'Black Earth': An Erudite, if Flawed, Account of What Triggered the Holocaust

Historian Timothy Snyder argues that the mass killing of Jews arose from the politics of German occupation in Eastern Europe, not longstanding hatred of the Jews.

David Engel
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A group of children wear concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, just after the liberation by the Soviet army in January, 1945.Credit: AP
David Engel

“Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” by Timothy Snyder, Tim Duggan Books, 462 pp., $30

The “warning” in the subtitle of Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth” is this: “Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity.”

The Holocaust, Snyder argues, has been misunderstood:

We rightly associate the Holocaust with Nazi ideology, but forget that many of the killers were not Nazis or even Germans. We think first of German Jews, although almost all the Jews killed in the Holocaust lived beyond Germany. We think of concentration camps, though few of the murdered Jews ever saw one. We fault the state, though murder was possible only where state institutions were destroyed. We blame science, and so endorse an important element of Hitler’s worldview. We fault nations, indulging in simplifications used by the Nazis themselves.

Because “the world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded,” Snyder suggests, misunderstanding makes repetition increasingly likely.

It is a laudable aim to draw useful lessons from the past, and Snyder is to be praised for his effort to do so from the Holocaust. Accomplishing that aim, however, is more difficult than many might think.

A first prerequisite is to paint as complete and accurate a picture of the Holocaust as possible. Snyder claims to offer a state-of-the-art comprehensive portrait, based on previously untapped archival sources and on scholarship in languages that few in the West command. Though I found much in the book to admire, I don’t believe he has sustained his claim.

First of all, who are the “we” who have supposedly misconstrued the Holocaust? Over the past half century quite a few historians have understood the Holocaust much as Snyder has. Some have noted, long before Snyder, that Hitler’s determination to kill every Jewish man, woman and child within reach stemmed from a desire to save the entire planet – not just Germany – from the mortal danger Jews purportedly posed to its continued existence. They have explained more fully and intelligibly than Snyder why the Nazi leader attributed the danger to Jews instead of to some other group.

Many have correctly observed, as Snyder does, that almost all killing of Jews took place outside Germany, that German Jews were only a small minority of the victims, that concentration camps played only a peripheral role in the Holocaust, and that the proportion of Jews killed in any given country did not correlate with the degree of local prewar anti-Jewish antipathy. And contrary to his assertion, Snyder is not the only student of the Holocaust who has explored Eastern European archives and mastered scholarship in the languages of that region.

Still, Snyder writes elegant, lucid, powerful prose. He has read widely in literatures not widely read. In “Black Earth” he has synthesized previous work into a narrative of the Holocaust that recasts the familiar in unfamiliar terms that challenge the thinking of experts and non-experts alike. His work is accessible to a broad readership in a way that many scholarly studies aren’t.

Yet clarity, conviction, erudition and accessibility aren’t enough to establish an argument. Deciding whether to see the Holocaust Snyder’s way requires examining the grounds on which his narrative is based. By that standard, his story has stronger and weaker links.

Outsourcing killing to locals

Snyder is most insightful when he writes about places he knows best – the stretch between central Poland and western Russia that he famously dubbed the “bloodlands.” The three chapters that detail the experiences of that region’s Jews, beginning in September 1939, combine original archival research with recent investigations by Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, German and Baltic scholars into a hypothesis explaining why Germany chose those territories for inaugurating mass murder of Jews, why it developed particular techniques for mass killing, why those techniques differed from place to place, and why they produced the death of one million Jews during the final half of 1941 alone.

The hypothesis proposes that the answer to all of these questions lies in the interval between September 1939 and June 1941, when most of the region’s territories passed from Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian or Estonian sovereignty to Soviet control. According to Snyder, local collaborators aided the Soviet occupation extensively.

When Germany ousted the Soviets in 1941, it offered former Soviet accomplices a chance to rehabilitate themselves by helping to kill Jews. In regions such as Ukraine and the Baltic, where many collaborators were also local nationalists, the new occupiers were able to outsource much of the killing to locals, who thought that by murdering Jews they would gain German support for their own political goals. Where local nationalism was weaker, as in northeastern Poland, the Nazis needed to do more of the work on their own.

But even there, as well as in territories that had been under Soviet rule since 1917, they exploited a common stereotype that depicted the Bolshevik regime as a Jewish creation to transform anger at the Soviets into anger at the Jews, helping reconcile locals to their occupation. Hence, in Snyder’s understanding, the mass killing of Jews arose from the politics of German occupation in the East, not from the region’s long-standing ethnic hatreds or the ideological indoctrination of German troops.

There is innovation and ingenuity in this account, and Snyder provides much evidence to buttress it. But his case is hardly airtight. Historians know of prominent Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian participants in the killing of Jews who had not previously served the Soviets; the relative proportion of Snyder’s “double collaborators” among local perpetrators has yet to be firmly established. In certain cases, including some noted in the book (like those of Ervin Viks and Alexander Viidik in Estonia), double collaborators actually served three masters, having held positions in the administrations of their own independent states prior to Soviet occupation.

