Conflicting Perspectives on Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth

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Reviews by Michael Berenbaum and Jeffrey Herf

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015. 462 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by Michael Berenbaum, American Jewish University

Timothy Snyder’s much-acclaimed book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, published by Basic Books in 2010, aroused serious concern among many Holocaust historians. They feared that his emphasis on dou- ble genocide—German and Soviet—was a backdoor attempt to diminish the uniqueness and singularity of the Holocaust. In Black Earth Snyder’s emphasis on the Holocaust and its lessons should assuage these critics. Early in the book he writes: “The History of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal and its lessons have not yet been learned. . . . The Holocaust is not only history but warning.” He makes good on this promise, perhaps too good. He treats the Holocaust as the axial event of modern history, thus giving testimony to its centrality.

Jews are central to the history he narrates. He begins the same way many histories of the Holocaust must begin—with Adolf Hitler (no Hitler, no Holo- caust) and what he considers to be the two defining elements of Hitler’s world- view. Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum, defined not only as living space but as space to live well, makes the Ukraine a natural German target, for it is the breadbasket of Europe. For Hitler, the Volga was Germany’s Mississippi, and he admired the U.S. doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

According to Snyder’s understanding of Hitler, Jews were opposed for the values they brought into the world. Compassionate justice and assistance to the weak stood in the way of what Hitler saw as the natural order. In nature, he believed, the powerful exercise their power without restraint, and he advocated social Darwinism in it most extreme form. Jewish values were held not only by Jews, however. Christians who revered Jesus spread those values widely, but nowhere does Snyder explain why Christian churches did not see Hitler’s attack on the Jews as a masked attack on them. Nor does he indicate why the churches offered their formal and often enthusiastic support for the regime. An emphasis on Hitler is warranted up to a point, but in overemphasizing him Snyder seems to ignore the legions who supported him, enabled him, and carried out his vision.

Black Earth is also a Zionist book, insofar as Snyder explores the cooper- ation between right-wing Zionism and right-wing Polish nationalism in the post-Pilsudski age. Both movements wanted the Jews to leave Poland, the for- mer by “ascent to the land” and the latter by self-deportation. Neither could imagine how the Nazi regime would ultimately get Jews off Polish soil, and a reader of Black Earth who was unfamiliar with the history of Zionism would not know of the more important efforts of David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann (compared to Avraham Stern and Yitzhak Shamir) to establish the Jewish state. But in the deepest sense of the term, this is a Zionist work. Sny- der describes the vulnerability of those who were stateless and concurs with Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer’s judgment that “the murder of the European Jews seemed to vindicate the Zionist argument that there was no future for Jews in Europe.” The future of the Jews could take one of two forms: an end to landlessness and powerless in a state of their own or a secure place in pluralistic, democratic states that valued their participation as citizens.

There is much to admire in this book. Snyder writes clearly and com- pellingly about complex subjects. He personalizes the story and thus gives it a human voice even as he writes of massive depersonalizing violence. He probes the perpetrators, their victims, the bystanders and rescuers, the resis- tance fighters and the diverse native population.

Not surprisingly, Snyder centers this history on the badlands of Eastern Europe and returns to his consideration of double occupation, double destruc- tion, and double genocide, here adding the notion of double collaboration, the participation of the local population first in the Soviet enterprise of state destruction and then in the German occupation. Like Polish-American histo- rian Jan Gross, Snyder dismisses the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, which he sees as an all-too-convenient proposition useful to the Nazis, who depicted all Jews as Communists and all Communists as Jews, but equally useful to the local population to mask their role in Soviet collaboration—or to atone for it— and still retain the rewards available to the them from abandoned and looted Jewish possessions first confiscated by the Soviet Union and never returned because their owners were annihilated or because governments would not en- force property rights. Non-mobile possessions that German troops could not loot and that the German apparatus could not ship back to Germany were available as the spoils in lawless, stateless societies. Snyder gives Iosif Stalin his due in the state destruction and treats not only the SS but the Soviet state security organs, which, because they were more efficient and disciplined, may have been less lethal.

Poles were no different from other native populations in tending to hate those from whom they stole because they had stolen from them. In occupied Poland, theft of Jewish property did not make the Poles allies of the Germans, but it did make them seek to justify what they had done and support any policy that kept the Jews from returning.

