Germany invades Poland. Russia invades Finland. Germany invades Denmark and Norway. Germany invades France by way of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Germany and Britain fight for air superiority over southern England. Britain struggles in Africa. Hitler invades Russia. Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and the U.S. enters the war. The United States wins at Midway, the Allies win at El Alamein, and the Germans stall at Stalingrad. Allies invade Italy and Russians turn the Germans back. Allies land at Normandy. Allied and Russian invasion forces meet in Berlin. The Pacific War exists on a separate plane entirely except that Pearl Harbor brings the U.S. into the conflict and Midway coincides neatly with two other “turning points” in the war.
The Eastern Front falls into a strange void; a black space where little is visible. The incomparable German war machine invades Russia and are stalled out and turned back at Stalingrad. Suddenly the incomparable German war machine is in shambles and a red flag flies over the Reichstag. It’s a third of the war that we don’t talk about – as opposed to the Western and African Front and Pacific Theater. If the standard is battle casualties, it’s a vast majority of the war that we don’t talk about. There are reasons why. The first is simply Anglo-centrism: we read about the parts of history in which our ancestors can be the heroes. The second is that much of that history was warped, hidden, and deformed by totalitarian regimes before being lost behind the iron curtain raised by the victor. But the biggest, perhaps, is that the bloodbath compromises our understanding of the Second World War as a moral conflict.
The only two wars in American history that were fought for unparalleled moral goods were the American Civil War and the Second World War. The American Civil War is too messy: we bear the guilt ourselves. World War Two, on the other hand, pits flawed but democratic western powers against unmitigated evil. We like to remember it that way. That we allied with a different unmitigated evil to bring the more immediate threat to its knees is enough of a challenge. That such an ally did most of the heavy lifting is too much. So we leave out the twenty-seven million Soviet citizens killed in battle, prisoner-of-war camps, concentration camps, death factories, civilian massacres, partisan conflict, and political terror. We leave out the twenty-seven million Soviet citizens, the vast majority of whom were civilians or soldiers disarmed after surrender, killed by Nazi death squads, German regulars, and Soviet police girding themselves up for the counter-invasion.
Snyder’s book turns light to that gaping void, but more than that, puts particular focus on those German, Polish, and Soviet citizens who were killed behind the lines, outside of battle. He defines “The Bloodlands” as the area encompassing prewar Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the agrarian portion of Russia roughly west of Leningrad in the north and the Don River in the South. The Bloodlands are the area between Hitler’s German Reich and Stalin’s industrial socialist paradise. During the years that the two men ruled their respective countries simultaneously – 1933 to 1945 – they murdered fourteen million civilians in pursuit of ideological utopias.
If Bloodlands wasn’t so engagingly written, it would be impossible to read. I read the entire book in four days: to spend any longer in the space it occupies would’ve been impossible. Snyder engages the vacuum of totalitarian brutality – filling the void that popular history happily leaves east of the Reich. Revisionist historians of the Civil War broke the spell of The Lost Cause and illuminated the complex and shameful reasons for which men choose to kill each other and Snyder does much the same for the Second World War. A war of honor and morality becomes a complicated bloodbath in which both sides of the conflict threw men, women, and children into ditches with bullets in their heads; in which our own side likely could not have won without Soviet brutality of just that sort. Snyder chooses to remember the dead rather than the party line and Bloodlands is how he does so. It’s a remarkable book – depressing, gut-wrenching, and remarkable:
Each of them died a different death, since each one of them had lived a different life.