Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wednesday, June 24, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Black Earth

Crown: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

Crown: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

Crown: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

Crown: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

by Timothy Snyder

In 1941, a German soldier wrote to his wife from Soviet Belarus, describing killing Jews in the city of Mahileu on October 2 and 3: "During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse.... Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water."

What perverse circumstances led to this scene of horror, repeated a thousandfold across Eastern Europe during the Second World War? Can politics or propaganda alone account for a father murdering babies? Could this happen again? Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin) confronts these and other questions in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

Any understanding of the Holocaust must begin with Adolf Hitler's bizarre racial cosmology. According to Hitler, humanity was divided into tiers of races, from the superior Germanic/Aryan master race to the inferior Slavic race, all caught in an eternal struggle for world domination. The natural order was bloody warfare to determine the triumphant race. To Hitler, "Eden was not a garden but a trench," Snyder writes.

But Hitler's ideal order had been subverted. Instead of an all-consuming race war, he believed the world was enthralled by the false moral rules of inhuman beings, a non-race, the Jews. Global Jewry conspired to keep the Aryan race from achieving its true potential, and traitorous Jews within Germany were responsible for the calamity of World War I.

The German state (like any other state in Hitler's worldview, legitimized only as a tool of racial power) was kept weak by a lack of colonial possessions. To become great, Hitler thought Germany needed the raw materials and open space of Eastern Europe. Snyder argues that Hitler was responding to what would have felt like an impending ecological catastrophe: without the "black earth" of fertile Ukraine, Germany would remain a net food importer, at the mercy of neighbors with whom Hitler planned to wage war. Expansion to the east, or Lebensraum, became an obsession. Hitler would use African-style colonialism on his European neighbors.

The "Jewish question" was not unique to Nazi Germany. Other states openly debated how to handle their large Jewish minorities prior to World War II. Poland, center of the largest Jewish population in Europe before the Holocaust, supported Zionist settlement in Palestine. Snyder argues that Hitler thought of Poland as a potential ally against Soviet Russia in the mid-1930s, until differences in the "Jewish question" made his temporary pact with Stalin more politically tenable. Carving up Poland with the Soviets in 1939 created the direct land border Hitler needed for his later invasion of Russia and, Snyder says, set the stage for the Holocaust by obliterating Polish statehood.

At the onset of World War II, Snyder writes, Hitler did not necessarily intend to immediately murder millions of Jews. The Führer envisioned Jewish outposts in distant Siberia, beyond the fertile lands where Slavs would be used as slave labor. The early stages of the Holocaust were far different from the popular images of industrialized death camps and gas chambers. Most of the Jews killed in Eastern Europe and the occupied Soviet Union died from mass shootings, often with eager assistance from non-Jewish locals.

The worst death rates occurred in areas where the Nazis, or the Soviets and then the Nazis, had destroyed the existing political order. Snyder conclusively correlates statehood with survival rates, making citizenship the most valuable asset for a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe (even German Jews were safer than Polish Jews). As the war turned against Hitler, the Holocaust gained an urgency that spawned the infamous death camps like Treblinka and Chełmno. Snyder devotes an entire chapter to Auschwitz, its flawed role as a symbol for the entire Holocaust, and how citizenship offered some protection to Jews.

Germany's potential future food shortages would have been addressed by the agricultural Green Revolution later in the 20th-century. But, Snyder says, that revolution may have met its match with rising demand for better standards of living in industrializing countries and ecological uncertainty caused by global warming. This atmosphere of catastrophism might now and in the future be conducive to the sorts of radical actions espoused by Hitlerian politics, and minority groups will always be at risk during times of crisis (see Vladimir Putin's references to a global "gay lobby," not to mention his actions in Ukraine that are so reminiscent of Hitler's foreign policy). Snyder argues that the contemporary world has much in common with the preconditions of the Holocaust.

