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PINCHED IN HISTORY'S HINGE.

In the scheme of things, the 1905 departure of a mother with seven children in tow and five dollars in her pocket from Volhynia to join her husband and eldest son the United States doesn't appear to be that big a deal.  From my perspective, where that mother is my great-grandmother Charlotte and one of the children is my grandmother Minnie, it's a much bigger deal, and it becomes bigger still when one contemplates that a part of the world in which people  moved relatively freely and peaceably among countries became the site of mass death in the Russian Civil War, Stalin's collectivization of agriculture, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, his subsequent annihilation of Jews, Stalin's drive to the west, and the redrawing of national boundaries after World War II.

Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands is the author's attempt to tell the story of the people whose lives ended, by famine, or shooting, or gas, or as what the military theorists call collateral damage.
Book Review No. 30 refers both to the work and to a public presentation Professor Snyder gave at Northern Illinois last fall.  In both settings, he makes clear that the consequences a policy-maker seeks do not justify the slaughter that came before.  The most common version of that explanation is Stalin-collectivizes-agriculture-to-build-up-to-win-the-war.  Had the Germans prevailed in the east, there'd be some other version of breaking-eggs-for-omelet offered as a justification.  The Stalin-collectivization-industrialization story is just plain wrong.

Other ideological or theoretical explanations are similarly unsatisfactory.  The closing paragraph of Bloodlands sets a task at once simple and difficult.

The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision.  It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective.  It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.  If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.


(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

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