Beyond the Gap (Opening of the World #1) by Harry Turtledove

My rating: ♦♦♦

I’ve been reading Turtledove since The Guns of the South. I tend to enjoy his alternative histories, but his work does get formulaic, his characters can become tiresome cliches, and frankly his depictions of women are problematic as they tend to run the gamut between angry shrews, sluts, and dream girls.

While all of these problems are on display in this book (particularly in the character of Gudrid), they are muted, and take a backseat to a fascinating fantasy narrative.

We find ourselves in the Raumsadalian Empire, a vast sprawling, and not terribly well run nation lying at the edge of a massive glacier. This glacier has been retreating for generations but word arrives at the capital, Nidaros that the glacier has suddenly parted, and there is land beyond it. A nobleman, Count Hamnet Thyssen, is sent north with a band of adventurers (and Gudrid, his scheming, venomous and malevolent ex-wife) to explore, and they find a new world and new threats that will change their world forever.

Yes, it’s a plot we’ve all heard before, but it’s skillfully told, and with the exception of Gudrid and at times Trasamund, the characters are engaging and the worldbuilding, while minimal in comparison to Martin, Jordan or Sanderson manages to fire the imagination and make me want to make a return visit to see what happens next. But next time Count Thyssen, leave Gudrid at home.

 

The Honor of the Queen (Honor Harrington #2) by David Weber

My rating: ♦♦♦

I read On Basilisk Station (the first installment in this series) back in High School (which is so long ago now I don’t want to mention it) and while I liked Honor Harrington as a character and found the “Honorverse” to be interesting, I never really followed up on the later books (I was eye-deep in Harry Turtledove and Robert Jordan at that time, so new series were not something I was looking for)

I Found The Honor of the Queen at a Friends of the Library sale the other week. Weber writes excellent escapism. His politics can get a little annoying (not all Liberals are doctrinare Marxists, and some of us ascribe to a realist view of geopolitics), but his descriptions of ship battles are some of the most unique I have ever read in Sci-Fi. The depictions of Grayson and Masada as somewhat backward worlds settled by religious fanatics and dealing with their backwardness in strikingly different ways was balanced, and I like the fact that Weber’s antagonists are, for the most part, fully realized individuals, with their own motivations, weaknesses and strengths.

Overall, it kept me coming back, and I was satisfied by the ending.

 

A Bridge too Far by Cornelius Ryan

My rating: ♦♦♦♦♦

If you’re a fan of WWII history and have never read a book by Cornelius Ryan, you’re missing out. Ryan was a journalist by trade, but he did sound historical research, interviewing participants in all sides of the conflict, to provide an excellent, God’s-eye view of complex and harrowing events in world history.

In the case of A Bridge too Far Ryan chronicles the fate of Operation Market Garden, one of the great Allied military disasters of the war. Market Garden stands out for the allies because unlike the Battle of France, Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore or the Siege of Leningrad, Market Garden took place as the Third Reich was already on the ropes, staggering from the onslaught of a two front war against enemies with seemingly inexhaustible resources.

It is September 1944. In the space of three months, the Anglo-American forces that landed at Normandy on June 6th of that year (a battle Ryan masterfully chronicles in his The Longest Day) have succeeded beyond their wildest hopes. France and Belgium have been liberated, the great port of Antwerp has been taken and German forces are fleeing in a headlong retreat from Holland in the north to the Swiss border.

Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower has directed Allied forces to advance in unison, across one broad front against the Germans, a strategy his subordinates, particular British Field Marshal Montgomery and American General Patton, continually chafe against, as each sees a reeling Wehrmacht and hopes to deal the death blow in an all-out thrust to Berlin.

