This year Presseurop was once again one of the partners of the European History Book Award handed out by the Society of Historians. The 2013 winner, which was announced in June, is Bloodlands, by American Timothy Snyder. The work, which has already been translated into 20 languages and honoured by numerous awards, is essential reading for an understanding of the history of WWII and Europe, and for an appreciation of the memory of our continent.

The focus of Snyder’s book, which is the result of documentary research in an impressive range of languages, is a region that extends from Poland to western Russia, taking in Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. This is the region that he dubs the “Bloodlands”, because it was the place where the power and the malice of two 20th Century European totalitarianisms, Nazism and Stalinism, overlapped and interacted with disastrous human consequences.

Bloodlands opens and concludes with the figure of 14 million: 14 million people murdered between 1933 and 1945 as a result of policies that were devised in Moscow and Berlin to satisfy the the ideological visions of Stalin and Hitler. Timothy Snyder’s figure only includes the victims of “policies that were meant to kill civilians or prisoners of war,” and does not take into account the deaths of civilians fleeing the war or soldiers who died in combat.

Perhaps a non-European historian was needed to mark out this new terrain away from the well-trodden paths of the traditional historical analyses of the 1930s and the Second World War in Europe.

Timothy Snyder describes the famine in Ukraine in all its horror along with all the perversity of its political context. In his treatment of Stalin’s Great Terror, he shifts his focus away from the major trials in Moscow to show the consequences for Ukrainian and Polish minorities. Retracing the course of events, he details how the Soviets and Nazis deported populations, decimated communities and eliminated elites in countries subject to their arbitrary power.

Analysing the mechanism of the Final Solution, he explains the linkage between its economic and ideological aspects. And when he examines the end of the war, he relates the ethnic cleansing of all of the communities — Poles, Ukrainians, and in particular Germans — who found themselves on the wrong side of a border in the wake of the conflict.

This is perhaps the single greatest merit of Bloodlands. Instead of the standard approach which presents separate treatments of the USSR and the Second World War — the latter focusing on the rise of Nazism, the invasion of Europe and its liberation by allied forces (an extensively documented front and one that is very present in popular culture) and Soviet forces (with accounts that are often confined to the battles of Stalingrad and Berlin) — we discover a vast space where two histories unfold, unleashing a level of violence unparalleled in the rest of occupied Europe.

Snyder’s approach has major historiographic and memorial implications for today’s Europe — an entity that evolved from the recognition of the trauma of two world wars, acknowledgement of the Holocaust and the complicity of individual states, and a rejection of nationalism and totalitarianism. The critical point highlighted by Snyder is that much of the slaughter occasioned by totalitarianism and the Holocaust occurred in territories outside the borders of the European Union, or territories that only became part of the Union less than a decade ago, and, for this reason, it is largely absent from our collective memory.

The images of concentration camps habitually associated with Nazism are illustrative of one of the shortcomings of our collective memory. As Snyder points out, “the German policy to kill all of the Jews of Europe was implemented not in the concentration camps, but over pits, in gas vans, and at the death facilities at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz.” And Auschwitz itself conveys an imperfect memory, because “though the death factory at Auschwitz was the last killing facility to function, it was not the height of the technology of death: the most efficient shooting squads killed faster, the starvation sites killed faster, and Treblinka killed faster. Auschwitz was not the place where the two largest Jewish communities in Europe – the Polish and the Soviet – were exterminated. (...) By the time the gas chambers and the crematoria complexes at Birkenau came online in spring 1943, more than three quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead.(...) Auschwitz is the coda to the death fugue.”

Snyder also explains that “more non-Jewish Poles died in Auschwitz than did Jews from any other European country with only two exceptions: Hungary and Poland itself.” Far from relativising the extent and the particular horror of the Shoah, this raises the second major theme of the book: the manner in which the “Bloodlands”, tossed from one regime to the other, paid the price for the Stalinist and Hitlerian political experience.

Looking beyond the statistics, the historian recounts the stories and gives names to some of these dead. Ukrainian peasants, Ukrainian, Polish and Belarusian partisans, Polish, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian intellectuals, dignitaries and rank and file members of Polish and Ukrainian minorities, Soviet prisoners of war — all of whom fell victim to the collectivisation and the national persecutions conducted by Stalin or the racist colonisation of the East conducted by Hitler, which provided the basis for the war crimes of both camps. An impartial observer, Snyder also recounts the violent subversion that different ethnic and political groups deployed against each other, which was opportunistic in some cases, and, in others, the only option which offered a chance for survival in the context of the Soviet-Nazi conflict.

Bloodlands therefore presents a diptych of countries redrawn by the German-Soviet pact of 1939 and by the power struggle of 1945, replete with details of the societies that were decimated and torn apart. And it is on this basis that it raises an issue that often escapes attention in the rest of Europe, the issue of the “Bloodlands” relationship to their history, and also their relation to Russia and the European Union.

At the end of his book, Snyder describes how the USSR and the communist regimes established by Stalin in “Eastern Europe” instrumentalised the memory of war to consolidate their power and orient the ideological vision of their populations. Today Poland, and the former Eastern Bloc are part of the EU, the Soviet republics have become independent, and three of them have also joined the EU. While Europe confronted its past (with varying degrees of difficulty) and reconstructed itself politically, the countries of the “Bloodlands” embraced development on a different and more truncated basis.

It follows that the heritage shared by both “Old” and “New” Europe from a period that is nonetheless crucial to the history of our continent is necessarily insubstantial. However, it is nonetheless vital to the construction of a true European identity and the establishment of a coherent EU policy towards its eastern neighbours.

The Polish literary critic Maria Janion showed how well she understood this lack of common ground when she wrote, in the run-up to her country’s accession to Europe: To Europe – Yes, but Together with our Dead. Timothy Snyder has given us an opportunity to learn something of these dead, who are also our dead too.