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Timothy Snyder’s Analysis of the Holocaust
by Anna Wrobel
From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
Discussed in this essay: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder. Tim Duggin Books, 2015, 480 pages.
TIMOTHY SNYDER’S Black Earth, like his Bloodlands (2010), plumbs and synthesizes a great trove of primary and secondary sources. I appreciate Professor Snyder’s deep conviction regarding the historian’s role beyond chronicler, as indicated by his subtitle: “The Holocaust as History and Warning.” Prophetic tones sound throughout the book, but it is not precisely a jeremiad, as Snyder seeks to explicate the actions of some of the sinners rather than merely condemning them with prophetic wrath. He conveys the hard knowledge that, given extremely dire situations and conditions, few of us would be the righteous selves we imagine ourselves to be.
Black Earth serves as a response to critics of Bloodlands who charged that Snyder had reduced the Holocaust into simply one episode, if the worst, of the extensive blood-letting that took place almost continuously in the war-ridden zone between Germany and Russia from World War I until the end of World War II. The fact is that Baltic and Eastern European peoples and states did suffer through murderous aggressions by both the Soviets and the Nazis, simultaneously or in turn. In both of his books, Snyder faults the Nazis as the greater evil, but will not excuse the brutal Stalinist policies that, in his view, fed the fertile soil of Jew-hatred, mass murder, and local collaboration.
He mobilizes much research about the territories where the most mass killing occurred, in all its unthinkable phases: from bullets and pits to gas vans to death factories like Treblinka (where members of my parents’ families last breathed) to final-stage murder by the highly rationalized, industrialized, and profitable procedures of Auschwitz/Birkenau. Although a key symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz, with its elaborate systems of train transport and its clinical, bureaucratic methods of killing, was actually a departure from the Final Solution’s original methods, which were local, intimate, personal, and anything but tidy.
SNYDER MAKES a convincing case that the destruction of nation-states in Central and Eastern Europe by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany created anarchic, stateless “dark zones” and “black holes” in which mass murder and manipulation of local populations could be intensively mobilized through sheer terror, and that the Jewish death rate was therefore made worse by the destruction of state sovereignty. Critics have noted that existing states also did vast harm to Jews, such as in France, where the state bureaucracy aided in round-ups and deportations — and Snyder acknowledges the complexities of relatively functioning states and addresses the harm done to Jews by several of them — but his view is supported by the fact that the states of Western Europe rarely did the murdering themselves. Even most German Jews were not slaughtered in Germany, but instead were deported to the East — and some state bureaucracies, as in Italy and Bulgaria, intentionally obstructed deportation of Jews to death camps. Not all demonstrated the “banality of evil.” Even sovereign states that were in league with Nazi Germany, like Hungary and Romania, while viciously anti-Semitic and murderous in their own right, began to protect rather than to continue killing Jews as Allied victories mounted.
Snyder’s rigorous investigation traverses countries from Denmark to Estonia to provide scenarios of how states with some structure differed from states that were dissolved and destroyed. He argues that the nation-state structure provided, at least in theory, the predictability of law and some protection for its citizens, whereas destroyed states could not. It is small comfort to those vast numbers killed on the spot or transported to death by functioning states, but the fact is that the Final Solution resulted in fewer dead Jews in those places than in zones, like Ukraine and Poland, where states had been abolished. There, dead Jewish bodies reached upwards of 90 percent.
Concern for the nation itself might prevent a state from going off the ideological cliff. In interviews, Snyder has suggested that Iran would not place its hatred of Israel before its rational national interests. (That’s to be seen, of course, as Iran launches its third official Holocaust Cartoon Contest, the winner to receive $50,000 for the vilest representation of Jews and Israel.)
MY MOTHER ETA would say her Holocaust began the day Germans marched into her town of Lukow in autumn of 1939, after massive bombing and shooting of Polish Catholics and Jews alike. Much of Poland was put under the authority of the General Gouvernment presided over by Hitler’s lawyer, the viciously anti-Semitic Hans Frank. The deadly Four Decrees of Poland, regulating Jewish existence, supplanted all local and national law. For the folks of Lukow, there was no longer a Poland. (Soviet convoys did transport a number of young Jewish men and women into Russia, including my father Henry, his two brothers, and a sister.)
Snyder links this destruction of states to Hitler’s belief that violent and eternal struggle between races — seen by Hitler as almost akin to species — would prove ‘Aryan’ supremacy. National boundaries were to be eliminated for ‘Aryan’ survival and expansion, the survival of all other race-species be damned. Humanistic views and universalist ideals were seen as unnatural abstractions created by Jews to undermine and overpower natural racial competition. Jews were regarded not as an inferior race, but as a non-race, or a powerful counter-race. “Race was real,” writes Snyder,
whereas individuals and classes were fleeting and erroneous constructions. Struggle was not a metaphor or an analogy, but a tangible and total truth. The weak were to be dominated by the strong... And that was all that there was to be known and believed.
Hitler’s war was thus two-fold, the one for colonial and territorial expansion to work in tandem with the war against the Jews. That the latter continued fully and speedily even as Nazi Germany’s military prospects waned underscores Snyder’s view that Hitler actually cared more for racial than national victory.
Deeply immersed in Hitler’s own words, Snyder posits that while Hitler used German nationalism to rouse a humiliated people and enthrall them romantically to the glory of German strength, he actually intended to do away with the German state in favor of an ever-expanding territory of conquered lands, where ‘inferior’ natives would be killed and enslaved in the eternal (if perverse) ecology of racial struggle. “The state is a means to an end,” the dictator wrote. “The end is the maintenance of the race.” Snyder counterposes the relative stability of the nation-state to this expansionist vision, but does not address distinctions between a civic definition of citizenship and an ethnic definition, the first being inclusive and pluralistic while the latter tends to exclusion and homogeneity. Nationhood is not a simple and monolithic good. As nations continue to struggle, at times violently, with these conflicting paradigms, Snyder’s sanguine view of nation-states appears somewhat idyllic.
It was Germany’s need for food, following much privation during and after World War I, that drove the Nazis into a hyper-expansionist colonial desire for the fertile agrarian soil of the Ukraine and for “Lebensraum” (living space), with the American West as paradigm, says Snyder. Typically interpreted as the impulse to conquest, Lebensraum also carried the connotation of greater domestic comfort, as did the Manifest Destiny of the U.S. and the colonial reach of empires from Rome to Britain. The lure of foreign military adventurism often carries with it the promise that mom and the kids back home will have the standard of living they so richly deserve, if lands and resources can be ripped from peoples seen as worthless, except perhaps as slaves.
Snyder says much in early chapters about the war-induced and Stalin-induced starvation that the Nazis exploited to pacify locals and recruit collaborators. This powerful emphasis on starvation especially informs his conclusion, in which he discusses how famines, scarcity, and environmental crises loom as factors of state instability and genocide in our own time.
SNYDER DEPICTS how Nazis were able to exploit what he terms psychological, material, and political resources to mobilize local collaborators in the mass murder of their Jewish neighbors and countrymen. He repeatedly reminds us that in many cases, prior Soviet occupation influenced how local populations responded to Nazi domination as they transited quickly from one brutality to the other, and he makes a case for local killers often being the same people who’d collaborated with Soviets in earlier days. In the violent chaos, switching sides, settling scores, and seeking to please the rulers were commonplace amongst those who displayed a willingness to do awful things. The S.S. would ‘liberate’ locals from Jewish Communists who ruled the Soviet Union, and offer absolution to those who worked with the Soviets through the “self-cleansing” initiation mechanism of killing a Jew and verifying this to the S.S. This psychological resource was a powerful component in getting local populations to reject their Jewish neighbors as Judeo-Bolsheviks while rationalizing away their guilt. (That the Soviet NKVD also killed Jews as they retreated before the German invasion, Snyder observes, was a well-hidden fact.)
He makes clear that the vast majority of Jews were not, in fact, Communists — and that what he calls “traditional anti-Semitism” alone would not have been enough to arouse so much local murder. Under both Soviet and Nazi regimes, most people tended to the passive, hoping simply to survive the ongoing carnage. Had violence not come knocking in the form of two brutal regimes, the Soviet and the Nazi, most folks would have lived quietly with their likes and dislikes, their tolerance and their prejudices. The Nazis, however, comprehended the binding nature of property, and enabled many locals to benefit materially from the erasure of Jews and to participate in the blackmailing and denouncing of Jews and the rare brave souls who helped them.
Lacking from Snyder’s discussion is the radical shock and disorientation felt by Jews when people they often knew committed ‘intimate’ acts of violence, including a massive number of rapes before killing them. Of the 1,500 shooters at Babi Yar, for example, over 1,200 were local Ukrainians, according to Professor John Roth, an expert in the field. Jews had long been the victims of chronic pogroms from one end of the continent to the other, but the 1930s and ’40s were so quantitatively extreme as to be qualitatively a different animal.
Unfortunately, Snyder is reluctant to explicate “traditional anti-Semitism” beyond a very few words. In Bloodlands, he flattened the uniquely defined murder of Jews against all murders, 1933-’45; in Black Earth, dealing specifically with the Holocaust, he flattens out to the point of evasion the major underpinnings for the demonization of Jews.
He does not, for example, discuss the long history of Christian hostility, demonology, torture, rape, and killing of Jews that persisted for almost as long as they existed in European Christian civilization. Jews were the ideological and often physical punching bag of official Christendom as well as aroused common folk. The former equivocated between being the catalyst for pogroms and the leash to reign them in, but was consistent in condemning Jews as Christ-killers and deniers deserving of misery for spiritual error. Anti-Jewish demonic imagery was literally carved in stone on churches across Europe. Over centuries, religious hostility merged with other forms — social, economic, political — and by modern times with ethnic nationalism and racialism.
There were countervailing trends, of course, for tolerance, emancipation and inclusion, but Christian antipathy, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, scarcely abated. It was anti-Semitic doctrine that Jews represented the eternal threat of dissonance and dissent. (Nazis derogatorily referred to any debate as “a Jew school.”) Only when Nazi ideology supplanted the moral and religious authority of the Church did a tiny contingent of German Protestants begin to protest, and Christian nations fighting the Nazis did so for reasons having nothing to do with Jews — and did almost nothing to rescue Jews before or during the war.
BLACK EARTH is a sweeping survey of conditions that made the mass murder of Jews (and others) possible with the willing aid of many locals. In his largely successful attempt to be comprehensive, Snyder strays into entire chapters of digression that could have been integrated into other chapters more firmly rooted in his theses. One such chapter concerns the post-Pilsudski policy of Jewish emigration out of Poland, and relations between the Polish government and rightwing Zionists who were also seeking to promote Jewish emigration to a proposed state in Palestine. A fascinating chapter, but to what purpose? To convey the profound state consciousness of Poland and its impact on the Polish Jewish conception of statehood? Why, then, no mention of leftwing Zionists, since their movement was to lead the first decades of Israeli statehood? Did Polish yearning for a long lost return to nationhood influence them, too? Was the Polish government too rightist after 1935 to deal with a leftist movement? I was left with as many questions as revelations.
Another chapter that does not gel is one on partisan resistance, particularly of Russian units, sometimes including Jews. Snyder depicts how Soviet-backed resistance had the effect of creating ever more collaboration with the Nazis due to local nationalist and anti-Bolshevik goals. Here he once more flattens one group against another, giving the impression that anti-Nazi resistance was just another nail in the coffin for the Jews, as local pro-Nazis went into even higher gear about Judeo-Bolsheviks. This may be an accurate accounting of events, but the motives of those taking desperate action against the mass murder of diverse Soviet peoples, including Jews, should not be equated with those who largely volunteered to do much of the dirty work of the Final Solution.
In the same manner, Snyder lumps all police forces into one mass — the S.S., Wehrmacht Police Battalions, Trawniki guards, local police forces, and the Jewish police — regarding their roles in Jewish deportation. Without apology for those Jewish police who abused their positions, it is critical to note that many did favors for Jews and were themselves slated for extermination. And of these varied police units, only the Jewish police did not carry out mass killing.
The clearest weakness of a worthy if controversial book is Snyder’s “Conclusion: Our World.” He writes:
German occupation destroyed the institutions that made ideas of reciprocity seem plausible... creating the abyss where racism and politics pulled together towards nothingness... When none of the moral illuminations of institutions were present, kindness was all that remained, and the pale light of the individual rescuers shone.... There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930’s and 1940’s... If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so.
The concept of structures of rescue is potent, but Snyder does not propose any organizing principles for such an urgent and global project. He reviews the Rwandan genocide of the recent past, and speculates almost wildly on global crises that may result from climate change, famine, state disruptions, ethnic nationalisms, Russia, China, nuclear proliferation, etc. Africa is portrayed as a sitting duck due to its percentage of the world’s arable lands for a food-strapped world. Snyder is correct to scream “Fire!” and pull the alarm, but he does not imagine constructive alternatives if the epoch of nation-states should be nearing its end.
In spite of several flaws, Black Earth is a rich examination of what brutal chaos may ensue when great powers set their sights on other lands’ resources and peoples. In combination with Bloodlands, the book has rightfully placed Timothy Snyder in the public forum. His purpose is to urge functioning states to look squarely at the closing window of opportunity to work together to resolve major environmental and economic crises. Snyder’s heart is with tikkun olam, and for that, I have respect and a certain affection for this historian-prophet.
Anna Wrobel, a contributing writer to our magazine, is the author of Marengo Street: Selected Poems (2012, Moon Pie Press). She recently retired as a history teacher. Her most recent article for Jewish Currents was “Protecting the Victims Again: The Continuum between Resisters and Victims,” in our special issue on Jewish resistance to Nazism.