Of the two, Patton with his daring but effective armored tactics seems the likelier candidate with his Third Army poised on the borders of the Reich. However the usually methodical (to the point of madness) Montgomery approaches Eisenhower with a plan that is staggering in its audacity. Montgomery proposes to invade northern Germany via Holland, using airborne divisions to seize a series of crucial bridges in Holland and then drive forth with his armored divisions, liberating that country, turning east at the Arnhem bridges over the Rhine and entering Germany’s industrial Rhur valley from the north, potentially ending the war before 1945. Against his better judgment Eisenhower approves the plan, named “Market Garden” which goes into action within two weeks.

The outcome is a disaster. While the airborne troops fight with a ferocity that staggers veteran German troops (at one point a Waffen SS General describes the fighting as the hardest he had ever faced, and he had served at Stalingrad!), Market Garden suffers from a series of planning mistakes, lost opportunities and catastrophic oversights that lead to its failure, and ultimately an Allied withdrawal from Holland, which remains occupied until April 1945.

A Bridge too Far is unflinching in describing the brutality of combat and its effects not only on the soldiers, but the Dutch civilians, whose courage and selflessness in the face of catastrophe is amazing to behold. Ryan’s incredible work in tracking down survivors from the American, British, Dutch and German perspectives in this battle are, as always, impressive and his skill in weaving these individual narratives into one grand tapestry of war, suffering, triumph and tragedy is masterful. I cannot recommend this work, or his other histories, The Longest Day or The Last Battle (dealing with the fall of Berlin) enough.

 

Tehanu by Ursula K. LeGuin

My rating: ♦♦

I read the Earthsea Trilogy last year and fell in love with it. LeGuin’s writing style, while it takes a little getting used to, manages to convey an impressive amount of story in a relatively small amount of pages. For a reader used to the far more expansive (and sometimes exhausting) world building of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, LeGuin’s spare, yet surprisingly rich prose was soothing.

So, when I picked up Tehanu, I must admit I was a bit surprised. The characters were familiar, and LeGuin’s prose style remained familiar, but there was a marked tonal shift from her earlier works. After finishing the work, I did a little digging to figure out what the difference was between this book and its series predecessors. Some of the difference can be attributed immediately to the passage of time: LeGuin wrote this book nearly two decades after her last Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore. The passage of time changes an author, changes their worldview, provides them with perspective, and makes it difficult for them to return to a world they left off long ago (Note the shifts between Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation and Foundation’s Edge for another good example of this change). There’s nothing wrong with such a change, Authors like the rest of us mature, and a vision one had in one’s 30’s will not remain unchanged into one’s 50’s.

Other reviewers have also criticized Tehanu‘s darker tone. I get that, but frankly misogyny, prejudice and cruelty have always been hinted at in the world of Earthsea, and there are numerous examples in the previous three volumes that are plenty dark. Having this novel, narrated by Tenar, who was the narrator of the second volume, The Tombs of Atuan, also shifts the focus of this book in ways making it similar to that earlier book, in that as a woman Tenar’s focus is limited by the patriarchial society of Earthsea, limiting both her mobility and her perspective in ways Earthsea’s other perspective characters Ged and Lebennin, are not. Therefore this book is considerably more introspective at times, indeed almost to the point of claustrophobia. No doubt such an effect is intentional, as it hammers home LeGuin’s feminist critique of her own fictional world, and fantasy in general, which often privileges the male viewpoint as adventurer, warrior or “chosen one” while pigeonholing the female characters in the roles of victim, princess or “girl you left behind” whose participation in the central drama appears tangential.

Finally there is the question of messaging. As several other posters have pointed out, Tehanu is a story with a strong message. LeGuin tackles the issues of inequality between the sexes, rape, sexual violence, misogyny, patriarchy and toxic masculinity and packages it within an Earthsea story. While the story is the vehicle for the message, the message is preeminent, as evidenced by this book’s relative lack of dramatic action in comparison to its heavy emphasis on Tenar’s dialogues with her supporting characters, and her own ongoing internal monologue. While striking the proper balance between story and messaging can be tricky, as one runs the risk of sacrificing plot, characterization and story altogether in favor of laying out one’s arguments (cough, cough, Ayn Rand) LeGuin manages, until the last chapter to work this out in a satisfactory manner.

