Timothy Synder strives with this book to repudiate the anonymity of the mass murders of the twentieth century, reminding the readers that each death represenented an individual human being with all the flaws and hopes of any reader.
Central to his achievement is his taking of a holistic approach to the atrocities, considering not just the policies of Hitler and Stalin separately but in interaction, and considering the Jewish, Polish, Ukranian and Belarusian tragedies in their totality rather than in isolation. This approach is perhaps best exemplified by his consideration of the Warsaw uprisings: here the distinctively Jewish character of the 1943 Ghetto uprising is recognised but not to the exclusion of its Polish character, as demonstrated by the alliance between the Ghetto fighters and the Home Army. Likewise the Jewish contribution to the 1944 Warsaw uprising is discussed: For example after the Home Army liberated the Warsaw concentration camp many of the Jewish slave labourers joined the Home Army, “fighting in their striped camp uniforms and wooden shoes, with ‘complete indifference to life or death'”. (p. 302)
This approach also draws out some uncomfortable ambiguities: Tuvia Bielski, for example, is one of the incontrovertable heroes of the book. His exploits, depicted in the film “Defiance”, saved hundreds of Jewish lives in what is now Belarus. In order to do this he established an alliance with Soviet partisans, which ultimately meant he, a former Polish soldier, was directly involved in the suppression of the Home Army by the invading Soviets in 1944(something not depicted in “Defiance”).
In consciously repudiating more simplistic narratives Snyder make a profoundly important point: horrendous as the history of this time and this place is, it is a central episode of human history. Presuming that this was the work of monsters threatens that we may blunder into perpetrating such atrocities again.
This is a hugely important book: an awesomely impressive research undertaking resulting in an exemplary work of history, beautifully written, horrific and deeply moving by turns. It should be read be everyone with an interest in humanity itself.