Black Earth is as fascinating as it is horrifying. Snyder combines broad historical overviews with impeccably curated personal stories into a masterful portrait of humanity's lowest point. His convincing original arguments make Black Earth not only an engaging read, but an important piece of scholarly work. Snyder's theory on the safety inherent in statehood also has practical applications. As he points out, it undermines the American foreign policy tenet of overthrowing tyrannical governments to save oppressed people, as evidenced by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which left the type of lawlessness that breeds atrocities. With the conditions for genocide always one political calamity away, we cannot afford to misinterpret the lessons of the Holocaust. Black Earth is another means to ensure the promise of "never again." --Tobias Mutter

Tim Duggan Books, $30, hardcover, 9781101903452, September 8, 2015

Crown: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder: All History Is Contemporary History

photo: Ine Gundersveen

Timothy Snyder is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and the new Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. He is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences. He lives in New Haven, Conn.

How did you come to study the Holocaust?

This is a book that begins from the world where I work and live, the cities and countryside of eastern and central Europe, the places where Jews once lived in the millions. The absences are real for me, but so are the peoples and societies that remain. I am sitting at a café in Vienna; 20 feet from me are memorial plaques to murdered Jews who once lived in a neighboring building. That is not just this street or Vienna but a large part of this whole continent, whether memorialized or not.

A true history of the Holocaust has to explain how and why Jews could have lived in such numbers in so much of Europe as well as how they could have been murdered on such a scale and so quickly. The Holocaust is in part the history of an idea, Hitler's, of how the planet and how Europe should emerge from crisis as something different and, in his view, pure. It is also the history of how a moment of crisis can be steered towards catastrophe.

What was your motivation for writing Black Earth? The structure of your argument and the historical lens you use differs from many other works that seek to examine the Holocaust.

The ways that the book is structured has to do with a long contemplation of the problem. Thanks to the work of German historians and certain memoirs, we have an excellent sense of the history of Hitler's political rise in Germany as well as the experience of German Jews. But I don't think that the history of Germany, or of the Jews of Germany, is sufficient as an account or as an explanation of the Holocaust. The killings took place beyond the borders of prewar Germany, roughly half of the killers were not German, and the vast majority of the Jewish victims had nothing to do with Germany. My book begins with Hitler because he had a certain vision of a planet without Jews. He could only begin to realize such a vision after German power destroyed the states where large numbers of Jews lived.

You go into an impressive amount of detail about the different conditions in Germany's pre-WWII neighbors--Poland, Austria and the Baltic states.

If we want to understand the horror and the scale of the Holocaust, if we want the event to seem real and reach us, we must have some sense of Jews as they lived. Only about 3% of the victims of the Holocaust were German Jews. I try to give the reader at least some idea of how the rest of the Jews lived in Europe before the mass killing began in 1941. But the politics of Germany's neighbors is important for another reason as well. The Final Solution became the Holocaust in the years 1938 to 1941 as German power destroyed those neighboring states. The creation of political vacuums created new vulnerabilities for Jews and zones of experimentation where techniques of mass murder could be developed.

The Nazis were not following a master plan. They were implementing a general idea. They learned how they could do so as they broke the political structures of their neighbors. So a serious history of the Holocaust must follow the Germans beyond Germany and describe and analyze the opportunities they found, the politics they developed, the killing techniques they created and perfected--all beyond prewar Germany. We have to see Europe before it was destroyed to have a sense of all this.

Hitler thought part of the reason the U.S. was such a successful empire was because one of the very first steps America took as a new nation was to completely annihilate the native population of the continent. Hitler wanted to do the same to the Europe, starting with the Slavs to the east, then, ultimately, the Jews.

We have to remember that American history was global history as it was happening. The conquest of the American West was, among other things, a project of European frontier settlement. It was admired by Europeans generally, including, for example, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. At the time of Hitler's youth, Germans saw the expansion of the U.S. as an impressive, even heroic story. German colonizers of Africa explicitly referred to the American model. Hitler's innovation was to argue that Europeans could treat other Europeans as racial inferiors, and conquer, displace and destroy them as Europeans had done to other peoples. He thought that a war of destruction and starvation against Slavs would allow American history to repeat itself in Europe.

For Hitler, Jews were the people who stood in the way of such a deed. He believed that the world was in reality nothing but a site for racial struggle for food and resources. He claimed that the Jews were responsible for all of the ideas--ethical, religious, political, scientific--that allow us to see the world in any other way.

