Review: ‘Black Earth’: A New Take on How the Holocaust Happened

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

By Timothy Snyder

Tim Duggan Books  462 pp. $30

By Jim Kaplan

It is hard to do this expansive, thoughtful, meticulously researched book about the Holocaust anything like complete justice. Black Earth’s greatest achievement is to take one of the most exhaustively considered events of the last century and to see it in a new and insightful way.   And as the book’s title makes clear, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder does more than re-examine 70-year-old events and find a lot new to say about them; he also draws significant lessons for the present and future.  But the most impressive thing he does is to provide fresh insights about the past.

To begin with, Snyder traces the origins of the Holocaust to Hitler’s brain – and that is where the book starts.  Hitler was a frothing Fascist madman, but he was also a political philosopher. He combined liberal and conservative ideas and put them in service of a master race ideology largely of his own invention.  Hitler wholeheartedly endorsed unfettered competition for economic resources, as traditional Liberalism did.  But he married it to the pursuit of a collective, rather than individual, achievement (for his beloved Aryan people) – something many conservatives of his time, particularly in Europe, believed in.

The master race concept was Hitler’s own, including the idea that Aryans would prevail in an all-out struggle against the lesser European races. In Hitler’s mind, what prevented this triumph was the prevalence of all sorts of terrible ideas, like the rule of law, traditional religion, socialism, and other progressive ideologies that tempered the results a racial war of “all against all” would yield.  

Behind all of these supposedly awful ideas, Hitler believed, were the Jews, who controlled progressive, liberal and pro-worker ideas in the West, and Marxist Communism in the Soviet Union. Destroy the Jews and destroy these ideologies, he thought, and the master race could, and would, prevail.

Snyder notes that Hitler was a man, or perhaps better put, a madman, of his time, and that early 20th Century colonial ideas figured heavily in his thinking.  Just as the Africans were thought to be sub-humans who could be enslaved and dominated by Western societies, so too were the Slavs, Poles and Eastern Europeans sub-humans whose rich resources – particularly agricultural – could be harvested by the superior Germans.

Lebensraum is the German word that symbolized this view, both in the sense of providing geographical space for an Aryan empire that could exceed America and Britain, and also in the sense of controlling enough land to ensure a full belly for all superior Germans.   The Nazis believed that the Eastern European heartlands – particularly Poland and Ukraine – could produce an endless supply of food for Germany once they were conquered and enslaved.

In Snyder’s account, the Second World War, particularly in its dominant Eastern European phase, and the Holocaust were truly inseparable.  All of Eastern Europe – the Jews’ ancestral home – was to become a German colony, its states destroyed and its people enslaved, and the Jewish “race” permanently eliminated from Europe.  

Snyder makes the point that in the popular imagination – even among the historically interested – the Holocaust is symbolized by Auschwitz, the German Nazi death camp located outside German borders (deliberately) in Poland.  But the majority of mass murders – the killing of millions of Eastern European Jews, three million Soviet war prisoners, and countless others, like Poles and Ukrainians – took place in the now stateless (in fact recently state-destroyed) expanses of Eastern Europe, well before the death camp system really got going.

With this insight, Snyder makes a wonderful contribution to an understanding of genocide in general, including in our own day.  It is far easier in places where the State has essentially been destroyed or has stopped functioning – places like much of Syria and Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan today -- for horrendous crimes against the weak (or weaker) people to take place. In such places, there are no longer laws or a state – even a bad or weak state – to protect those who need protecting.

This harsh reality was demonstrated by the killing sprees in Eastern Europe in places that fell under German army domination after 1939, including Poland, the Baltic States, Ukraine, and even parts of Belarus and Russia. In all such “stateless” places, more than 95 percent of pre-war Jews were murdered.  In much of the rest of Europe- even in the occupied states of countries like France and the Netherlands – a majority often survived.  Indeed, Snyder points out that a Jewish person’s chances of surviving were better in Nazi Germany itself than in Nazi-occupied stateless regions of Eastern Europe.   In Germany, there was at least some semblance of law and the possibility of bureaucratic compassion or at least inertia.  There was no such possibility in the destroyed states of Eastern Europe.  

(A curious example of this phenomenon was the fact that Jewish men in Germany who were married to non-Jewish women were often saved as long as they remained married – while in the Eastern territories, all Jews the Germans or their collaborators could get their hands on were murdered.  One can only speculate as to why, but it may be that the distinction between a German Jew – despicable as they were – and a subhuman Eastern European Jew was somehow meaningful to the deranged Nazi mind.)

It is far from an original thing to say, but like all great books about the Holocaust, Black Earth is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit.  This takes place, in the history of the period and in Black Earth, in at least three ways.  The first is in the book’s many examples of the indestructible spirit of the Jewish people, many of whom fought and died and some of whom escaped to Israel and America. In both of these countries, the Jewish people in the 70 or so years since the Holocaust have thrived in ways that earlier generations of Jews would simply not have believed possible.

For those who came later and for those who escaped, the spirit of the six million European Jews murdered was a driving force.  Indeed, directly and indirectly, because of its effect on the minds of both Jews and non-Jews the world over, the Holocaust became perhaps the most important and cohesive shared emotional experience impelling Jewish history forward.  For today’s Americans and Israeli Jews, the end of the world of East European Jewry was truly the beginning.

Black Earth deals with two other triumphs of the spirit of the period.  One is the noble and dedicated actions of many non-Jews in Eastern Europe – the diplomats, solders, priests and nuns, ordinary people – who did everything they could, at genuine risk to their own lives, to keep Jews from the executioner.  Snyder tells many of their stories, and there are many more that could be told.

The final triumph is more morally complicated but involves heroic actions by the people of Eastern Europe whose states were the object of Hitler’s war. Faced with the certainty of subjugation, enslavement and genocide if Germany were to prevail, these peoples – Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and many more citizens of the various states of the Soviet Union – fought back and ultimately smashed Hitler’s armies, essentially ending and discrediting the horrific ideology that had spewed forth from Hitler’s brain.

What came later in the post-World War II Communist Bloc is its own story, outside of the scope of Black Earth.  There is a good deal of darkness in that history as well, but whatever one makes of what followed, during the Cold War and in the actions of Russia’s rulers today, the heroism and sacrifice of these once-besieged nations – which Hitler had marked for obliteration – should never be forgotten.

Jim Kaplan is a lawyer and partner in the firm Quarles & Brady LLP. The views expressed here are purely his own.