Today, when we think Holocaust, we imagine “extravagant anti-Semitism,” says Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian. But what if the Holocaust wasn’t propelled by racism so much as by politics? That’s the claim Snyder makes in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, and it’s an unsettling one. A society might take measures to reduce racism. But it can hardly purge itself of politics. So Snyder’s proposal comes as a blow to our tacit historical assumptions—and to our sense of moral immunity. While the particular political circumstance that made the Holocaust possible may have expired, Snyder warns, its kind lives on; in fact, we know it well.
Snyder awakens us to the political dimensions of the Holocaust with an array of little known facts. To wit: prior to World War II ten times as many Jews lived in Poland as in Germany; most Germans, in fact, didn’t know any Jews and had to be taught how to recognize them. Ninety-seven percent of the Jews the Nazis killed lived beyond pre-war Germany. Only 700,000 were citizens of Germany’s allies. Three-quarters of France’s Jews survived; 80 percent of Italy’s. What does this mean?
It means—and this case Snyder persuasively builds, chapter by chapter—that while Nazi politics were thrusting the Final Solution forward, the political structures of other states proved able to stop it. “Nazi malice stopped at the passport,” he concludes. “They did not proceed with killing Jews until states were actually destroyed or had renounced their own Jews.” Even Nazi Germany, with all its vaunted bureaucratic precision and efficiency, found itself stalled in the face of structures designed to protect human beings. “Bureaucracies in Germany,” writes Snyder, “could kill Jews only when bureaucracy-free zones elsewhere had been established.”
How did these the stateless regions emerge? Snyder begins his explanation in the realm of worldview, showing how mind-controlling ideas led to state-destroying ideology. The “tangible and total truth” upon which Hitler constructed his ghastly program was that humans are governed by biology, the law of survival. Race wars against race. Each race must embrace this end or face extinction at the hands of those more dedicated to what Hitler understood to be life itself.
So why did the Jews so merit Nazi enmity? What made them so uniquely malign, so distinct from all other races caught up in the battle for the “black earth,” Snyder’s image of finite fertility? It was precisely their refusal to submit to this (supposed) final law of nature and to instead seek a public life ordered according to universal moral principles—principles that rebuked the urge for ruthless domination.
The Form of Destruction
At first Hitler and his inner ring weren’t sure how they would marginalize the Jews. Early on their thoughts ranged to Siberia, a possible site for a collective mass exile, where the Jews could be enslaved for Aryan purposes. In fact, the vast region east of Germany was attractive for many reasons, particularly as Germany was trying to secure a future on a continent still quaking with the aftershocks of World War I. Hitler and his cohort took inspiration from Europe’s own imperial past, discovering “source mythologies,” Snyder writes, terrifyingly, in historic conquests of North America and Africa. What the indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere had been to the Spaniards and the English, the Slavs became for the Germans: unworthy keepers of a bountiful land and the potential tillers of it—bonded tillers, that is, fit only for imperial ends.