Sunday, May 17, 2015

Making a Choice

The important question is: how could (how can) so many human lives be brought to a violent end?

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder

I return to this book by Snyder; I feel I have taken enough of a respite.  This will be my final post on this book.  Before addressing Snyder’s question, however, the final episodes of atrocity will briefly be covered.

Beginning in 1943 and continuing into the summer of 1944, Soviet troops were advancing westward toward Berlin.  Belarus – three years prior having been overrun by the Nazis, then suffering three years under the Nazis, was now the epicenter of the fight between the Soviets and the Nazis.  Just two weeks after the Allies landed 160,000 troops in Normandy, Stalin launched an offensive of one million in Operation Bagration:

The operation resulted in the almost complete destruction of an entire German army group, with the loss of Army Group Centre's Fourth Army, Third Panzer Army and Ninth Army. It is considered the most calamitous defeat experienced by the German armed forces during the Second World War.

Returning to Snyder:

The Germans lost some four hundred thousand missing, wounded, or killed.  Army Group Center was smashed.  The way to Poland was open.

Next stop, Warsaw, and one of many impossible choices facing those who lived in this region during those years – this by members of the Polish Home Army.  Having news of the rapid Soviet advance (and also having evidence, present in the countless Germans heading west), it seemed clear that the Germans would soon be defeated (good news) and the Soviets would soon replace them (not so good news):

If the Home Army fought the Germans openly, and succeeded, they might greet the arriving Red Army as masters of their own house.  If they fought the Germans openly, and failed, they would be prone and powerless when the Soviets arrived.  If they did nothing, they would have no bargaining position with the Soviets – or their western Allies.

In this short paragraph can be grasped the entirety of the situation and choices facing all those who lived in this region of hell on earth for the subject dozen years.  Every choice was bad, every outcome deadly. 

Illusion about Stalin was possible for the Allies; Polish officers and politicians could not afford to be so deluded.  They knew of the earlier occupation when Stalin went into eastern Poland; they knew of the deportations to central Asia; they knew of Katyn – the discovery of which prompted Stalin to break off diplomatic relations with the Polish government, an Allied government:

If Stalin would use his own massacre as reason to end relations with the Polish government, how could he be expected to negotiate in good faith about anything?  And if the Soviet Union would not recognize the legitimate Polish government during a common war against Nazi Germany, what were the chances that it would support Polish independence when the war was over and the Soviet position much stronger?

Someone might have told the Polish officers and politicians that they need not fret over such choices.  A clue might have been taken from British and American encouragement that the Poles accept the Soviet version of Katyn.  Just as the guarantee given by Britain and France in 1939 meant nothing (other than, perhaps, adding to Polish obstinacy), Poland in 1944 was of little concern to the Allies.

In any case, Roosevelt and Churchill had already agreed in late 1943 that the Soviet Union would reclaim eastern Poland as part of the Soviet Union after the war – in other words, half of their country had already been ceded (and kept secret to protect the Polish vote in FDR’s upcoming election).  Stalin, of course, had his plans for what was to become the new Poland.

Nevertheless, a choice was made – try to take control before the Soviets entered Warsaw:

Left alone by its allies, the Polish government in London ceded the initiative to the Polish fighters in Warsaw.  Seeing little other hope to establish Polish sovereignty, the Home Army chose an uprising in the capital, to commence on 1 August 1944.

You would think that the Soviets would be pleased with this – an uprising against the Nazis, weakening the enemy before the advancing Soviet army.  In a twisted sort of way, you would be correct.

Poles who revealed themselves to join the common fight against Germans were treated as people who might resist future Soviet rule.  The Soviet Union never had any intention of supporting any institution that claimed to represent an independent Poland.

The only institution in Poland immune from this concern was the Polish communist party.

The Poles were in a do-anything-and-die or do-nothing-and-die situation – having chosen to fight the Germans, they knew that if they failed to defeat them the entire civilian population of Warsaw would pay the price.  Of course, the Poles expected that the Soviets would arrive shortly after the uprising began (and offer assistance in any case), and ensure victory over the Germans.

They were hoping a German retreat would open a window before the full Soviet advance; they hoped the interval would be long enough such that they could establish a government and some local control.  Unfortunately, the retreat by the Nazis happened slowly, and the advance of the Soviets even slower.

The uprising began on August 1.  The Soviet advance ceased, held up east of downtown Warsaw at the Vistula River (for reference, the city straddles the river – this is how close Stalin advanced…and stopped).  The uprising would be fought alone against the Germans – more precisely, the German army, as about half the soldiers that wore German uniforms in Warsaw were foreign fighters; defectors from the Red Army and the like.

The orders from Himmler:

…all Polish combatants were to be shot; all Polish noncombatants, including women and children, were also to be shot; and the city itself was to be razed to the ground.

