Timothy Snyder | 480 pages | 2015
Black Earth, a searing reinterpretation of the causes and legacies of the 20th century’s gravest human tragedy, sees Snyder, a Yale professor and member of the Committee on Conscience for the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, arguing that conventional history has produced a mountain of errors about how the Holocaust came to be, and who carried it out. Snyder argues that the idea for German expansionism and the extermination of the Jewish race in the mind of Hitler cannot be decoupled and was in fact informed by a perverse conflation of science and politics by the fascist. Hitler, Snyder argues, saw an ecological disaster related to a future exhaustion of food and resources before him and his country [something no one else, save the Nazi party, did] and created a deluded solution to the problem- expand the German state into the fertile grounds of Eastern Europe and exterminate Jews along the way. Hitler’s tragically nonsensical theory was that Jews fell into a different human category altogether. They were not a regional nor even a European enemy, but a universal, global one. Rather than being an inferior race [as many accounts of Hitler’s thinking suggest], they were a “non-race” or a “counter-race” not bound by the laws of nature, according to Snyder.
In another rewrite of conventional history, Snyder asserts a much more significant role by non-Germans in the Jewish killing- particularly Stalin’s forces. From this NYT review: “[Indeed,] Snyder’s title refers to the fertile, food-producing regions in the heart of Ukraine, in the southern part of the Soviet Union, where Hitler and Stalin allowed their ecological fantasies, fears and murderous ambitions to roam freely, each considering the fate of the region and its population as crucial to the outcome of colossal geopolitical struggles.”
In a final historical rewrite, Snyder argues that race, to Hitler, replaced the state as the most important characteristic of human society. What he wanted was anarchy, a virtually stateless society, absent rules, laws and ethics, that allowed the Nazis to do what they had to in the interests of the “Aryan” (ie German) race. It was this pursuit of statelessness that led Hitler to invade and destroy states before summarily executing that state’s [former] citizens. Snyder argues that the killing of Holocaust occurred almost exclusively in stateless zones, particularly Poland, which was toppled by Nazi Germany early in the campaign and used by the regime as a rump prison state throughout the war. He notes that in German-controlled zones where state authority remained, like Italy and The Netherlands, Jews were largely safe.
This is as powerful, challenging book, difficult to get through when considering the horrifying subject matter and the complexity of Snyder’s prose and arguments. It nevertheless feels like a book we should read, if only to offer ourselves as willing and obligated to continue to search for answers for a deed we pray no future strongman can ever hope to repeat.