Black Earth challenges WWII history as a tidy picture--the U.S. as heroic liberator and Nazis as pure, unadulterated evil. Do you think the fact that Hitler took political inspiration from the United States will surprise readers?

What we need to understand is how Germans and Austrians became Nazis. We need to understand that 90% of the time that we write "Nazis" we actually just mean Germans. Most of the things we attribute to "Nazis" were matters of German policy carried out by people who were Nazis as well as by people who were not. And very often the killers in the Holocaust were neither Nazis nor Germans. I sometimes think that in America things have gone so far that when we say "Nazi" we are closing a discussion rather than opening it.

Good history is always surprising because we tend to forget what is inconvenient. What I have tried to write is a global history of the Holocaust, one in which readers from America but also readers throughout Europe, from Israel and around the world will find points of reference and perhaps reasons for surprise. But, yes, now that you mention it, I suppose the fact that Hitler admired the United States will be something new for most American readers.

We generally remember only the war itself, when Nazi propaganda was of course anti-American. We do not remember that the formation of the United States was itself an example for many Europeans--not just Hitler--of what could be achieved by extermination and slavery. We do not remember, for that matter, how important anti-Semitism was in this country before and indeed during the Second World War.

The second half of my book is a history of rescue, and here we see the realities but also the limits of America's war against Germany. Most of the Holocaust had already taken place by the time American soldiers landed on Normandy. Although American soldiers reached and liberated some concentration camps, they saw none of the death pits or killing facilities further east, where the Holocaust actually took place. These were all liberated by the Red Army, which bore the brunt of the German attack, took the most casualties and inflicted the most damage. But here the story is far from unambiguous, since the Soviet Union began the war in 1939 as an ally of Nazi Germany. The Holocaust began in 1941 on territories that the Soviet Union had conquered first, which were then invaded by Nazi Germany.

Auschwitz is often considered a symbol for the whole of the Holocaust. You consider this an oversimplified and dangerous precedent.

God forbid that we forget Auschwitz. It is a place where more than a million human beings were murdered, the vast majority of them Jews, but also Poles, Soviet citizens, and gypsies. But if we wish to remember and especially understand the Holocaust, we must start from the basic fact that the Holocaust is much, much larger than Auschwitz.

About four-fifths of the Jewish victims were murdered somewhere else, and most of them were dead before Auschwitz even became a major killing site. These were people who were killed over death pits or sent to death factories that we often forget about--Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec, Chelmno. The vast majority of these people were Polish and Soviet Jews, peoples whose individual histories we have often lost behind the Iron Curtain along with the general history of eastern Europe. Any description of the Holocaust must include these people--and here we are so fortunate to have a wealth of testimonies from survivors in their own languages. These sources, largely unused, are a major source of the book.

Black Earth approaches the Holocaust as history but also as a warning for the future. Are we making mistakes now that could breed a larger global catastrophe?

All history is contemporary history, in the sense that everything that has happened in the past in some way is present with us now. My basic concern is that we tend to see as "lessons" the things that confirm the way we live now, and ignore or even misunderstand the causes of the Holocaust that might demand a more critical look at ourselves and our world. Our whole debate about government, both in the academy and in political life, has taken the lesson from the Holocaust that structure is oppressive. In fact, Nazi Germany involved the subversion of a conventional state, and the Holocaust required the destruction of neighboring states.

When we do not see this, we can undervalue the significance of traditional institutions and make bad arguments for destroying other states. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is an example of this. We are still paying for that mistake and will likely be paying for decades. Hitler's politics began from the idea that the planet was in an ecological crisis that would bring shortages and suffering even to developed countries like Germany. Rather than address this crisis by science, which he denounced as a Jewish fraud, he characterized it as the fault of a specific group of human beings: the Jews. We can never know for sure who will propagate such ideas or when they will resonate. But we should be aware that, as we enter an age of real ecological crisis, our choices about whether to address it with technology or with rhetoric may have far greater consequences than we realize. --Jarret Middleton

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