Historian Timothy Snyder has no problem with politicians using the Holocaust to make a point. His new book “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” is not just a radical reassessment of the mass-murder of millions of Jews in the Second World War, but also an attempt at drawing contemporary lessons from that dark episode of history.
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His interview with Haaretz, which was scheduled in advance, takes place the week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech at the Zionist World Congress said that the Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, in a meeting with Adolf Hitler in November 1941, gave the idea to the German dictator to exterminate the Jews.
Snyder is willing to give Netanyahu a bit of credit. “Maybe I am naive, but I don’t think talking about the Holocaust with total and complete cynicism is possible for Israeli politicians,” he says. “It’s inevitable that the Holocaust is part of Israeli politics.”
However, he adds, there should be two obvious limits on using the Holocaust in political discourse: “Don’t make blatant factual mistakes and don’t make it sound as if events which couldn’t have possibly happened were possible.”
Netanyahu broke both of those rules, insists Snyder. “The conversation [between Hitler and Husseini] Netanyahu described didn’t happen, and it was impossible in November 1941 because no one by that point was speaking of sending the Jews to Palestine because the British had closed Palestine for immigration by then for two years. By that time the Germans had already murdered half a million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union and could see how a holocaust was possible. Before November the order had already gone out to develop carbon monoxide gas chambers.”
But more than Snyder is concerned with the historical inaccuracies, he’s worried about what it could do to the way Europeans discuss the Holocaust, especially now when the continent is facing an influx of Syrian refugees.
“Europeans need the history of the Holocaust as a way of checking themselves,” believes Snyder. “Where there is a problem involving minorities or refugees, saying the Holocaust was the fault of an Arab makes it easier for Europeans to blame the Arabs and Muslims for the refugees’ problems, like the European far right wants to do.”
A professor at Yale University, specializing in Eastern and Central European history, Snyder believes the history of the Holocaust must be seen in a much wider perspective than just Jewish or German history. In “Black Earth” he argues that not only the narratives of the Jewish victims and German perpetrators should be brought into account, but also the national background of the overwhelming majority of Jews who were not Germans and the destruction of entire societies to which they belonged – particularly in the lands to the east of Germany where the extermination took place, on which he focused in his previous book “Bloodlands.”
“The basic narrative about Germany in the 1930s can only be a part of the explanation of the Holocaust,” explains Snyder. “Ninety seven percent of the Jews murdered had nothing to do with Germany until they were killed as a matter of German policy. The Holocaust happened primarily to people who simply did not experience the Nazi tyranny in Germany.”
This may seem like just a statistical detail, but to Snyder it is a fundamental principle of how German power functioned. Nearly all the 200,000 Jews of Germany and Austria murdered by the Third Reich were first transported outside it. “They could only be killed in places like Lodz or Riga after Germany turned such place into stateless zones.”
It is those states in which the Jews lived before they were murdered – Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia – and their destruction as states by Germany and in some places, first by the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, which Snyder sees as the key stage leading to the mass-murder of Jews. He painstakingly analyzes how Jews from those states which had ceased to exist were annihilated at rates of over 90 percent while Jews from countries which retained a degree of statehood, such as Hungary, Italy, France and even Germany itself, had a better chance of survival and had to be deported first eastwards to the stateless zones before being exterminated.
Ultimately, it was those states, even those who had historically persecuted and discriminated against their Jews, who offered the Jews some hope of survival, if they hadn’t been destroyed as national entities first on Stalin and Hitler’s orders.
“If one wants to understand the death of the Jews in the Holocaust,” says Snyder, “one has to understand how the Jews lived in those places for all those years and centuries. The point is not that the interwar states where Jews lived before the war were perfect – often they were authoritarian and Jews faced every anti-Semitism. The point is that Jews lived in such places until such places were destroyed.”
That’s why he insists that a full understanding of the Holocaust has to include the story of the East European Jewish communities before the war. “If we don’t know what Jewish life in those countries beyond Germany looked like, what the social and political structures were before the war, we can’t possibly understand what those structures meant, how they were perverted or destroyed and how Jews died.”
And it is the necessity of the institutions of the state in preserving rights of individuals and minorities and serving as an insurance against total moral breakdown which Snyder sees as one of the enduring lessons of the Holocaust.
