Review: Timothy Snyder Examines the Holocaust in Black Earth

Black Earth, by Timothy SnyderWe all learn about the Holocaust when we’re children. I learned about it when I was quite young, in grade school. Childhood lessons on the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Germany often center on the most gruesome atrocities, the concentration camps and the ovens and the torture of people.

It is understandable why that is so. These things are so terrible to imagine, they seem to bear repeating to make sure that future generations know they happened.

But they are not the entirety of the horrors of the Holocaust. And there is a danger to the way these atrocities are so often taught to school children. They’re taught in such as way as to isolate them from our current reality, and that is dangerous because when we hear about them, we might believe that we live in a different time, where such things are the product of a madman’s racism, and being so singular, would never happen again.

We’d be wrong.

Professor and historian Timothy Snyder presents in this book a wide-reaching new history and explanation of the Holocaust and its roots that is radical and ambitious in its detail and scope. He discusses not only of the mass murder of Jews and others by the Nazis during WWII, but the little-understood thought process and goals of Adolf Hitler and the specific global, political conditions that allowed this extended mass murder to take place.

What is so radical about Snyder’s take on this subject, a subject about which thousands of books have already been written? For one thing, he explains that Hitler was not actually a nationalist. Instead, Hitler was a man concerned with a global quest for lebensraum, or living space, for resources, leading to his obsession with expanding Germany’s borders and viewing states and borders themselves as mere tools.

Snyder describes Hitler as a “racial anarchist” who viewed states, nations, laws, and ethics all as meaningless, things to be manipulated. Hitler’s worldview, according to Snyder, was completely based around the idea of brutal, racial competition for supremacy, and left no room for concepts of compassionate equality. Everything he did, then, was toward the end of restoring a state of “natural racial competition.”

In an interview for the Atlantic, Snyder explains Hitler’s perverse hatred for Jews thus: “Any idea which allows us to see each other as human beings—whether it’s a social contract; whether it’s a legal contract; whether it’s working-class solidarity; whether it’s Christianity—all these ideas come from Jews. And so for people to be people, for people to return to their essence, for them to represent their race, as Hitler sees things, you have to strip away all those ideas. And the only way to strip away all those ideas is to eradicate the Jews. And if you eradicate the Jews, then the world snaps back into what Hitler sees as its primeval, correct state.”

In Snyder’s reading of Hitler, what is especially striking is that Hitler is not necessarily more of an anti-Semite than anyone else during his time period or environment. Rather, his warped worldview led him to see Jews as an ecological, planetary threat, a threat to what is best and “natural” in the world, bringers of corrupt, incorrect, and dangerous ideas. (For instance: “Jews falsely separated science and politics.”)

If we accept that Hitler looked at eliminating the Jews, not chiefly out of “anti-Semitism” but out of a planetary need for both physical and intellectual dominance, then it’s easier to understand Snyder’s next important point, which owes a debt to the work of political theorist Hannah Arendt: that the survival or sacrifice of Europe’s Jews depended mainly on the existence, or destruction, of nation states and other legal and social institutions.

Snyder gives many examples. Compare the occupation of Denmark, where 99% of Jews survived, or Italy, where 80% of Jews survived, with Poland, where more than 90% of Jews perished.

In places that endured a dual Nazi and Soviet occupation, political propaganda by the Nazis portrayed Jews as Soviet collaborators, effectively making them scapegoats and allowing the rest of the population to attack them. In areas where the Nazis used this political strategy, where the state and institutions were destroyed first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, nearly all Jews were murdered. In places that did not undergo this type of dual occupation, Jews were exponentially more likely to survive. Now, with hindsight, we can clearly see how the Nazis were able to separate Jews from their countryfolks in what Snyder calls “the production of statelessness.”

I have read dozens of books about the Holocaust and WWII, yet I found myself continually amazed by this book, rethinking what I thought I understood with every chapter. Growing up, I often thought about The State and institutions in general with suspicion. Indeed, Nazi Germany is often held up in libertarian circles as an example of the destructive consequences of giving the state too much power to meddle in the lives of citizens.

Never before had I read such an in-depth, logical, thoughtful, impassioned argument for the ways in which strong institutions can protect us from the rule of brutality and madness. It is both a frightening and comforting thought: by protecting the institutions that uphold and make possible our civilized society, we can perhaps prevent such brutality on our own soil.

Review: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder, 5/5 stars. Everyone should read this book, it’s amazing.

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