Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Tim Snyder's "Bloodlands"

The second review is for Tim Snyder's excellent new book "Bloodlands" . This review was first published in the BBC History Magazine in October 2010.

There are many studies available that document the most brutal chapters of 20th Century history. The Holocaust is well-covered in both scholarly and popular volumes, and even lesser-known subjects, such as the Soviet ‘Great Terror’, the Warsaw Risings and the post-war expulsions of the Germans, have all found their own champions in print.

Yet, to date, nobody has sought to place all these grim examples of man’s inhumanity to man into a single all-encompassing narrative. That is the task that Yale historian Timothy Snyder set for himself with his new book “Bloodlands”.

Snyder concentrates his attentions on the very epicentre of those horrors – the ‘Bloodlands’ of the title – the territories between Germany and Russia comprising mainly of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, which bore the brunt of the killing in the mid 20th Century. It was there, he suggests, that the two most murderous totalitarian regimes of the time competed, co-operated and overlapped through twenty of the darkest years of human history. Consequently, it was there that as many as 14 million lives were lost: not through military action, but through deliberate state policy – starvation, execution, maltreatment and gassing.

Snyder is an excellent guide through this man-made hell. A talented historian and storyteller, he expertly negotiates an extremely complex story, debunking myths, correcting misconceptions and providing context, analysis and human interest in equal measure, always with a sympathetic ear for the victims themselves.

His holistic approach is a novel one: modern scholarship and political convention prefer to view Nazi and Soviet crimes in isolation. It is also not uncontroversial, as there are vested interests who would seek to proclaim one or other episode as unique, or especially worthy of study.

Yet, as Snyder explains, the myriad victims of those events did not have the luxury of drawing such distinctions; they were often condemned to compare, most immediately when the two regimes worked in nefarious concert with each other, or when one totalitarian overlord was replaced by his rival. History demands that we, of later more blessed generations, do not shrink from such difficult comparisons. Snyder himself certainly does not, addressing the thorny issue in a thoughtful and thought-provoking final chapter.

If there are quibbles, they are minor. Though stylistically strong, Snyder’s text is dense, packed with information and nuggets of wisdom. It demands positive engagement from the reader. Moreover, there is a suspicion that the author has been a little too inclusive in his selection of events. His overarching argument would have been just as well made, for instance, without the addition of a chapter on the Stalinist anti-Semitic purges of the 1950s, which after all delivered only a handful of victims, and for all their distaste, sit rather incongruously alongside other, more murderous, chapters.

Yet, these are petty concerns. “Bloodlands” is an excellent, imaginative and authoritative book, which tells the grim story of the greatest human and demographic tragedy in European history with exemplary clarity. Snyder set out to give a human face to the many millions of victims of totalitarianism. He has succeeded admirably.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

Adrian Weale's "SS - A New History"

Been a while away from here - busy launching my new book "Berlin at War" - so a couple of reviews to catch up with...

The first is for Adrian Weale's "The SS - A New History". This review was first published in the Financial Times.

Every writer – and every publisher – cherishes novelty. We all need a new angle, a new interpretation or new material. The word ‘new’, therefore, seems to be the sprinkling of gold dust that accompanies every publication.

So, too Adrian Weale’s new history of the SS. Given that the last large-scale studies of Himmler’s black-clad elite were published a generation or so ago, Weale has certainly timed his book well.

He has also chosen a subject that exerts an enduring if often ghoulish fascination. From its origins as a personal bodyguard to Hitler, the SS developed into the most loyal and ideologically committed organisation in the Third Reich. The very vanguard of Nazism, it was a movement whose authorship and complicity in some of the era’s most heinous crimes would earn it criminal status at the end of the war and the darkest of reputations.

Moreover – and curiously given the acres of print routinely devoted to the subject of Nazism and the Third Reich – there are still questions about the SS that remain to be addressed; such as how a select garde du corps morphed in wartime into a motley body of warriors nearly a million strong; or precisely how the vast economic empire of the SS – which handled everything from the fruit of its prisoners’ labours to the gold teeth of its Jewish victims – was integrated into the wider German economy. Overarching them all, of course, is the question that Weale poses for himself at the outset of his book - how the soldiers of the SS willingly participated in some of the most bestial operations in human history; the mass murder of men, women and children.

There should be much, then, for any new history of the SS to discuss. The organisation’s intellectual and political world, for instance, a curious mix of think-tanks and thugs, high-flown theory and murderous practice, would be worth some investigation.

Also, the new morality of the SS would surely merit a chapter. It was this, after all, that provided the pseudo-philosophical underpinning that enabled many SS men to do what they did. Liberated from ‘outmoded’ concepts such as pity or Christianity, they saw mankind sorted into a league-table of races with Aryans and Nordics at the top and Jews and Slavs consigned to the status of vermin. In their ruthless and murderous treatment of these latter categories, they viewed themselves as soldiers in a Darwinian, life-and-death struggle for racial superiority, through which they would forge the new Germany.

For all its potential, Weale’s book addresses few of these points, however. It is certainly well-constructed and well-paced, providing an easy-reading account of the salient points in the story. It also provides useful potted biographies of the main characters – Himmler and Heydrich – as well as those lesser-known villains such as Christian Wirth, Franz Stangl and Odilo Globocnik, and the solitary hero Kurt Gerstein, who infiltrated the SS solely to report to the outside world on its murderous activities. Yet, crucially, it offers little that is genuinely new.

Weale’s is a competent and engaging synthesis, but there is more to the story, and more is required if the adjective ‘new’ is to be appended to the book with any real justification.

Part of the problem is the author’s choice of sources. Lacking German, it appears, Weale is left with a rather restricted range of material with which to work. Unable to avail himself of the many academic studies and specific investigations that have appeared in recent years, therefore, he concentrates primarily on published, English-language volumes, which though sound, do not provide sufficient depth or variety.

As a result, though there is ample scope for a more thorough-going and thoughtful approach to the subject, Weale’s book is disappointingly pedestrian, telling most readers little that they didn’t already know. Though he tells his story well enough, Weale does not provide enough in the way of a novel approach, a new interpretation, or fresh insights. The ‘new’ history of the SS, it seems, still awaits its author.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010