Indeed, it is Tehanu‘s ending alone that earns it two stars from me. It’s not that I didn’t like the ending, indeed, other than the fact that it was relatively clear how this would end 100 pages in, the substance of the ending was satisfactory. The problem was the execution. The book ends abruptly. What might rightly be considered to be the climax is treated as an afterthought, the conclusion/resolution is barely attempted, and the reader could be forgiven if, upon reading the last page, they had no idea what exactly had happened. It is as if the author got tired of this book and decided to simply end it without finishing it. Whether this is because she felt she had made her point and the story was merely ancillary to that point, or she had gotten tired of the whole thing, we’ll never know.

No Longer on the Map: Discovering Places that Never Were by Raymond H. Ramsay

My rating: ♦♦♦

This was a brief but fun read. Ramsay manages to piece together the rather thin gruel of rumor, myth and legend surrounding a variety of places that appeared on maps but either never really existed, or (like the Island of Mam or Mayda) once may have existed, but have long since sunk.

Cartography and its evolution plays an outsize role in this book. Ramsay discusses locations such as Freisland, Quivira and Norumbega, which once upon a time featured prominently on maps, until explorers definitively proved their non-existence. He also recounts the mapping and exploration of the Straits of Anian, the Northwest Passage and Greenland, all of which exist (In the Straits of Anian’s case as the present-day Bering Strait) but not exactly in the form they first appeared.

Even stranger are the Ramsay’s discussion of places that really do exist, but proof of their existence was gained only with great difficulty, perhaps most strangely in the case of Bouvet Island. I had first heard of Bouvet Island while looking at a world map in my bedroom as a boy. It is a small, isolated Antarctic rock SSW of Cape Town, roughly 1,000 miles from the nearest landfall in any direction. Apparently it was originally discovered in the 18th Century by a French captain who gave it it’s name. However, numerous subsequent voyages failed to find it (not hard to imagine as it sits in one of the most Godforsaken parts of the planet) and it vanished from maps, only to be rediscovered in the early 19th century, claimed by the British, once again fail to be located by subsequent voyages and only fixed in location in the early 20th century by the Norwegians (who were looking for whaling stations in the Antarctic) and subsequently claimed by Norway in the 1920’s. Thus Norway has territory (as it is uninhabited and uninhabitable it cannot be considered a colony) on the opposite side of the planet from its Nordic homeland, on an island that for much of its history was doubted to exist

Whirlwind by James Clavell

My rating: ♦

Of the five books in Clavell’s Asian Saga that I have now read (not counting this one, I have read Shogun, Noble House, Tai-Pan and King Rat) Whirlwind has been the only disappointment, and what a disappointment! When one invests one’s time into reading a 1,270 page doorstop of a book, one does so with the hope that, upon reading the last page, one does not hurl said doorstop across the room exclaiming “well that sucked!”

As I have noted in my earlier review of King Rat , Clavell’s work is all Orientalist fantasy, and has to be read as such, otherwise it will come off as hopelessly colonialist, and fawningly imperialistic (no, seriously, this guy makes Rudyard Kipling look like Mark Twain when it comes to empire). That said, even approaching Whirlwind with such a caveat in mind doesn’t help. The book is just plain bad, the plot is convoluted, the characters are unsympathetic, the action drags (which is a problem when you exceed 1,000 pages) and there are a lot of loose ends that never get resolved.

