What was the original inspiration behind the undertaking of this book?
At a certain moment I realized that an enormous catastrophe, that one could see the deaths of 14 million people in a very small place, over a very short period of time, as a single event, and that no one had written a history of the event.
How did you come up with the title Bloodlands?
I wish there were a story' The book is geographical in its scope. I'm trying to emphasize that. The book begins from the observation that almost all the people killed by Hitler and Stalin were killed in the area that I describe, which is called the Bloodlands. I don't have any clear answers of how the term came to me. There are various things in the book which are suggestive of it. For example, when the Germans shot Polish hostages in public in Warsaw, sometime women would collect the dirt soaked with blood, put in jars, and take it to the church. There are various things like that which are throughout the book, but I don't' have a story to tell you. It just came to me one day.
Recently in class, we were asked to choose who was worse, Hitler or Stalin, based on the atrocities directly stemming from their policies. Many people distinctly chose one or the other. Do you think it is possible to maintain a balanced perspective of Stalin and Hitler?
Well, if by balance perspective you mean, are they the same, then the answer is no. They were pursuing goals which are comparable, but which were nevertheless different. I think it's legitimate to compare them. One of the things I find in my book is that you actually look at the comparisons, you realize that the Nazis actually killed more people than the Soviets, the opposite of what most people would think.
Another thing I turn my attention to in the book, which has been I think overlooked in the past, are the times and the places where German power and Soviet power overlapped. There are important cases where it's hard to say, whether a giver person or even a given hundred thousand people were victims of just Hitler of victims of just Stalin. In some sense, they were victims of both.
Among many others, you reference Marek Edelman in the chapter entitled "Resistance and Incineration". In research for your book, did you get to meet Mr. Edelman or many other survivors of the war?
That's an interesting question. I knew Mr. Edelman very slightly, but I never spoke to him about these issues. I knew Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who appears in the footnotes of the book. I know a few people who appear in the book, but it's not an oral history book in that sense. I did use a lot of testimony material, video testimonies or written testimonies, but I did not actually talk to people. I consciously chose not to talk to people about their own experiences on my own. If they left some kind of written record, I used that. I tried to separate this from my private life, if you see what I mean. But, i would emphasize that there are thousands and thousands of excellent video-recorded and also written primary source materials by Jews and by others, and that those were extremely useful to me. I encourage everyone to use those.
In your book, you juxtapose the mind-boggling statistics of the war with often horrifying personal accounts. How were you able to cope with the emotional aspect of this undertaking?
You're assuming that I did cope with it. The simplest answer is the true answer: it was very hard to write. But every day, when I got up at five in the morning, I had the sense that I was doing something worthwhile, and that was really sustaining.
You answer a lot of questions specific to people coming from the countries within the Bloodlands. Did you have a readership in mind when writing the book, and did that readership include people from those places who might be on a search for answers?
I was trying to write the book so that people who had very specific knowledge of some of the events would be able to understand the others. I was also trying to write so that people who were just interested in the history of the 20th century would have access to all the events.
I was writing in English so I had in mind, North Americans, and Australians, and the British of course, but my life and my mental life also encompasses places like Israel, and RUssia, and Ukraine and Poland, and Germany, probably above all. I was assuming that people in those countries would be reading the book as well. Now the book has been translated to 15 or 16 languages. The discussion will be taking place in all those settings as well. I wanted friends and colleagues and people who I don't know as well in all these countries to be able to read it. I was thinking of an international readership.
The implications of your book are manifold. What do you think or hope, will resonate most with the average reader, someone like myself?
Two things: the first thing is that I think the central event of European history has been overlooked. I think it’s been fragmented. The individual things that make up the book are terrible enough that we haven't actually had the courage of the patience to bring them all together and understand just how black the centre of European history in the 20th century was. We think we know that, but we don't know that.
The second thing would be that we should use history to reach to the depths of these black events. It's natural that we memorialize, it's natural that we try to explain things in psychological terms. It's natural that we care about individuals that we know who were in some way involved, but I think it's very important to try to use the scholarly tools of history to try to make sense of these things, because if we understand that it's history, then we understand that it's human. If we understand that it's human, then we have a chance of seeing how it relates to our own experiences.