Mass executions by the thousands; deaths in the tens of thousands.  This was not a cost of war – the Germans lost a handful of men and killed about twenty from the Home Army; it was terror.  Meanwhile, the Soviets were still east of the river.

The uprising did much good for Stalin – through it Germans would be killed, and through it Poles that would fight would also be killed; both were an enemy to Stalin’s future plans.

Later on, when the Soviet Union gained control of Poland, resistance to Hitler would be prosecuted as a crime, on the logic that armed action not controlled by the communists undermined the communists, and that communism was the only legitimate regime for Poland.

What little the Americans and British tried to offer in assistance was rebuffed by Stalin.  On 16 August, the Allies asked Stalin’s permission to refuel in Russia such that they could bomb German targets in Poland.  Stalin refused.  Better for him that more Polish fighters die.

By early October, Himmler conveyed to the German leadership in Warsaw that Hitler had no fonder wish than to see the city destroyed.  By the time all was said and done, about one-half of the pre-war Warsaw population perished – rates comparable to that of Minsk and Leningrad.

Soviet troops entered the old city, such as it was, in January 1945 – five months after approaching the Vistula.  By April, Berlin was being shelled and in early May the European war was over. 

Between the Soviets and the Nazis, more than fourteen million were murdered in the bloodlands.

This is where the history as presented by Snyder comes to an end; he chose to end it with the end of the war.  He could easily have added the post-war German expulsions and Operation Keelhaul (as the term is broadly applied) to his list; a million or more died as a result of these actions.  In any case, Snyder has done a very thorough and exhaustive job of documenting this hell on earth.

Until now, Snyder has examined this world primarily from the viewpoint of the victims; what of the collaborators?

At a great distance in time, we can choose to compare the Nazi and Soviet systems or not.  The hundreds of millions of Europeans who were touched by both regimes did not have this luxury.

From 1933 through 1945 hundreds of millions of Europeans had to weigh what they knew about National Socialism and Stalinism as they made the decisions that would all too often determine their fate.

A microcosm of this can be seen in the choices left to the Poles in the summer of 1944, recounted above.  It was an almost continuous dilemma for the Poles:

The dilemma was felt sharply in Warsaw in these years as Polish diplomats sought to keep an equal distance between their powerful German and Soviet neighbors in the hope of avoiding war.

Poor Poland.  Consider a few bits of information from a very un-scientific sample, my Timeline to War.  The first entry regarding this horrendous history of Europe is regarding Poland – the Three Partitions of Poland, occurring in the last decades of the eighteenth century.  Poland was divided amongst Russia, Prussia and Austria and Poland was no more.

Further from the working draft (which includes some entries not yet posted online), the number of times each of the following words (or extensions of each) occur:

Poland / Polish / Poles – 310
German / Nazi – 317
Soviet / Russia – 215

While there were occasional acts of instigating aggression, Poland was far more often the victim.  While it is easy to be critical of poor diplomatic judgment, what choices were available to political leaders in this geographically unfortunate region?  Poland, along with Belarus and Ukraine, suffered the worst of the atrocities during the war (with Ukraine additionally suffering greatly beforehand).

Why consider the collaborators?

It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands.  The identification with the victim affirms a radical separation from the perpetrator…. Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance.  It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral.

Imagine living there, in that time and place, with anywhere from six to fifteen years of hell surrounding you: what would you do to survive?  How would you choose between two monsters?  These are questions to consider regarding the actions of collaborators and others who cooperated.

I don’t suggest rationalizing or condoning.  As I mentioned in an earlier post regarding this book, however, other than the most horrendous acts I try not to make ethical judgments of people who must compare options only among unethical choices.  I can only thank God that He did not put me there…and then.

These Europeans, who inhabited the crucial part of Europe at the crucial times, were condemned to compare. 

Compare they did:

Both Hitler and Stalin excelled at placing organizations within moral dilemmas in which mass killing seemed like the lesser evil.

During the Ukrainian famines:

Ukrainian party members hesitated in 1932 to requisition grain, but realized that their own careers, and lives, depended upon targets being met.

Starvation is a slow, long, and drawn-out process.  These party members had to watch their friends and neighbors slowly starve to death.  Were they all monsters, or only trying to find a way though – virtually helpless before Stalin’s state?

And during the siege of Soviet cities by the German army:

Not all Wehrmacht officers were inclined to starve out Soviet cities, but when they believed that the choice was between Soviet civilians and their own men, they made the decision that seemed self-evident.

Soviet citizens served the Germans as policemen and guards – many atrocities broadly ascribed to the Germans were committed by such non-Germans as these.  Many of Hitler’s so-called “willing executioners” were not German, and could hardly be called willing given the choices they faced.