To provide a brief synopsis, Whirlwind continues Clavell’s saga of the Struan’s corporation, a group of Swashbuckling China traders that bridge between the worlds of the West and the East. In this case we are introduced to the Struan’s offshoot S-G Helicopters, headed by Andy Gallavan, who we met earlier in Noble House (don’t worry too much about names here folks, we’re dealing with a cast of thousands, with a family tree more complex than anything Tolkien dreamed up). Gallavan & co. have the bad luck of operating a Helicopter company servicing oil rigs in Iran circa 1979, and the book picks up on the day the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns from exile in France. The early stages of the Islamic Revolution with its attendant bloodshed forms the backdrop of the book, and provides the primary crisis. Will Gallavan be able to extract his people and his helicopters from the increasing violence and instability of Iran? Will star-crossed Western and Iranian lovers be able to stay together, or will the tidal forces of religion and revolution tear them apart? Finally, how will the various shadowy factions contending for power in the vacuum following the fall of the Shah affect these characters as they struggle to survive? Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Indeed, Whirlwind has all the elements of a brilliant historical thriller, which it promptly fails to deliver.

As I am generally a fan of Clavell, allow me to avoid entirely crapping on him. This book would appear to suffer somewhat from “author dies before finishing the series” syndrome. While Whirlwind was not Clavell’s final book (that would be Gai-Jin, which I have not yet read) he did have several more books planned before his untimely death, and it is likely that several of the threads left unraveled at the end of Whirlwind would have been revisited later. Clavell also does a few things well in Whirlwind. First, he manages to accurately convey the crushing, claustrophobic sense of being trapped felt by his characters as they find themselves caught in an increasingly violent and unstable situation. Second, he manages to provide a good overview of just how convoluted, complicated and confusing things are in a society undergoing revolution, unfortunately this accurate depiction makes Whirlwind’s plot almost impossible to follow without a flowchart. Finally, Clavell does a good job of depicting the failure of contemporary groups to fully appreciate the Machiavellian genius of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Characters regularly voice opinions that Khomeini or his regime will be short-lived, felled either by his age, an internal coup or an external attack and yet Khomeini’s followers, despite their stereotypical depiction as fanatics are seen to regularly out think and out maneuver their opponents. While the Islamic Republic the Ayatollah founded has changed and evolved somewhat from his original design, it remains a going concern in 2017, something many of the characters in this book would have found shocking in 1979.

That said, there is a great deal wrong with this book. First the plot, or should I say plots. Clavell tends to be a master of the complex, intertwined plots. However, in this book, his skills fail him. There are just too many threads, Clavell simultaneously attempts to write a geo-political thriller, a spy novel, a romance and an adventure. Unfortunately, in attempting to service all of these plots at once, the whole thing falls flat. The geo-politics become dry and boring, the spy plot seems out of place, the romance becomes frankly annoying, and the adventure is choppy, as the structure of the novel doesn’t provide it with any continuity, and leaves many key parts to happen off stage.

Then there are the characters. Clavell’s books often include a “cast of thousands” (ok maybe tens), but there are usually a few key characters who anchor the book and whose characters are well fleshed out (Anjin-san, Mariko and Toranaga in Shogun, Ian Dunross in Noble House, Dirk Struan in Tai-Pan or Philip Marlowe in King Rat). However, Whirlwind seems more like an ensemble piece, without any real standout characters. The characters Clavell does attempt to elevate, such as Tom Lochart, Duncan McIver, the Mullah Hussain or Sharzad Bakravan either fail to connect with the reader, or are ultimately deeply unsympathetic. In fact, the deaths of two “main” characters in a completely stupid manner around page 1,170 elicited more relief from me than sympathy. (Indeed, I haven’t met such an unsympathetic cast of characters since I forced my way through Atlas Shrugged.)

Put simply, this is not Clavell’s best work.

 

America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby

My rating: ♦♦♦

As a student of the First World War, I’ve always been curious about the great Flu Pandemic of 1918. My curiosity is partially academic, this was a plague that killed at least three times as many people as the First World War, (and millions more than the Black Death of the 14th century) and yet we barely remember it.

