Top critical review
A necessary history! A magnificent first half let down by an exhausting second half.
Reviewed in the United States on August 12, 2014
While this is an extremely important work that anyone who wants study genocide or mass murder absolutely should read, be warned that the immensely depressing subject matter wears on the reader. What seems fresh and interesting in the first 250 or so pages, becomes a slog at the end.
This work absolutely shines in four ways. First, it covers the entire geographic area over the course of nearly 20 years. So if you want to see dates and numbers for the systematic murders, starvations, deportations and killings of everyone from Finns to Tartars (and all peoples in between), the information is here. Second, it covers some truly important history that is almost unknown and does so in a most revealing manner. I think the case of the millions of Soviet POWs held, abused, and murdered (mostly by starvation, weather, and disease) really comes to mind. Another is the starvation of Leningrad. And the post-war deportations and forced evacuations all across Eastern Europe. Third, Snyder doesn't shy away from the terrors and horrors of all the key players. That means both Stalin and Hitler. And even the Romanians (e.g., see pages 218-219). Fourth, Snyder points out that the absolute worst horrors of the 1930s were in the Ukraine and in the 1940s Belarus. Two areas of the world we pay too little attention to. The information about the killings in Belarus during the war, esp. as they related to partisans and partisan activty was quite enlightening and frightening. Such suffering in one place at one point in time.
But by about page 252, at Chapter 8, "The Nazi Death Factories", I was just emotionally drained and exhausted. I just couldn't process the killing any more. Of course, it may just be me, but I found the section on the Warsaw Uprising (Chapter 9) in 1944 too long and detailed. And the post WW II thoughts on "Stalinist Anti-semitism" (Chapter 11) a bit too speculative and removed from the main thrust of the work. The only later chapter I thought up to the first half of the work is that on "Ethnic Cleansings" (Chapter 10). Though it cries out for some good tables, charts, and graphs!
To help the reader process and make sense of so much killing over such a long period of time in so many places, the work would've benefitted by the addition of some well-done tables, charts and graphs. The maps are nice. But the numbers and dates associated with numbers get repeatedly buried throughout the text. And the sheer repetition of numbers, including all of those "hidden" in the extensive endnotes, because mind numbing.
And while we've all seen many photographs, a good selection of photographs covering the various periods of history here (e.g., the Soviet POWs, post-war deportations, the Great Terror, etc.) would've improved the work.
One thing that is surprising is how much space is given over to the grand strategy of Hitler and Stalin not only in Europe but also Asia. The relationship of events and their timing to the thoughts and actions of Japan is most fascinating. And it is somewhat refreshing to read a major history that rightly spends little time covering the USA, Britain, and France. They just weren't players in these events.
So yes, read this book. Just pace yourself. And take time to ponder those parts of the text that are most personal, that engage the reader by bringing to life, if only briefly, one of the victims by what s/he said or wrote.