Who remembers the Poles?

Richard J. Evans

  • Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
    Bodley Head, 524 pp, £25.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 08141 2

‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ Adolf Hitler asked his generals in 1939, as he told them to ‘close your hearts to pity,’ ‘act brutally’ and behave ‘with the greatest harshness’ in the coming war in the East. It’s often assumed that in reminding them of the genocide of at least a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, Hitler was referring to what he intended to do to Europe’s Jews. But he was not referring to the Jews: he was referring to the Poles. ‘I have sent my Death’s Head units to the East,’ he told the generals, ‘with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the living space that we need.’

Over the past couple of decades, historians have been steadily uncovering the true extent of Nazism’s genocidal ambitions in Eastern Europe. A month before the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, leading German military, economic and agriculture officials, following the direction indicated by Hitler and Göring, adopted a ‘Hunger Plan’ that prescribed the removal of food supplies from the areas shortly to be conquered, in order to feed German troops and civilians; the inhabitants of eastern Poland, the Ukraine and Belarus were to be left to starve. This was soon trumped by a more ambitious plan, pursued by the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, and officially adopted just over a year later. According to the General Plan for the East, ethnic Germans were to be settled in Germanised towns and agricultural estates all across Eastern Europe, which, Hitler fantasised, would be linked to the Reich by high-speed railways and autobahns. Anywhere between 30 million and 45 million Slavs living in the region were to be left to die, deliberately deprived of food and medical care. The plan envisaged that some 85 per cent of Poles, 64 per cent of Ukrainians and 75 per cent of Belarussians would perish in this way.

As Timothy Snyder reminds us, the Nazis made a start on this scheme of racial annihilation with the blockade of Leningrad, which led to the death of a million of its inhabitants, and the deliberate murder by starvation and disease of more than three million Red Army prisoners of war who fell into their hands during the massive encircling movements with which the Wehrmacht defeated the Soviet forces in the first months of Operation Barbarossa. Many more civilians perished in the towns, villages and country areas invaded by the Nazis in the second half of 1941. Already hundreds of thousands of Poles had been expelled from their homes, enslaved, deported to Germany or killed.

But the Nazis were by no means the only architects of the suffering that the people who lived in this part of Europe had to endure in the 1930s and 1940s. Hitler’s enemy in the East, Joseph Stalin, was just as murderous in his pursuit of a utopian programme, different though Stalinist Communism might have been from the hierarchical racist ideology of the Nazis. Up to five million people, mostly Ukrainians, were sacrificed to the Bolshevik plan to collectivise agriculture in the early 1930s; three-quarters of a million Soviet citizens perished in Stalin’s purges later in the decade; during the war, the transmutation of Stalin’s vision from social revolution to patriotic defence of the Russian homeland led to the forcible deportation of millions more – Poles, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and other ethnic minorities – under conditions so appalling that hundreds of thousands died.

Altogether, Snyder reckons, some 14 million people perished in this part of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s as a result of policies enacted by the Nazis and their allies, or the Soviet Communists and theirs. Snyder describes these countries – Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, the Baltic states and the western fringes of Russia – as Europe’s ‘bloodlands’. This was where the vast majority of Europe’s Jews lived, and they also bore the brunt of the genocidal thrust of Nazi policy. Initially, Snyder argues, they were killed as useless consumers of much needed foodstuffs. But once Barbarossa got into difficulties a month after the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Hitler began to see the mass murder of the Jews as an end in itself, an act of revenge against an imagined Jewish world conspiracy. At this point, Himmler’s SS task forces began shooting Jewish women and children as well as Jewish men; and as German forces suffered their first serious reverses in the East in December, Hitler went over to an unrestrained policy of annihilation, resulting in the creation of the death camps and the murder of virtually the entire Jewish population of the ‘bloodlands’.

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