Crosby does a good job of piecing together the progress of the flu across the United States, including chilling anecdotes, such as the city morgue overflowing in Philadelphia, or the massive mortality from flu and pneumonia on the troop ship Leviathan in the Atlantic. He also manages some fascinating contrasts in areas affected by the flu, contrasting the response in Philadelphia with that in San Francisco, where widespread masking may not have prevented the Flu from spreading, but did a great deal to tamp down on panic. He also makes a fascinating comparison of the effects of Flu on the margins of the American Empire in 1918 (The American Samoa and Alaska) He shows how draconian efforts by the U.S. Navy and the Military Governor of Samoa spared Samoans in the American colony from the massive death toll suffered by Samoans in the former German Colony (Western Samoa) then under occupation by New Zealand. On the other hand, the mortality from Flu in Alaska proved uneven, with certain areas managing to successfully quarantine the flu, while other, particularly native communities, were virtually annihilated by the disease.

Crosby is less successful in his attempts to link to Flu to world events. He points to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and makes the conjecture that President Woodrow Wilson’s coming down with the Flu lead directly to the punitive peace terms of the Treaty of Versailles, as Wilson’s incapacitation cancelled out any amelioration of the terms he might have provided. While all of this is possible, Crosby oversimplifies the situation here and lacks a “smoking gun.” His evidence of Wilson being stricken by Flu is inconclusive (in light of subsequent events, it is likely that Wilson’s 1919 health scare was a preview of the massive stroke that would incapacitate him for the rest of his presidency in 1920) and Crosby overlooks or underestimates the French appetite for revenge or the British desire to ensure that Germany would not have the capacity to wage war on the scale of 1914-1918 again. Wilson may have believe in his idealistic principles, his ability to enforce them, even at the height of his popularity in 1919 is questionable.

I mentioned that my interest in the 1918 Flu is only partially academic. It is also personal. In a very real sense, I am a product of that pandemic. In 1917 my Great-grandfather, Hermann Haeber married a young lady named Ella Rencke and they soon thereafter she had a child. Then the Flu struck South Texas and numbered Ella among its many victims. My Great-grandfather found himself a widower with a baby. At the same time, his brother Max Haeber also died from the Flu, leaving his wife Olga widowed with several children. For reasons that were probably as much practical as anything else, Hermann married Olga and they raised a mixed family together. Whatever their initial reasons for marrying, things must have worked out well for them, for their family eventually expanded to 13 children, the youngest of which was my Grandmother Gloria, who would have never been born were it not for the tragedy of the 1918 Influenza.

 

King Rat by James Clavell

My rating: ♦♦♦

The first thing one should always keep in mind when reading Clavell is that all his work is essentially Orientalist fantasy. A man from the West comes to the East and finds freedom from the more nonsensical restrictions of western culture, while his different way of thinking becomes a boon in navigating the cultures of the East, provided that he has sufficient respect for those cultures.

The second thing to remember about reading Clavell, is that despite his very pro-British Empire stance, he was also a great believer in the idea that cultural exchange and fusion benefited both Europeans and Asians. If there is one really general theme of his book, it is that the heroes in his books (Anjin-san, Toranaga, Dirk Struan, or Peter Marlowe) see the value in drawing on the wisdom of both cultures, while the villains (in the case of King Rat we’re probably looking at Provost-Marshal Robin Grey) almost always are cultural essentialists, so sure of the superiority of their own worldview that they fail to see how their opponent’s wider perspective gives them an advantage.

That said, King Rat, which is Clavell’s first published novel, is probably also the most personal of all of his works. It recounts the struggle for survival among Allied Prisoners of War held in the Changi prison camp in Singapore by the Japanese during the Second World War. The main character, Peter Marlowe, is widely considered to be based on Clavell himself, who was taken prisoner by the Japanese during the war and eventually held at Changi until its liberation in 1945.

However, King Rat is not a memoir, it is work of fiction as seen through the eyes of one who actually lived it. We see the earliest forms of some of the themes Clavell would hit upon in the other volumes of his Asian Saga, such as the bond of brotherhood among men, the value of friendship among men of honor, and above all, the value of an entrepreneurial spirit and free trade for human dignity and survival.

