Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Bodley Head, 2015.
There may be no more famed historian today than Timothy Snyder. In recent years his work has fundamentally altered thinking about the Holocaust, and his knowledge of Central and Eastern Europe has seen him emerge as lucid thinker on current events in Ukraine.
The bulwark of Snyder’s reputation is his research in dialects that few in the West have bothered to learn—Ukrainian, Polish, and Belarusian for example. Legend has it that he speaks or writes 11 languages, and though that claim is near impossible to verify, the books that result make it a moot point. Snyder’s status is now such that his latest text, Black Earth, includes cover blurbs by both Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski—two men who otherwise agree only on their distaste for one another. The book’s launch in September saw hefty excerpts published in The Guardian, The New York Review of Books and elsewhere.
In short, Snyder’s works are now publishing events and Black Earth includes many of his trademarks. Though sourcing looks less poly-linguistic than in the past—with German, Polish, and English language texts forming the basis this time around—the familiar use of reasoned argumentation rooted in numerical data remains. It is regrettable that one of the defining characteristics of the Holocaust is its sheer scale, but Snyder’s innovation has been to use those numbers to tell us something about the logic of what happened—numbers as a narrative.
Far beyond that, though, this book represents a quantum leap in ambition and attempts to develop a sort of all-encompassing theory of the Holocaust. As social scientific theory is meant to do, Snyder then uses that theory to venture forecasts about the future. There has been much ado about Snyder’s attempt to connect the logic of the Holocaust with the potential fallout from a global warming driven environmental cataclysm. Indeed Snyder does just this in the conclusion of the book, but it comprises a minuscule portion overall argumentation of Black Earth—a title that at once references the fertile farming soils of Ukraine while conjuring images of scorched ruins.
At its core this book amounts to a defense of the state as a polity—a controversial enough assertion these days on both the right and the left. It is the breakdown of the state, and in some places its intentional destruction, that allowed for the Holocaust Snyder contends. In places where the state was most shattered, the Holocaust was worse. Where the state—which he defines as comprising citizens, bureaucracy, and a foreign policy—remained more intact, more Jews survived.
The “Bloodlands” familiar to readers of Snyder’s earlier excellent book comprise an important part of the case. Almost all the Jews populating these areas of Eastern Europe that saw alternate occupations by the Soviets and Nazis—some Soviet, Nazi, and then Soviet again—died in the early years of the war. Most of them are killed by bullets and buried in ditches. The so-called “sardine method” saw victims forced to recline in a ditch before being shot, with the next contingent lying down on top of the corpses and then getting shot as well.
Snyder contends that extreme brutality and efficacy of the killings in these areas resulted from the acute eradication of the state. By the time the Nazis invasion the Soviets had already destroyed the state once. The Nazi Einsatzgruppen paramilitary forces were first tasked with destroying the state in these lands, not killing Jews, and the Soviets had left them resources to work with. Furthermore, in the ex-Soviet lands, the Jew and Communist were taken for one and the same, with the “Judeo-Bolshevik myth” forming a core of Nazi ideology.
He begins the book by arguing that Adolf Hitler’s motivations for waging war were rooted in ecology. In other words, Hitler’s primary motivation was an attempt to deal with food shortages in Germany through conquest of lands to the east. While Europe (and elsewhere) would eventually deal with such problems through scientific innovation, Hitler sought a political solution. Nazi ideology, as well as several others discussed by Snyder in the book’s conclusion, conflated politics and science.
The resulting foreign policy was both colonial and de-colonial. Hitler is driven by a desire to colonize Slavic lands to the east and the desire to remove Jews, whom he contends are subversive colonialists in their own right. The aforementioned Judeo-Bolshevik myth serves to connect this thinking with a specific territory for conquest, the Soviet Union.
Hitler adopts what Snyder calls a “Balkan model” and pursues “butter through guns”—war as a means to improve living standards. But the Balkan model, rooted in early 20th century nationalism and militarism, was not enough for Hitler to achieve his aims. So he added what Snyder lists as seven innovations: the party-state, the entrepreneurship of violence, the export of anarchy, the hybridization of institutions, the production of statelessness, the globalization of racism, and the redefinition of war.
Though there is no disputing Hitler was anti-Semitic, his initial goal was to push Jews to emigrate elsewhere—as many German Jews did—or to deport them to Siberia, not necessarily outright extermination. Though Hitler undoubtedly placed increased priority on the Jewish issue, these goals were not completely alien to those of other European states at the time—including the neighboring Poland.
There, Jews in the early 1920s accounted for about one-third of the country’s tax base and half of its foreign trade. While Germany and Poland had about the same number of assimilated Jews, Poland had about 10 times more of those who were Yiddish speaking and religiously conservative. The Polish state had an interest in ridding itself of Jews and official government policy pushed for a Jewish homeland in the French colony of Madagascar. Poland also covertly funded and trained Zionist guerrillas that went on to wage a terrorist campaign against the British occupation in Palestine in hopes that a Jewish state there would spur the emigration of Jews from Poland. Boycotts of Jewish businesses were tolerated and a law banned kosher butchery.
