Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder. (Tim Duggan Books, 462 pp. $30)
In his controversial new history of the Holocaust, Timothy Snyder argues that anti-Semitism cannot fully explain the behavior of those involved in the murder of the Jews. Beginning with an analysis of Hitler’s ideology, Snyder, author of the award-winning Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books), describes Hitler’s mindset, in which he viewed Earth as a planet of limited resources. And since he saw Aryans as a superior race, they were entitled to dominate inferior races and take their resources.
Hitler applied the policy of Lebensraum (living space) to Eastern Europe, ordering both the Wehrmacht and the Einsatzgruppen (special killing squads) to kill and colonize the Poles, Ukrainians and other “inferior people.” He viewed all human beings as animals and rejected conscience and morality as Jewish inventions.
Hitler saw Jews as both ecological and metaphysical threats to the German race, according to Snyder. Jews believed that man, by virtue of reason, was capable of finding a scientific solution to Earth’s limited resources. Accordingly, Jews had given the world not only the Ten Commandments and rationality but were also the progenitors of ideas such as charity to the poor, equality, democracy and scientific innovation. If Jewish ideas triumphed, the Nazis believed, it would mean the end of the species. Hitler sought the total destruction of Jews as necessary for the survival of his racial order.
Hitler also believed the Jews were the “hidden hand” behind the Bolshevik Revolution, which controlled the rich black earth of Ukraine that Nazi Germany needed for survival and prosperity. After the German-Soviet nonaggression pact in August 1939, which divided Poland between the two countries, the Soviets proceeded to also occupy the Baltic areas.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazis were hailed as liberators in those countries once occupied by the Russians. The Nazis convinced the local populations to join in the massacres by associating the Jews with the
Soviet occupation. The fight against “Judeobolshevism” resulted in the murder of more than one and a half million Jews. Though often attributed to anti-Semitism, Snyder argues that local participation was motivated more to exonerate themselves for collaborating with the former Soviet occupiers than by anti-Semitism.
Snyder’s book is controversial because he ignores the primacy of Nazi racial ideology and the legacy of Church anti-Judaism as prime factors in the Nazi war against the Jews. Synder sees Hitler’s motives less from his hatred of Jews or anti-Slavic racism but rather from a “coherent worldview that contained the potential to change the world…. By presenting Jews as an ecological flaw responsible for the disharmony of the planets, Hitler channeled and personalized the inevitable tensions of globalization.”
The ecological factors that drove Hitler are still with us, asserts Snyder, and saving the world requires us to see the Holocaust in that context. Thus, he says, the Holocaust is not a distinctive event in world history but a product of an ecological crisis that may reappear in the near future.