22 February 2011

The most depressing book I've ever read

Bloodlands has something like 10-20 thousand people dying on every page. When it opens up with the Ukrainian famines and the deaths of over three and a half million people, complete with cannibalism, deportations, shootings, and a bizarro world response by the Soviet government (that it was their fault, a form of terrorism against world socialism), one should know the ride will not be pretty.

There's several passages which I noted in particular however as the impassive horrors committed by the Nazi and Stalin regimes are documented.

Germans had policies of extermination toward Jews, this we know. We liberated some of the concentration camps of the West, and the Russians got a few in the East. But the Russians liberated some actual death camps. A slight distinction between Treblinka and Auschwitz was that, while Auschwitz's Zyklon B killed many more people than the carbon monoxide gassings at other locations, very, very few people survived Treblinka. Less than 50 out of over a quarter million, all of which escaped. Chelmno was even worse, less than a handful out of almost two hundred thousand people.

This we also know about, but it boggles the mind to see that much of the real evidence against the Nazi regime was not the walking skeletons who remained living at Bergen-Belsen to be filmed by victorious Western allies. It was the ashes of millions of Polish Jews, many of them women and children, who were already dead by 1943. (Incidentally, Auschwitz wasn't for Polish Jews, it largely was for Hungarian or Czech Jews).

What we also don't hear much about was the way Germans dealt with Jews in occupied Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and other Soviet republics. They shot them. Almost all of them. They had a term for it. "Resettlement". Which was described thus. "Resettlement site: on the resettlement site eight trenches are situated. One squad of ten officers and men are to work at each trench and are to be relieved every two hours". The perversion of language took on a considerable level of tortured meanings throughout the war.

There's also the warped way in which all this killing was celebrated or became normalized.

"At one killing facility, the personnel celebrated the ten-thousand cremation by bedecking a corpse with flowers" (this was at a euthanasia site in Germany itself largely used for handicapped children, deployed in 1939 through 1941, over 70000 German people, mostly not Jews, were gassed in this one).

Or in this, a letter by a German policeman to his wife.
"During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse. The death that we gave them was a beautiful quick death, compared to the hellish torments of thousands and thousands in the jails of the GPU. Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to be pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water."

True, Soviets had killed millions of their own citizens in Ukraine and Belarus, and deported millions more to become slave laborers. By the end of the war, Belarus had lost something on the order of half its pre-war population to indiscriminate policies of mass slaughter, and almost all of its Jewish population.

But this .... justification of "they would do it to us", has always scared me. It was deployed by Americans even to "justify" programmes of torture for terrorist suspects. Those horrors are small in comparison to the mass slaughter and reprisals of the Eastern front in WW2 (and even prior to it). But they are not made less horrific by this knowledge.

They seem even more terrifying when we consider what else lies on that slope into darkness.
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