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 ...1