This collaboration was rarely ideologically driven; these Soviet citizens knew that the Nazi considered them as second-class (and any who survived the war were not likely to survive Stalin’s retribution for “collaborating”).  Germans who declined to shoot Jews and other non-combatants rarely suffered significant consequences; not so for the non-Germans who made the (at least temporarily life-saving) choice to collaborate.

A Soviet prisoner of war who collaborated might – at least for a time – avoid starvation; the peasant who worked for the police knew he would be allowed to stay home, bring in his crops, and feed his family…for one more season, at least.  Of course, there was the Jewish policeman in the ghetto.

It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators.  The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim, but that one might become a perpetrator or bystander.

Doesn’t this remain true even today? 

....the romantic justification for mass murder, that present evil when properly described is future good, is simply wrong.

Yet, such justifications continue today.

To believe that vast suffering must be associated with great progress is to accept a kind of hermetic masochism: the presence of pain is a sign of some imminent or emergent good.  To advance this sort of reasoning oneself is hermetic sadism.

Therefore, good lessons are drawn: millions of victims of Stalin must have died so the Soviet Union could win its Great Patriotic War (and America its good war); Poland its legend of freedom; Ukraine its heroes; Belarus its virtue; Jews their Zion.

But remembering the dead and attributing virtue to their death does nothing to end the cycle – in fact, it perpetuates the myth:

When meaning is drawn from killing, the risk is that more killing would bring more meaning.

Yes.  And we honor those who did the killing at victory parades, and military holidays, and sporting events, and commemorations on any day with even the most obscure connection to some past military glory.  And the killing therefore brings meaning.  And the people demand more.

Understand the collaborators.  The victims will take care of themselves.


  1. Great article. Thanks.

    My mind struggles to fathom such daily death-in-the-balance; the likes of which they had to endure. I hope I never have to, but such is the tenuous nature of peace and freedom.

    I keep waiting for the shoe to drop on communism and all it's ignominious history, so that it may join fascism at the barrel's bottom. To do that would really put a crimp in the faith of the Utopians, I guess. So on we march toward an end that I'm loathe to predict, but should probably be preparing for.

  2. Dear BM,
    Another excellent article. I wrote something a few years ago that leads to a similar conclusion.

  3. Thank you. That is of course the question. What would I do. Allow my family to starve when those around me are starving? Or any number of other compromising situations? I sleep in a warm bed and my family is well fed and safe. Who am I to judge those for whom that was not the case. It is easy to go through life thinking "I am a good person" when I have never been morally challenged as many of those people you write of were. There may come a time when the concept of right and wrong is set aside and the law of the jungle prevails. How will I act?

  4. Thank you for your book reviews. These are works that might not otherwise have come to my attention. I'm wondering if the victims and collaborators were as aware of the choices they faced as we might be in retrospect. I'm not sure how one might tell.

    One thing, though, is that I've never heard -- maybe you have -- anyone, at least any Jewish source, claim that the Holocaust was to be celebrated as the unfortunate evil that helped to make possible the resulting (and possibly temporary) victory of Zionism. The aftermath of the tragedy may have facilitated and strengthened the Jewish presence in Palestine, but far better if there had been no Holocaust and no Israel.

    Interesting, too, is the observation that the Europeans most susceptible to the most virulent strains of anti-semitism were those who themselves were most brutally persecuted, victims taking out their rage and grief on even less powerful victims which may well be part and parcel of human nature. How might that trend be playing out today? Topic for another book review?

    1. “…anyone, at least any Jewish source, claim that the Holocaust was to be celebrated as the unfortunate evil that helped to make possible the resulting (and possibly temporary) victory of Zionism.”

      It would take a callous (or bold) author to make such a statement openly; if it has been done, I am not aware of it but I have never looked into it, either.

      The way the history is used is different in this instance than the others on the list, of course, and perhaps I could have offered a slight clarification; with that said, that the Holocaust was used to toward the end of establishing a Jewish state is clear.

    2. For one wartime Soviet Jewish view of a journalist/author you might read Vasily Grossman. His Life and Fate novel describes both the Nazi and Soviet camps and captures the Soviet mindset. It’s better to empathize with rather than to analyze these situations.
      Zionism was strong amongst British Jewish military units. But I’m not aware of a strong Soviet movement until much later.


  5. Well-written article on supremely important topics. Thanks.

  6. I find that the author of Bloodlands is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. (

    Gary North says "The domestic policies of both CFR [Council on Foreign Relations] wings are the same: the maintenance of the American Empire, what President Eisenhower in his Farewell Address (1961) called the military-industrial complex...."

    Bloodlands was named a book of the year for 2010 by The Atlantic,The Economist, The Financial Times, The Jewish Forward, The Independent, The New Republic, New Statesman, Reason, The Seattle Times, and The Daily Telegraph. (

    Many of them warmongers. A book to make such a success has to be of very high quality. It also has to drive a narrative that suits the statist, warmongering mafia 'in charge.'