The award-winning book, “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” moves away from the lessons of the usual history book by allowing readers to investigate the time of the Holocaust through its history and the perspectives of the “14 million human beings” killed in that time and specific area, according to the work’s author, Timothy Snyder.
“I’m starting from the observation that over 14 million human beings died. Not because the other observations are false, but by starting that way we might notice things that we are often to miss otherwise.”
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Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University, spoke at the fifteenth annual Holocaust Memorial Lecture on Monday, Oct. 15 in the Mabel Brown Room, addressing major topics of his most recent work and studies. Snyder shared that his book explores the history of the Holocaust in the area of the “Bloodlands,” the geographical areas made up of Soviet Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and areas of Poland where approximately 14 million people died during the time of 1933 to 1945.
The book explains the policies of Soviets, led by Josef Stalin, and Germans, led by Adolf Hitler, that resulted in the mass killings during the time of the Holocaust. Snyder, who specializes in the history of Central and Eastern Europe shared how he expanded this history by taking a different approach for his book paying extra attention to human rights.
Snyder said, “14 million is a big number… Big numbers are made of little numbers … Little numbers are made of units of just one.” Portions of “Bloodlands,” seek to explain the time in history using messages and left over artifacts of the individuals who lost their lives. Snyder stressed that while mass numbers were killed, they were a big number of deaths made up of all types of individual, “human beings.”
Snyder also gave the audience a brief description on the “complicated” history of the time period and how the violence began due to a number of many different issues including food, economics and scarcity of resources among many other things. He also explained that he wanted to change the way this time was written about in history books, which usually have taken a “right or left,” approach to reporting on the topic.
Snyder stated, “National history is really good at asking questions. It asks questions like ‘Why were we the victims’ or perhaps on a different level, ‘Why were we the perpetrators?’ or the most moral question, ‘Why did we stand by and do nothing?’”
Snyder added, “What it [“Bloodlands”] can’t do is answer those questions… It doesn’t contain the things you need to make an answer.” Snyder added, “You can know everything there is to know about Ukrainians. That won’t help you explain why there was a famine in 1933.
You can know everything that can be known about Jews and Jewish history up until 1938 or 1939, but that won’t help predict to you that there will be a Holocaust… The forces that were in play during the Holocaust are greater than the nation itself, which is an uncomfortable thought.”
Snyder explained that many people could not understand the Holocaust, or what the people who lost their lives went through, because they are often never heard from, except in the case of describing death in numbers.
“The way that we think about the Holocaust and the way that we think about Soviet terror centers around the camps. This is fundamentally misleading. The vast majority of people who died in the Holocaust never saw a camp. The ones that we know about saw camps. Why? “Because people survived camps.” He added that many policies at this time ordered half of the killings by shooting and half by gassing in death factories, according to Snyder.
Snyder added, “We have to remember that much of the evidence we have about the Holocaust often comes from people that survived. People who survived had, by definition, an unusual experience. I try to begin in places that people were actually killed, and that place is the Bloodlands.”
Snyder said, “It’s a complicated history and a complicated topic. But, if you feel like it’s complicated, you might get it.” He added, “Once you look at it in a different way, you’ll never look at it the same way you did before.” Snyder explained that he attempted to avoid the common history book strategies of explaining a complicated topic by referencing personal diaries, messages and other archives left behind by those who had lost their lives.
Henry Knight of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies department on campus shared that the students and faculty of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies department have been following Snyder’s work, books and essays.
Knight explained that the faculty selected Snyder to be the speaker of Monday’s event as his work is known well to the department. Knight added, “What he has to say is important, and he says it with power and clarity. This is just somebody who should come to our campus.”
Knight expanded by adding that Snyder is a different speaker with a different study of the Holocaust as, “He’s [Snyder] focused on the place where the killing happened and the recognition that if you ask about the human beings first, you discover that 14 million human beings were killed in the 12-year period before 1933 and 1945 in this rather restricted border land between the outward edges of the Soviet Union and the expanding edges of Nazi Germany.”
Knight claimed, “He challenges traditional perspectives and challenges you to ask if you’ve taken account for all of the trauma in the area.
If you haven’t you’ve missed the complexity of all that has happened. People living in the same region have been traumatized by Stalin and Soviet forces as well as Hitler and Nazi instigated violence. That forces you to ask more complicated questions, to recognize that the history is messier and that it’s maybe even more important to understand. Even though it was important before.”
As Knight agreed with Snyder that the subject of the Holocaust was complicated, he stated that the key to understanding the history is by paying attention to different details, such as what Snyder brought up in his lecture. “When you pay attention to more, you can’t quit paying attention to it.”
Pamela Bump can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.