In lands of double occupation and double destruction, the Germans’ and local residents’ claims about Jewish involvement in the Soviet occupa- tion glossed over the role of non-Jews, who in fact played an indispensable role for the Soviet occupation regime. The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, which endures even now insofar as it is needed to exculpate the locals, thus had the effect of allowing the.vast majority off Soviet collaborators (the non-Jews) to get off scot-free.

Clearly but subtly Snyder takes sides in some of the major historical debates. He is far more of a functionalist than an intentionalist. Nazi en- trepreneurs of violence took local initiatives, finding creative violent solutions for problems as they emerged Unlike Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who writes extensively of the movement from “eliminationalist” anti-Semitism to “ex- terminationist” anti-Semitism as a uniquely German phenomenon, Snyder maintains that the vast numbers of perpetrators who agreed to kill the Jews were just as eager to kill Gypsies or homosexuals or Soviet soldiers. “Einsatz- gruppen shot others besides Jews and others shot people other than Jews.”

His focus on the badlands limits him to one chapter on the death camps, which primarily considers Auschwitz as a symbol of the event and considers historiography and historical memory rather than actual history. Such major camps as Belz˙ec, where some 500,000 were murdered in ten months, and Tre- blinka, where some 900,000 were killed in thirteen months, are barely men- tioned, and Snyder does not give significant weight to the industrialization of the killing process. The Wannsee Conference gets but one mention, in part because Snyder is focused on the collapse of bureaucracy and the destruction of the states in the east rather than the operation of the complex bureaucra- cies of the Nazi German state. To fortify his thesis that bureaucracy protected Jews, he notes that at the lakeside Berlin mansion where the conference was held, a good deal of time was spent considering the responsibility of German bureaucrats for the German crime of mischlinge.

Sovereignty and bureaucracy, Snyder argues, helped the Jews to survive, whereas statelessness and anarchy yielded increased percentages of Jewish dead. What this leaves out, however, is that a sovereign state with multiple levels of bureaucracy initiated and sustained the mass murder. Citizenship, Snyder writes, “is meaningful only when recognized in reciprocity. Hitler was destroying the principle of citizenship when he destroyed a neighboring state, moving Germany along with Europe toward lawlessness.”

Snyder forces students of the Holocaust to consider the role of the state- less and the vulnerability of those who live in areas where the state has been destroyed. The implications for the contemporary Middle East are not dif- ficult to fathom. Snyder’s emphasis on local collaborators and the way the Germans used the political and material aspirations of the native population offers a more nuanced understanding of the motivations for collaboration and their participation in the murder of Jews with the Germans than merely at- tributing all this to native anti-Semitism. This approach underscores that how the past is recalled is often shaped by the contemporary agenda of a given so- ciety. We know that was true under Communism, and it may be no less true today under resurgent nationalism.

When Raul Hilberg was interviewed by Claude Lanzmann in Shoah, he said, “I never asked large questions because I was afraid that I would get small answers.” Snyder has asked large questions, and his last chapter could be rewritten as events in the Middle East and elsewheree unfold, recrafted again to accommodate debates over global warming and the accusation that science is merely disguised politics. We must regard Snyder’s final chapter, “Our World,” as a snapshot in time, a warning that could be issued again and again. As for apocalyptic thinking, Snyder writes: “Confidence in duration is the antidote to panic”:

Still in a book that asks such large questions, its conclusions do not quite rise to the challenge.

The importance of this book may compel other historians to consider the role of state destruction in the murder of the Jews and in other genocides; it will also invite students of genocide to consider the struggle over resources in a world of scarcity and may make politicians aware of the destructive side of anarchy and the violence it promotes.

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015. 462 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Herf, University of Maryland at College Park

Faced with the massive scholarship on the Holocaust, authors have only two ways to make an original contribution to knowledge. The first comes of years of original research in previously unexamined or underexamined archives, and the second is to offer a novel synthesis based on a sound grasp of the scholarship. In Black Earth, Timothy Snyder, the author of Bloodlands: Eu- rope between Hitler and Stalin promises a fresh interpretation of these ghastly events. Yet the book does not rest on new research, nor is his grasp of primary and secondary scholarship sound. His efforts to connect Adolf Hitler’s views to the issue of ecology and saving humanity today strain credulity. His argu- ments about the connections between the crimes of Communism in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Eastern Europe and the Nazi slogans about Jewish Bol- shevism are plausible but hardly novel.