“It’s easiest to come to a common ideological conclusion that anti-Semitism and racial hatred is a bad thing – who is going to disagree with that lowest common denominator of Holocaust consensus?” he asks. “I agree with that of course, but if we think that ‘never again’ is all we have to say then we can overlook how easily such ethical commitments or identity claims can collapse when the situation changes – which is, of course, what happened during the Holocaust. It’s easy for us to congratulate ourselves on our own moral superiority when compared to the 1930s, but I’m not sure that we’re actually right about that. In most of the West we simply haven’t been tested in the same way. And when we are tested we often fail.”
A central warning of “Black Earth” is to what Snyder sees on the right and left of the political debate in the West as “a sense of hostility to the institutes of statehood, and it’s partly the result of misconceptions of the Holocaust. Everyone has a concept of the Holocaust that fits their worldview. No one will say that the Holocaust doesn’t fit in with their worldview, but what if the actual history of the Holocaust challenges many of the things we assume to be true?”
Which is where Israeli politicians fail in his opinion when they treat the Holocaust in a one-dimensional fashion. “Of course you can say the Holocaust shows that Jews would be safer in their own state, that’s the Zionist idea. But the most basic finding is that Jews are safe when there is a functional state that recognizes them as citizens. So you can also draw the non-Zionist conclusion that a state for Jews wouldn’t have to be the Jewish state. Which is, of course, the situation today in the U.S. where Jews are safe although the state is not a Jewish one. And then if you think that a state is important in general, then it’s important not just for Jews, but for Palestinians as well to have a state.”
As a historian but also a frequent political commentator who has focused his career on the relationship between the former Soviet Union and the rest of Europe, Snyder is particularly passionate about the narrative of the Holocaust and the Second World War currently being extensively used by Russian propaganda to justify its actions against Ukraine and other nations. Especially as he sees the role played by Stalin’s regime as no less “nation-destroying” as that of Nazi Germany, and the mass-murders of the Ukrainian famine in the early 1930s and Stalin’s Great Terror as a prototype for the Holocaust that came later. A role which is strenuously denied today by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“For the Russians, the displacement of the Holocaust is calculated and cynical. It’s not emotional, they don’t care about the Holocaust one way or another. They only care about it insofar as they can use it to manipulate a German sense of guilt.”
Snyder’s focus on the role of the state and its destruction by both Stalin and Hitler as a prelude to mass-murder forms a central part of his contemporary political perspective.
“My thinking about the importance of the state is why I got so agitated about the challenges Russia were making to the legitimacy of the state. It’s not just about the legitimacy of Ukrainian national identity, but about the legal state of states and therefore the European system. It’s unique to Russia that the blame is being exported as a matter of policy to other countries. It’s typical for nations to say at the start of the debate that ‘it wasn’t us’ and then go on to understanding their own responsibility. But Russia saying ‘it wasn’t us, it was our neighbors’ – that is new. This is a move that weakens the basic framework for discussion in Europe, which is to look for reasonable but also self-critical ways to take responsibility.”
Snyder also sees disturbing echoes in the way that in the 1930s, both Stalin with the kulaks, the peasants and the Ukrainians, and Hitler with the Jews, tried to scapegoat entire social groups and minorities as the cause for the national and global troubles. His analysis of Hitler’s view of the Jews goes beyond simple racism. In “Black Earth” Snyder claims that Hitler saw the Jews as a “non-human” element hindering the natural course of planetary history in which the strongest races fought for territory and resources. He sees a similar tone creeping back into contemporary discourse, particularly in media and websites from Russia and the Arab world, including official Russian propaganda channels.
“My sense is that one gets much more planetary anti-Semitism today than 10 years ago – by which I mean not just discrimination against Jews and hatred, but the more Hitlerian claims that Jews are responsible for the current state of world order. Often of course, this literature doesn’t use the word “Jew” specifically. In the anti-Semitic emails I get it’s very often the term ‘Zionist’ which is used to mean ‘Jew.’ Any Jew is a Zionist, including anti-Zionist ones.
“I worry about global anti-Semitism not just as a bad idea that originates from bad people – but also as something that arises as a challenge to global order. Hitler was, of course, a child of the first globalization which began in the late 19th century. That globalization collapses with the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War. The Holocaust is, among many other things, the absolute depths of the collapse, the nadir of everything. It is the point where the problems of the world are blamed upon a people who are then murdered, and so expelled from that world. Globalization is complicated; people look for shortcuts. Globalization is not something new; it’s a condition with a history. It can go various ways, and nothing is preordained. Now we’re in the second globalization, which brings its own tensions and problems, and conspiracy theories are for many an appealing way to explain this.”