No one doubts that the fate of the populations of the European borderlands between Poland and Russia in the age of total war was an atrocious one. Tens of millions died; not just in the barbaric conflict between the Hitler and Stalin dictatorships, but from 1914 onwards to the early 1950s. Yet it is Timothy Snyder's contention that for this region the years between 1932 and 1945 were especially significant, because its populations lay in the path of two vast utopian experiments, German and Soviet, whose success was predicated on the mass death of those who stood in the way. He counts around 14 million victims - principally Balts, Poles, Belorussians, Ukrainians and Jews.
This is a challenging thesis, firmly rooted in a wide range of Eastern European archives and a rich secondary literature. It constitutes the first full narrative reconstruction of the region's violent deaths in the age of Hitler and Stalin. Snyder contends that historians have failed to identify and deal with these "bloodlands" collectively, while they have overtheorised the imperatives that made the mass deaths possible.
He argues that his purpose is to give these numberless victims a human face by focusing on small stories of loss and death, which he does with a blunt sentimentalism. Most historians in the field would reply that it is simply not the case that the human victims have disappeared, whether we recall Orlando Figes' The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia or Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The human horror pervades much of the current literature, perhaps too much. But in the end this does not get the reader very far. Empathy is next to impossible for atrocities of this order; but it is never enough simply to stare at the horror and feel the pain.
This is not the only problem with the argument as it is presented here. The choice of a particular area is not accidental. It is necessary to explain something about this region in terms of geography, social structure, racial configuration, economic activity, national allegiance and political preference if sense is to be made of why this area suffered the way it did. Yet Snyder's approach is to see these populations as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is certainly true, but it gets us no nearer to understanding what is particular about the place to which he has given a historical unity of shared suffering, except that it grew a lot of grain.
The answer, of course, is that this area has no natural unity nor does its calamitous history. Indeed, little sense can be made of the many forms of killing in the region if they are thought to possess some kind of unity in the face of dictatorship. Such an approach does violence to the chronology. Nothing unites the Ukrainian famine with the onset of mass murder in divided Poland. The disaster in Ukraine has more in common with the famine in the early 1920s in which millions more died as a result of military and political crisis. The aftermath can be seen in the post-1945 civil war.
This concept of specific "bloodlands" also distorts the historical reality of the region. Thousands of the deaths were the result of intra-racial violence, not dictatorial victimisation. Further south, it was the Romanian government and armed forces that perpetrated their own version of the Holocaust in Transnistria and beyond. The German presence certainly permitted Romania to go further than it might have, but the trajectory is one drawn from Romanian history, not from the German-Soviet killing fields.
The same problem emerges with the focus on Stalin's victimisation of Ukrainians and Jews. This has to be set alongside the victimisation of the Caucasian peoples, Finns and Koreans and the deaths - through judicial murder, starvation or deportation - of millions of ethnic Russians, also victims of the utopian ambitions of the regime. Real understanding of the nature of the many conflicts that populate the narrative of this region can come only from disaggregating the deaths and explaining their particular cause, rather than from aggregating them as a description of a doomed region.
Snyder is right, of course, to emphasise the popular misconception that people here died in camps rather than in the open - in fields and woods and cities. But it is hard to imagine any historian of this area accepting such a facile conclusion; the nature and limits of the camp system have been known about for years, as well as the wider history of the killing. If there is any case to be made for treating the "bloodlands" as a unity, it lies surely in being able to explain why this could be. This Snyder fails to do with conviction.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
By Timothy Snyder. Bodley Head, 544pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780224081412. Published 30 September 2010