In July 1932 Poland signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and in January 1934 it would do the same with Hitler. Leaders in Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow saw these agreements in very different ways, according to Snyder. Poles thought they would preserve the status quo and their neutrality could prevent a clash between the Russians and Germans. Berlin believed that Poland would eventually join in a Nazi campaign to invade the Soviet Union and Stalin viewed the Polish-German pact as a sign that Poland would never be a Soviet ally.
In February 1937 the Nazis asked Poland to join an alliance that included Germany and Japan. Once rebuffed, Hitler asked Italy instead. Amid the Munich crisis of 1938, Poland seized the Teschen region of Czechoslovakia (today split between Cieszyn and Český Těšín), and Polish leaders described the Czechoslovak state as an “artificial creation” and an “absurdity.” At this point, Polish leaders hesitated to cooperate further with the Nazis.
In attempt to draw Poland into an invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler vowed to cooperate with Warsaw on a solution to the Jewish question and grant Poland conquered territory in Ukraine. When Poland refused, perception shifted and Hitler saw Poland as an impediment to overcome. The Poles scrambled to shore up their relationship with the Soviet Union, but it was too late. By August 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had carved up Polish territory, dividing it and other lands of Eastern Europe in Soviet and German spheres.
As Poland was invaded, Hitler had been in power more than six years but the Holocaust as such has not yet begun. More Jews were killed during September 1939 bombing of Poland than had been killed by the Nazis up to that point. Even after Poland was partitioned, in the Nazi zone the priority was on destroying the Polish state not Jews, Snyder argues.
Initially most Polish Jews were herded into ghettos, not death camps—which did not yet exist. In Snyder’s thinking, by the end of 1941 it was already apparent that Nazi Germany was set to lose the war. Soviet resistance had proved tougher than expected. “The war of colonization against the Slavs, though it continued, was yielding to the war of the elimination of the Jews,” he writes. Extermination became an increased priority. Hitler shifted focus to Poland and the Jews of occupied Western Europe and adapted tactics honed in the east. Killing methods also evolved from shooting, to carbon monoxide pumped into vans, to gas chambers.
Snyder’s argument divides so-called “zones of destruction” into three categories. Worst and most violent are the places where the state had been destroyed multiple times in a short period. In such places local citizens were more complicit in aiding the Nazis to murder Jews and various levers of power—be it nationalism, or the desire to distance one’s self from earlier communist collaboration—mobilized locals in the murdering.
Second worst off were Jews that lived in puppet regimes, and best off were Jews that lived in states where pre-war institutions persisted in one way or another (Denmark is the key example). Snyder contends that there was a sliding scale on how likely Jews were to survive the war based on how well state structures persisted. For example, about three-quarters of French Jews survived, as much of the pre-war elite remained.
“For every educated Pole who was murdered during the war, an educated Frenchman got a job in the civil service,” Snyder writes.
The evidence Snyder presents is for the most part convincing, but a good chunk of the book is dedicated to explaining how the model holds in increasingly diverse contexts. For example, about 75 percent of the pre-war Jews in both The Netherlands (an occupied Western European country, which Germany perceived as ethnically similar) and Slovakia (a Slavic puppet regime led by a Catholic priest and carved out of Czechoslovakia) died in the Holocaust.
There are a few other anomalies. Snyder contends that the Polish government exiled in London during the war offered some form of autonomy (though the Dutch one apparently did not), even as he simultaneously argues that destruction of the state was the root cause of the Holocaust—which affected Poland more than any other country. In other words, Poland is not responsible for the killing on its territory because the state didn’t exist, but at the same time the delay in murdering Polish Jews can be accounted for by the existence of the Polish government in exile.
Elsewhere Snyder notes that Germans murdered Jews in occupied parts of the Soviet Union, a state that still existed. “In these places the Germans behaved as if the Soviet state had been destroyed,” he writes. But that sounds as if it were Nazi behavior and not the actual destruction of the state that accounted for those deaths. Meanwhile, the percentage of Jews that died in areas of the pre-war Soviet Union occupied by Germany (95 percent) and the places the Soviets took over just before the war began (97 percent) are roughly the same, even as the state of the state surely differed.
Snyder has explanations for how such outliers fit into his model, but in the end they do amount to small gaps in the scope of his grand theory. In Black Earth’s conclusion Snyder is critical of singular explanations for complex phenomena. “Every unity is beautiful as an image but circular as logic,” he writes, and one might say that this ambitious text is susceptible to—though not necessarily guilty of—similar flaws. Still, do not be mistaken, the discussion is fastidious, enlightening and at turns revelatory. Black Earth may not be perfect, but it is surely one of the most important books ever written about the Holocaust.
In the end, Snyder seeks to stretch the argumentation about the destruction of states to the present day. He also draws comparisons between the flawed Nazi thinking and the “isms” of the 21st century. “The popular notion that free markets are natural is a merger of science and politics,” he writes.
The clearest contemporary support for his case that eradicating states is a recipe for human catastrophe emerged after the final draft of Black Earth likely went to the publisher. As hundreds of thousands of refugees make their way to Europe the line leads back to broken polities like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Lamentable as it is, the appeal of state destruction as foreign policy seems to have endured.
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