History’s Black Hole: The Holocaust in Eastern Europe

August 21, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: HolocaustHistoryEastern Europe

History’s Black Hole: The Holocaust in Eastern Europe

Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth does less than it might have to increase our understanding of the Holocaust.

It is hard to dissent from this argument. But does the history of the Holocaust really help us to make it? Snyder has things backwards. The Holocaust did not happen because of the absence of state authority. It happened because one of the most powerful, centralized, repressive, bureaucratic states in human history destroyed the authority of other states. It was not the war of all against all, as Snyder’s warnings about “anarchy” might imply. It was the war of Leviathan against helpless individuals. Fortunately, today, the totalitarian Leviathans are no more, and their absence in fact makes the chance of a new Holocaust much smaller, despite Snyder’s forebodings about climate change. States should indeed take the steps Snyder advises, but they should do so for the straightforward reason of saving the planet, not to prevent a new Holocaust. History rarely repeats itself that neatly.

As for the Holocaust itself, Black Earth does less than it might have to increase our understanding of the greatest crime in history. Even if something essential about it may forever resist understanding, painstaking and thoughtful historical analysis of the Holocaust can nonetheless teach us important things, as exemplified by the work of scholars such as Raul Hilberg, Saul Friedländer and Christopher R. Browning. Snyder’s work, despite its many insights, is torn between too many agendas, rushes too quickly over too much complex material, and fails almost entirely to explain how one man’s immoral delusions could be translated into the actions of a powerful modern state. In addition to analyses of Hitler’s ideas, and of the conditions under which the Holocaust actually began in Eastern Europe, we need to understand the Nazi state and Nazi society. In the end, we still need to understand Leviathan. On this score, Black Earth offers little assistance.

David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions at Princeton University.

Image: Flickr/BrittneyBush