Black Earth

Just finished reading “Black Earth: The Holocaust as history and warning” by Timothy Snyder. It is a detailed account of the Holocaust, as well as an effort to abstract lessons from this history for our time.

Like his book “Bloodlands,” Snyder’s “Black Earth” makes for painful reading. As the grandson of a Ukrainian Jew and the son of a Jew, I would have been targeted in the Holocaust had I been in the wrong place. I had read several histories of Europe in World War II that included the Holocaust. I knew the basic story of the Holocaust and Hitler’s anti-Semitic vision. I learned a great deal by reading this book.

I won’t belabor the ghoulish atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators. To summarize them here would be to trivialize the enormity of the crimes and invite pointless debate about who did what and who suffered more. You’ll have to read the book to understand Snyder’s historical insights. However, I learned many things that I did not know by reading this book:

• the “Final Solution” for European Jewry as envisioned by the Nazis evolved from the beginning of WWII in 1939. In its initial form, Jews were meant to be deported, initially to Madagascar and then, with the success of Operation Barbarossa, across the Urals to Eastern Russia. The wholesale murder of Jewish women and children as well as men began with shooting them in pits by the Einsatzgruppen behind the Wehrmacht lines as the Nazis pressed into the USSR, then morphed into the death camps at Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka as the Nazi program to occupy the USSR failed;

• if you were a Jew in Germany in 1939, you stood a better chance of surviving the war than if you were a Jew in Poland, Ukraine or Eastern Russia. If you were a French Jew in France, you were more likely to survive than if you were a Jewish refugee living in France. If you were a Jew in Norway, you were far more likely to survive German occupation than if you were a Jew in Nazi-occupied Estonia;

• A major key to life or death for Jews in occupied Europe was whether they remained in a state or found themselves living in a place where the state had been destroyed. This was particularly the case for the Eastern European lands initially occupied by the USSR as part of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact in 1939, then overrun by the Nazi invasion of Operation Barbarossa, then re-occupied by the Red Army as the Nazis were pushed westward.

Hitler and the Nazis were driven by an ecological eliminationist vision that was clearly articulated in Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf”:

“The Holocaust began with the idea that no human instinct was moral. Hitler described humans as members of races doomed to eternal and bloody struggle among themselves for finite resources. Hitler denied that any idea, be it religious, philosophical, or political, justified seeing the other (or loving the other) as oneself. He claimed that conventional forms of ethics were Jewish inventions, and that conventional states would collapse during the racial struggle. Throughout Europe, but to different degrees in different places, German occupation destroyed the institutions that made ideas of reciprocity seem plausible. Where Germans obliterated conventional states, or annihilated Soviet institutions that had just destroyed conventional states, they created the abyss where racism and politics pulled together towards nothingness. In this black hole, Jews were murdered. When Jews were saved, it was often thanks to people who could act on behalf of a state or by institutions that could function like a state. When none of the moral illumination of institutions was present, kindness was all that remained, and the pale light of the individual rescuers shone. (p. 319)”

There is much history here, as well as many detailed and telling anecdotes. In the final chapter, Snyder tries to distill lessons for our time. Acknowledging that history is contingent, he nevertheless points to the Nazi drive for “lebensraum” and the threat that climate change poses for access to natural resources in our century. Will the most technologically advanced nations today behave any differently to their poorer neighbors when resources become existentially threatened?

“Most of us would like to think that we possess a “moral instinct.” Perhaps we imagine that we would be rescuers in some future catastrophe. Yet if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted, and economic incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized. (p. 320)”

Black Earth is powerful and compelling writing by a thoughtful and articulate historian. If you have any interest in how the Holocaust can provide a guide to action in our time, you owe it to yourself to read this book.