These values are embodied in part by Marlowe, who is struggling to both survive and resist at Changi, and in part by the American Corporal King, who has made a fortune in the camp through illicit black market trade, and who takes Marlowe under his tutelage as the story progresses. “The King” as the American is known is a uniquely amoral character. On the one hand he is loyal to his cronies and friends, and his illicit trading allows many individuals in the camp to survive by helping them pawn off their valuables to Chinese merchants through the intermediary of the camp’s Korean guards. However, the King is also unapologetically ruthless in his trading, making a sizeable profit from each trade and lording it over his superiors and peers alike.

As with all Clavell books there is a major driving plot involving the King and Marlowe attempting to make the biggest trade of the war, numerous subplots, including one involving Provost-Marshal Grey’s Javert-like obsession with the King and his numerous unsuccessful attempts to catch him in the act of illegal activity. Only the length of the book gives away that this is Clavell’s first attempt at such a narrative (the book’s 500 pages is brief in comparison to the 1000-1200 pages Clavell will use to flesh out his master narratives in later works) unfortunately this also means that King Rat is neither as dense or as complex as his later works, and that many of the side characters, and none of the Japanese or Korean characters are as fleshed out or developed as they would be in ShogunNoble House or Tai-pan for instance.

Ultimately the most striking, and perhaps heartbreaking part of this novel comes near the end, as liberation reconnects the prisoners of Changi with the reality of the outside world, and destroys the reality they have created for themselves in their struggle for survival. The King is ultimately humbled as his fortune has been made in the now worthless money of the occupying authority, and the English and Australian prisoners all learn the fates of those family members from whom they have been cut off for years. In some cases the shock proves too great for them to want to go on. This is perhaps Clavell at his most tragically personal, for this would have been a shock that he personally would have gone through, and the suffering is both poignant and haunting

 

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

My Rating: ♦♦♦♦♦

Timothy Snyder holds the interesting distinction of having written two of the bleakest books I have ever read. I have already reviewed his Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and StalinBlack Earth: The Holocaust as Witness and Warning is the second of those two books and despite focusing directly on the Holocaust, is possibly the less grim of the two.

If this observation seems strange, it may be due to the fact that in this book Snyder devotes an entire chapter to those individuals who risked their own lives to hide and protect hunted Jews. Snyder portrays these individuals in all their complexity, noting that in each case, the actions of these individuals was done for personal reasons but, considering the scene of horrific slaughter that served as a backdrop for their acts of mercy, even the dimmest of these candles blazes in the darkness surrounding them.

I was somewhat surprised to see that this book was rated far lower than Bloodlands here on Goodreads. From the reviews, it appears that some of Snyder’s observations and theories regarding the Holocaust make readers uncomfortable. In particular, there is his assertion that citizenship and the protection of a state made it less likely for Jews to be deported and murdered than residence in a state as an unprotected non-citizen, or even worse, residence in an area where the apparatus of the state had been demolished altogether and there was no protection whatsoever. In this sense, Snyder compares the status of Jews in places like Bulgaria and Denmark, where they were protected by the state and there were almost no deaths, to Occupied and Vichy France, where protection was more likely for native French Jews, who still risked deportation and death, but whose risk was far less than that of Jewish refugees from across Europe, who faced certain deportation if caught, as French authorities would do little if anything to prevent their deportation, and often implicated themselves in the deportation by handing them over to the Nazis.

However, as with his last book, Snyder’s primary focus is on a region where government and the state virtually ceased to exist during the years of Nazi occupation: The region originally ceded to the Soviet Union in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and later invaded and occupied by the Third Reich between 1941-44. These “twice-invaded lands” as Snyder refers to them, provided a region ideally suited politically for mass slaughter, something that would not have been obvious prior to their violation by the Soviet army in 1939-40. While the region was hardly free of Anti-Semitism in the interwar years, Snyder points out that this sentiment was not of the exterminatory variety. Poland actively sought the mass emigration of its Jews to Palestine, a goal stymied by British opposition on the grounds that Jewish immigration to their Middle-eastern Mandate was destabilizing it. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all had large, but relatively well-integrated Jewish minorities. So what brought about the shocking change that led to the near total annihilation of the over 1 million Jews in this particular region?