The historian’s craft that stood out in Snyder’s earlier works on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is not in evidence in Black Earth. In place of a careful scholar’s linkage of assertion to sources in traditional footnotes, Snyder offers us whole paragraphs with no numbered footnotes. A phrase in the first sentence leads the reader to notes with a variety of sources, none of which is linked in the text to a specific factual assertion. The result is confusing at best, as the precise source of a particular quotation or assertion is often impos- sible to discern. The cumulative impact increased this reader’s doubts about Snyder’s factual accuracy. No matter how interesting, bold, or path-breaking a claim may be, it falls apart if the link between assertion and evidence is weak or impossible to discern.

The problems begin with the first chapter, “Hitler’s World,” in which some assertions about Hitler are embarrassingly false. Snyder writes, for exam- ple, that “Hitler saw the species as divided into races, but denied that the Jews were one. Jews were not a lower or a higher race, but a nonrace, or a coun- terrace. Races followed nature and fought for land and food, whereas Jews followed the alien logic of ‘un-nature.’” (p. 5). The footnote refers to pages 69 and 298 in the 1939 German edition of Mein Kampf. Unable to find the same edition, I examined the 1936 German edition. I could not find textual evi- dence to support those assertions. However, on page 387 of the 1936 edition and page 307 of the standard 1943 English edition, Hitler writes, “On this first and greatest lie, that the Jews are not a race but a religion, more and more lies are based in necessary consequence.” Because Hitler’s views that the Jews were indeed a race were repeated in speeches throughout his career, before and after he came to power in 1933, it is difficult to understand why a historian of Snyder’s caliber would make an error of fact about such an elementary issue.

Snyder compounds his misinterpretation of Hitler with statements such as the following: “after murder, Hitler thought, the next human duty was sex and reproduction” (p. 4). I looked without success in both English- and German-language editions of Mein Kampf for Hitler’s assertion that murder was a human duty. Snyder writes that “Hitler’s basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that human beings were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption” (p. 5). The notes for this assertion refer to three works of commentary on Hitler but not to his texts. Neither in Mein Kampf nor, as far as I know, in any of his many speeches while in power did Hitler say that human beings in general were animals. Rather, he repeatedly asserted that Germans or Aryans were superior human beings—and thus not animals. They were threatened by the less-than-human Jews, whom he did associate with despised animals such as vermin.

These basic errors cast doubt on Snyder’s nod to the spirit of our times when he contends that for Hitler “the struggle against the Jews was ecologi- cal since it concerned not a specific racial enemy or territory but the condi- tions of life on earth.” Yet any examination of Hitler’s works confirms that the “struggle against the Jews” was very much one waged against “a specific racial enemy.” For Hitler the war against what he called “international Jewry” had global dimensions, but it was not about “the conditions of life on earth”— whatever that might mean. The opening chapter is not a reliable summary of “Hitler’s world.”

This pattern of a loose connection between assertion and evidence repeats itself in subsequent chapters on Hitler’s views on living space and on race and war in Eastern Europe. The absence of a proper scholarly footnote apparatus might suggest that Snyder is a source of remarkably original insights about the history of Nazi Germany. His fellow scholars, however, will realize that he is synthesizing the views of others who are inadequately acknowledged in the confusing notes. Snyder is correct in pointing out that “the Judeobolshevik” myth was central to Hitler’s worldview, though scholars have been writing about this theme for decades. Snyder, again without a careful exposition of Hitler’s own views, writes: “In Hitler’s ecology, the planet was despoiled by the presence of Jews, who defied the laws of nature by introducing corrupting ideas” (p. 28). Yet Hitler did not have an “ecology,” and he did not write about “the planet.” He wrote about the threats to Germany, Europe, and the “Aryan race” posed by a mythic subject called “international Jewry.” Nazism’s blend of modern and anti-modern views of modern technology and industry is by now a commonplace in the historiography, but this bundle of ideas was not a form of ecology. Snyder’s discussions of the enormous crimes committed by the Nazi regime toward the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is generally accurate but adds nothing to the vast scholarship on the topic. He writes that for Hitler the “removal of millions of Jews from Europe . . . was part of a vast project of ecological restoration, in which the elimination of Jews after a German victory would repair the planet” (p. 32). He offers no source to support the idea that Hitler’s crimes were part of a project of “ecological restoration.” His projection of today’s political language about climate change back into Hitler’s implementation of the Holocaust is unconvincing.

