Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin is a bit hard to take on account of all the killing, but it manages to actually say something new about some of the most covered subjects around.
Two key themes. One is that we misremember the Holocaust because we learn about it from survivors’ stories. In concentration camps like Auschwitz many died and many survived, that’s why there are survivors. But most of the dead weren’t in concentration camps, they were simply killed:
Under German rule, the concentration camps and the death factories operated under different principles. A sentence to the concentration camp Belsen was one thing, a transport to the death factory Bełżec something else. The first meant hunger and labor, but also the likelihood of survival; the second meant immediate and certain death by asphyxiation. This, ironically, is why people remember Belsen and forget Bełżec.
At Bełżec there were 434,508 deaths and maybe two or three survivors. And something similar happened on the Soviet side. We remember the Gulag because people survived the Gulag. Stalin’s wholesale massacring of ethnically Polish people living in pre-war Ukraine didn’t have enough survivors to be remembered.
There’s also this about the curious impulse to exaggerate the degree of suffering even when the true degree of suffering is astounding:
Belarus was the center of the Soviet-Nazi confrontation, and no country endured more hardship under German occupation. Proportionate wartime losses were greater than in Ukraine. Belarus, even more than Poland, suffered social decapitation: first the Soviet NKVD killed the intelligentsia as spies in 1937-1938, then Soviet partisans killed the schoolteachers as German collaborators in 1942-1943. The capital Minsk was all but depopulated by German bombing, the flight of refugees and the hungry, and the Holocaust; and then rebuilt after the war as an eminently Soviet metropolis. Yet even Belarus follows the general trend. Twenty percent of the prewar population of Belarusian territories was killed during the Second World War. Yet young people are taught, and seem to believe, that the figure was not one in five but one in three.
Snyder offers an account of all this with little effort at explicit theorizing.
(Incidentally, I’m trying to read more books and write more about them in part because I think the blogosphere has too many people reading and reacting to the same stuff on the Internet)