Snyder’s arguments point toward the entire destruction of the state in these areas during the war years. The Soviet Occupation brought about the destruction of the infrastructure of the independent state in each of these areas, as the local leadership was either executed on the spot by the NKVD (the Soviet Secret Police) or exiled to Siberia. The subsequent Nazi invasion compounded this issue, as those individuals remaining in these regions saw themselves as complicit in the Soviet occupation of their homelands. The Nazis offered these individuals a chance to absolve themselves of this guilt, and the illusory hope of future national restoration, in exchange for their complicity in genocide. The Jews of the region would be smeared with the whole of the blame for conspiracy with the Communists, and the locals could justify the murder of their neighbors as a way of “avenging the homeland.” Unlike Jews in Denmark, Bulgaria or even Vichy France, the Jews of this region had no authority they could turn toward and seek protection. The only authority in the region was the one seeking their annihilation. While this mechanistic view of the Holocaust is well-documented and strongly argued, it is understandably unsatisfying who see the Nazis as otherworldly monsters instead of vicious and murderous opportunists, who killed wherever they could, but did far more killing where it was convenient to do so.

However, I found that the most chilling and controversial parts of this book were the introduction and conclusion. Snyder uses these chapters to lay out Hitler’s Malthusian vision of human life as a zero-sum game in which the bread eaten by your neighbors is taken from your own mouth and therefore, the only way to secure food and a future for your own people is to deprive others of theirs. In this sense the Nazi ideal of Lebensraum or “living space” required first that it be a “dying space” for those who previously inhabited it. I frankly found Snyder’s introduction to Black Earth to be the most succinct, clear and compelling recounting of the Hitlerian worldview I have ever read. On the other hand, Snyder’s conclusion is neither comforting, nor particularly hopeful as he basically asserts that we as a people have failed to learn any of the lessons from the Holocaust. Ultimately, Snyder argues that Hitler’s Malthusian version of Social Darwinism has never really left us, it has merely been subsumed by the agricultural advances of the “Green Revolution” and GMO’s which have provided humanity with the tools to feed billions using the same “black earth.” However, Snyder worries that the promise of technology may yet fail in the face of natural disaster, such as climate change, and that, facing a future with limited resources and too many mouths to feed, the Hitlerian worldview may yet emerge and those groups of people caught in the maelstrom without the protection of a state may once again be doomed.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

My rating: ♦♦♦♦♦

Bloodlands is one of those books that still haunts you years after you finish reading it. While this book is ultimately a history of the Holocaust it manages to, without minimizing or in any way limiting the horror of that atrocity, situate the Nazi Genocide within a series of mass killings in the Eastern European borderlands fated to bare the brunt of the horrific impact between the imperial ambitions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Snyder’s work begins long before the Second World War, dealing with the fallout of the Polish-Soviet War of 1920-22 and the nationalities questions that emerged from it. This conflict, which has been largely forgotten in the west, involved Red Army units invading newly-independent Poland from the still-consolidating Soviet Union, in the interests of furthering the immanent world revolution. However, these harbingers of the global workers uprising failed to take into account resistance from Polish cavalry units that managed to blunt and repulse their advance before the gates of Warsaw, and drive them back eastward. Polish successes led them to advance beyond the “Curzon Line” (an eastern border for Poland, based on ethnic majorities proposed at the Paris Peace Conference) and the annexation of much of what is now western Belarus and Ukraine.

Snyder then turns his attention to the presence of large Polish and Ukrainian minorities on either side of the Polish-Soviet frontier in the 1920’s-30’s and how the tensions arising from both Polish and Soviet approaches to dealing with multiethnic states set the stage for mass slaughter. In the USSR, the anti-Soviet activities of the Polish government figured heavily in Poles being massively over-represented in the early phases of the Stalinist Purges. At the same time, the presence of a sizeable Ukrainian minority in Poland, led the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (as the Ukrainian ethno state within the USSR was known as until 1991) to initially become a showpiece for the enlightened nature of Soviet policy toward ethnic minorities (Ukrainians were allowed institutions in their own language, and a celebration of their own culture, in stark contrast to the Polish governments suppression of Ukrainian nationalism and forced “Polonization” of its Ukrainian minority.

However, when such policies failed to produce the desired result of revolution among West Ukrainians in Poland, and instead lead to increased Ukrainian nationalism in Soviet East Ukraine, particularly after the institution of collectivized farming in the early 1930’s, the specter of mass death cast its first major shadow over the borderlands. When Moscow required Ukrainian peasants to surrender even the seed grain in order to make up the harvest quota, mass starvation resulted, Ultimately killing millions of Ukrainians and leading to the repopulation of regions of Eastern Ukraine with Russian peasants. (A policy which continues to haunt us to the present day, with the current separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk) Thus Snyder situates the Holodomor, as the mass death of Ukrainian peasants from this artificially-created famine is now known, as the first of a series of mass killings that sought to reorganize the ethnic framework of the borderlands in the interests of a national goal.

Nazi Germany comes late to the mass killings in the borderlands. Snyder notes that, up to 1939, the Soviet Union far outstripped the Nazis in both mass incarceration (through the Gulag system) and mass killing. However, in comparing both the Nazi and Soviet approaches to mass killing in the borderlands, Snyder sets up a fascinating, yet chilling contrast. The Soviet approach appears much like a coal-seam fire, a slow, steady burn that consumes individuals, communities and whole ethnic groups over a period of years, through purges, and the slow wastage of digestion in the Gulag. The Nazi approach, beginning a whole decade after the Soviets resembles a fast moving brush fire, rapidly consuming and laying waste who whole swathes of territory, and swiftly moving on to destroy elsewhere. As Snyder observes, the “lightning war” of the Blitzkrieg was swiftly followed by fast-moving mobile killing units of the SS, whose first duty (similar to their counterparts in the NKVD on the Soviet side of the occupation of Poland) was the decapitation of Polish society through the elimination of any individual or group that could lead Polish resistance in the newly annexed territories of the Reich. However as Snyder explains (and goes into far greater detail in his next book Black Earth) the worst killings occurred in the regions that faced a “dual occupation” such as Eastern Poland and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which first faced purges under Soviet occupation from 1939-41, and then faced the organized racial slaughter of the Nazi new order from 1941-44. In these areas where the state had been erased, individuals often faced the machinery of systemic slaughter alone, and with predictably tragic consequences.

While Snyder’s overarching narrative is grim, it is the anecdotes that stay with you. The horrific images of the Holodomor, where whole villages basically succumbed to hunger, and in some cases cannibalism are hard to shake. However, the true standout in the field of monsters Snyder profiles would have to be SS-Oberfuhrer Oskar Dirlewanger. Dirlewanger, who holds the distinction of having been actually expelled from the SS before the war for pedophilia (short answer, the dude was too depraved for an institution renowned for its depravity) and only let back in after the onset of war when sadistic killers were in high demand. Snyder describes a scene in which Dirlewanger’s brigade participates in the reconquest of Warsaw after the Polish Resistance’s uprising in 1944. I cannot describe it, but I firmly remember putting down the book and wondering if Hell was sufficiently awful to hold such creatures.

If not obvious from my review, this is far from a joyful book. My wife actually remarked that she could sense my mood darken while reading it. However, it provides a necessary, if grim portrait of a complex and extremely dark period of human history. Considering how often these events get lightly referred to in discussions and arguments, particularly online, we ought to understand them better, regardless of how uncomfortable they make us feel.