Their number has not yet been estimated, but their existence suggests that participation in German killing operations could have been motivated less by a desire to erase the stain of complicity in Soviet rule than by a bureaucrat’s willingness to serve any state authority, without concern for specific policy.

In addition, Snyder’s recapitulation of several instances of murder in different parts of the region – notably the massacre in the northeastern Polish town of Jedwabne and the so-called Petliura Days in the West Ukrainian capital of Lviv, both in July 1941 – do not chime entirely with some of the latest research, which suggests a more complex relationship between Germans and locals than Snyder posits. Snyder has not taken note of that research. In fact, his bibliography includes scholarship that corroborates his reading, while studies that complicate it or dissent from it are too often left out.

The conditions for genocide

Snyder’s selectivity is magnified when he steps beyond his area of expertise. “Black Earth” encompasses far more than the bloodlands; it uses the Holocaust throughout Europe as a lens for answering a much broader question: Under what conditions is genocide most likely to be attempted and succeed? For Snyder, two conditions formed the matrix out of which the Holocaust was born: Hitler’s panic over an impending scarcity of food and mineral resources, and German destruction of legitimate state authority. Earlier scholars have noted one or the other; Snyder’s novelty lies in their combination.

But his claims about each condition are matters of controversy; scholars do not agree that either was among the most crucial determinants of why the Holocaust occurred or why it assumed the varying dimensions that it did across Europe. Snyder has thus taken sides in unresolved historical debates. That, of course, is not only his prerogative but his duty. However, it is also his duty to explain, on the basis of a fair and complete presentation of the available evidence, why he prefers one view to another.

Except in the three chapters on the bloodlands, I don’t find that he has done so. Only occasionally (usually in the footnotes) does he mention alternative views, and then only to dismiss them summarily. To one familiar with the range of available interpretations of the situations he recounts, it seems that he has cherry-picked those that fit his rendition while ignoring evidence that might call it into question.

Consider, for example, Snyder’s observation that Jews had a greater chance of survival in states such as Denmark or France that did not deprive them of citizenship. Statistically that is true, but the significance of that fact can be evaluated in various ways. Perhaps, as some historians have noted, it means only that Germans ran out of time before they could turn their attention to the minority of European Jews who lived in those states.

Perhaps states are not the best units for analyzing survival chances; recent research on the Netherlands has shown wide variation in survival rates within a single state. Sometimes citizenship also turned out to be a disadvantage: Jews from eastern Poland who accepted Soviet passports in 1939 remained in their homes and died two years later, whereas many who refused were deported to the Soviet interior and lived. Swedish passports distributed by Raoul Wallenberg in Hungary helped save Jews, but Latin American passports held by Jews in Poland often didn’t.

The Jews of Denmark were ultimately saved from deportation not by the Danish state but by elements of Danish civil society. And states with sufficient sovereignty to control their own populations sometimes used that sovereignty to strip Jews of citizenship or to keep Jewish refugees from crossing into their territory. The correlation between sovereignty and survival is not nearly as neat as Snyder suggests.

States have long destroyed other states

Indeed, much of Snyder’s narrative is too pat, and his penchant for pithy formulations leads too often to distortion. His characterization of Hitler as a “zoological anarchist” is a case in point. Hitler and the Nazis certainly promoted international anarchy; they had no regard for the prevailing international system that divided the world into a series of equally sovereign states whose individual internal affairs were their concern alone. Nor did they regard the state as a realm of mutual obligations binding governors and governed. But the Nazi regime did maintain a strict monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within all territories under its jurisdiction, a quality generally regarded as one of the state’s fundamental characteristics.

In the final analysis it was the German state, with Hitler at its head, that orchestrated the application of deadly physical force against Europe’s Jews. It was not the strength or weakness of states that determined those Jews’ fate, but the attitude of particular governments toward the Jews under their control.

But Snyder needs simple formulas to sustain his simple, easy-to-digest warning that current conditions of climate change may soon lead powerful countries to trample weaker ones in search of sustenance, and in doing so to “generate the demand for global victims.” He finds an example in the current foreign policy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which in Snyder’s view looks to destroy a neighboring state (Ukraine) while distracting the world’s attention with “a new global scapegoat – the homosexuals.”

Putin can be figured as a latter-day Hitler only by ignoring differences that seem crucial, including his lack of a metaphysical world view of the sort Snyder claims generated the Holocaust in Hitler’s mind long before he came to power. And in the end, the comparison isn’t necessary: States have been destroying other states over scarce resources and blaming weaker parties for their problems from time immemorial. Surely the Holocaust can tell us something more profound about the difficulties human beings face in inhabiting a single planet than that scarcity and lawlessness can breed massive loss of life.

Snyder has not stated persuasively what that something is. That puts him in good company: Other talented minds have discovered in the Holocaust far too complex a phenomenon to permit easy summary of its lessons. They do not hold that the Holocaust is incomprehensible, only that complete comprehension of it remains elusive. Understanding demands ongoing, intense study and mental labor by many working together. If Snyder’s clear, forceful writing moves readers to engage this problem in sustained, sober fashion, his book, for all its shortcomings, will add value to that work.

The writer is Greenberg Professor of Holocaust Studies at New York University.