Snyder is on firmer ground in his discussion of the Polish government’s support for emigration of Jews from Europe and for a Jewish state in Pales- tine and of its failure to grasp the genocidal nature of German policy toward the Jews. Yet here he oddly pays inordinate attention to the Revisionist Zion- ists in Irgun and slights the greater impact and numbers of the centrist and left-leaning Zionist supporters of the Haganah, even though he acknowledges that the latter were the main Jewish self-defense force in Palestine. That said, his chapter on Poland and the Jews in the 1930s, though marred again by the confusing footnote apparatus, is a useful synthesis of this less-well-known aspect of Polish government policy before the Holocaust.

One of Snyder’s core arguments is that the Holocaust, rather than being attributable to the overwhelming power of the Nazi state, was most devastat- ing to the Jews where states were destroyed and the rule of law gave way to lawlessness. He makes the reasonable point that “the destruction of the Polish state had the greatest consequences for Poland’s Jews” because “minorities de- pend most on the protection of the state and upon the rule of law” (p. 107). He focuses on the weakness or destruction of the states occupied by the Nazis. Yet the Germans filled the vacuum with the power, laws, and prerogatives of their occupation regimes. The destruction of some states by the Nazis meant not the absence of state structures but their replacement by those of German occupation regimes. In one sense Snyder is right to stress that the Holocaust took place in “a zone of lawlessness” and that the destruction of the rule of law and its associated ideas about rights and citizenship were preconditions for mass murder. Yet again, the lawlessness (and thus criminal nature) of the Nazi regime was at the heart of the Nuremberg war crimes trials, one pur- pose of which was to restore the idea of the rule of law. The Nazi legal order, what Saul Friedländer calls its “spirit of laws,” embedded racism and radical anti-Semitism in state-sponsored legal structures. A mixture of lawlessness and anti-Semitic legislation justified and facilitated mass murder.

Snyder’s most important contribution in the book concerns the inter- action of the Soviet and German “double occupation” of Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine. Here again, drawing on predecessors such as Jan Gross and François Furet, as well as his own work in Bloodlands, Snyder makes a good case that the crimes of Communism in Eastern Europe before World War II deepened a reservoir of popular anti-Semitism because of the identifi- cation of the Jews with the Communists. He writes:

The special Nazi enmity to Jews put them in a different position from all of their neighbors under Soviet power in 1939 and 1940, which could at least imagine that a German invasion would put Soviet repression to an end. The combination of a German threat and a Soviet reality left Jews doubly vulnerable. Given their greater fear of Nazi Germany, Jews could seem like the collective ally of the Soviet power that had in fact just dismantled their traditional communities and deported or killed many of their most active men and women. (p. 138)

Soviet repression in Ukraine, in the Baltic states, and in Poland before June 1941 and the association of Jews with the Soviet Union created hatreds that assisted the efforts of the Einsatzgruppen to find willing accomplices for mass murder of Jews. Although the association of the Jews with Communism before and during the Holocaust has been a frequent leitmotif of scholarship, Snyder examines the deadly dialectic of mutually reinforcing hatreds with clarity and subtlety.

In the concluding chapter, Snyder opines about global climate change and takes a swipe at U.S. evangelical Christians who both support Israel and “deny the reality of climate change while supporting hydrocarbon policies that accelerate it” (p. 335). He ominously concludes that “understanding the Holo- caust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity” (p. 342). Yet in examining the contemporary implications of the history of the Holocaust, Snyder surprisingly has nothing to say about contemporary anti-Semitism. As he was writing those lines, new forms of anti-Semitism were becoming em- bedded in terrorist movements inspired by radical Islamism. The government of Iran was seeking nuclear weapons and declaring that the state of Israel was a cancer to be eliminated. The terrorist organization Hamas celebrated the ideas of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and some Western academic organizations favored boycotting the Jewish state.

The Black Earth is an odd mixture of some plausible insights along with too many insufficiently supported assertions. In a culture saturated with social media and evidence-free assertions on the Internet, writers and publishers, commercial as well as academic, should return to basic principles enshrined in the painstakingly written footnote that clearly connects assertion to source. Readers should be willing to read a page of text with numbers that point clearly and properly to specific sources. The footnote was a child of the great democratic revolutions that gave rise to the modern discipline of history. It was a glorious invention, a bold stroke against the premodern claims of authority by those who thought their assertions did not need to be clearly attached to sources. Snyder is a fine practitioner of the modern historians’ craft, but he has not used it well in The Black Earth.

Journal of Cold War Studies
Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall 2017, pp. 226–233, doi:10.1162/JCWS_c_00772
© 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology