from the Preface to Bloodlands
This is a history of political mass murder. The fourteen million were always victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them. A quarter of them were killed before the Second World War even began. A further two hundred thousand died between1939 and 1941, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were not only at peace, but allies. The deaths of the fourteen million were sometimes projected in economic plans, or hastened by economic considerations, but were not caused by economic necessity in any strict sense. Stalin knew what would happen when he seized food from the starving peasants of Ukraine in 1933, just as Hitler knew what could be expected when he deprived Soviet prisoners of war food eight years later. In both cases, more than three million people died. The hundreds of thousands of Soviet peasants and workers shot during Great Terror in 1937 and 1938 were victims of express directives of Stalin, just as the millions of Jews shot and gassed between 1941and 1945 were victims of an explicit policy of Hitler.
War did alter the balance of killing. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was the only state in Europe carrying out policies of mass killing. Before the Second World War, in the first six-and-a-half years after Hitler came to power, the Nazi regime killed no more than about ten thousand people. The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of a million. German policies of mass killing came to rival Soviet ones between September 1939 and June 1941, after Stalin allowed Hitler to begin a war. The Wehrmacht and the Red Army both attacked Poland in September 1939, German and Soviet diplomats signed a Treaty on Borders and Friendship, and German and Soviet forces occupied the country together for nearly two years. After the Germans expanded their empire to the west by invading Norway,Denmark, the Low Countries,and France in 1940, the Soviets occupied and annexed Lithuania,Latvia, and Estonia. Both regimes shot educated Polish citizens in the tens of thousands and deported them in the hundreds of thousands. For Stalin, such mass repression was the continuation of old policies on new lands; for Hitler, it was a breakthrough.
The very worst of the killing began when Hitler betrayed Stalin and German forces crossed into the recently-enlarged Soviet Union in June 1941. Although the Second World War began in September 1939 with the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, its bloody essence was the German-Soviet conflict that began with that second eastern invasion. In Soviet Ukraine,Soviet Belarus, and the Leningrad district, lands where the Stalinist regime had starved and shot some four million people in the previous eight years, German forces managed to starve and shoot even more in half the time. Right after the invasion began, the Wehrmacht began to starve its Soviet prisoners,and special task forces called Einsatzgruppen began to shoot political enemies and Jews. Along with German Order Police, the Waffen-SS, and the Wehrmacht, and with the participation of local auxiliary police and militias, the Einsatzgruppen began that summer to eliminate Jewish communities as such.
The bloodlands were where most of Europe's Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin's imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmachtand the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early1940s, this meant Poland,the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin's crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler's with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These are the misunderstandings that prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century.
Germany was the site of concentration camps liberated by the Americans and the British in 1945;Russian Siberia was of course the site of much of the Gulag, made known in the West by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The images of these camps, in photographs or in prose, only suggest the history of German and Soviet violence. About a million people died because they were sentenced to labor in German concentration camps — as distinct from the German gas chambers and the German killing fields and the German starvation zones, where ten million people died. Over a million lives were shortened by exhaustion and disease in the Soviet Gulag between 1933 and 1945 — as distinct from the Soviet killing fields and the Soviet hunger regions, where some six million people died, about four million of them in the bloodlands. Ninety percent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive. Most of the people who entered German concentration camps (as opposed to the gas chambers, death pits, and prisoner-of-war camps) also survived. The fate of concentration camp inmates,horrible though it was, is distinct from that of those many millions who were gassed, shot, or starved.
The distinction between concentration camps and killing sites cannot be made perfectly: people were executed and people starved in camps. Yet there is a difference between a camp sentence and a death sentence, between labor and gas, between slavery and bullets. The tremendous majority of the mortal victims of both the German and the Soviet regimes never saw a concentration camp. Auschwitz was two things at once, a labor camp and a death facility, and the fate of non-Jews seized for labor and Jews selected for labor was very different from the fate of Jews selected for the gas chambers. It thus belongs to two histories, related but distinct. Auschwitz-as-labor-camp is more representative of the experience of the large number of people who endured German (or Soviet)concentration, Auschwitz-as-death-facility is more typical of the fates of those who were deliberately killed. Mostof the Jews who arrived at Auschwitz were simply gassed; they, like almost all of the fourteen million killed in the bloodlands, never spent time in a concentration camp.
The German and Soviet concentration camps surround the bloodlands, from both east and west, disguising the pure black with their shades of grey. At the end of the Second World War, American and British forces liberated German concentration camps such as Belsen and Dachau, but the western allies liberated none of the death facilities. The Germans carried out all of their major killing policies on lands subsequently occupied by the Soviets. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz, and it liberated the sites of Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełżec, Chełmno and Majdanek as well. American and British forces reached none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites. It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed,leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the cold war and the opening of the archives. It is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler's crimes has taken just as long. The photographs and films of German concentration camps were the closest that most westerners ever came to perceiving the mass killing. Horrible though these images were, they were only hints are the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction.