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.

But, as in Bloodlands, Snyder’s interest has less to do with how the Holocaust began than with how it became possible. Again, he emphasizes the legacy of consecutive Soviet and Nazi destruction. “The Germans,” he writes, “found the conditions where ‘one could do as one pleased,’ where they could kill Jews in large numbers for the first time, in 1941, as Germany invaded the Soviet Union. It was in the zone of double occupation, where Soviet rule preceded German...that a Final Solution took shape.” Once again, he places great emphasis on the previous Soviet record, claiming that “the Soviet decapitation of society was accompanied by a zombification of the social body.”

In Black Earth, however, he adds a new twist: what he terms the “Judeobolshevik myth.” According to Snyder, the Nazis managed to recruit willing accomplices among the local populations above all by blaming the previous Soviet repression and atrocities on the Jews. The relatively high number of Jews in the Soviet leadership and secret police gave the claim a surface-level plausibility, along the lines of the old saw that not all Communists were Jews but all Jews were Communists. And the strategy particularly appealed to gentiles in these territories who had themselves previously aided the Soviets, but could now shift all the culpability for the previous occupation onto the Jews. “The Judeobolshevik myth,” as Snyder puts it, “amounted to a mass political amnesty for prior collaboration with the Soviets.” It was where local populations could be enlisted in this manner, Snyder maintains, that the highest percentage of Jews died.

While the overall treatment of the “Judeobolshevik myth” is plausible, Snyder pushes it farther than he needs to by insisting that former Communists—as opposed to anti-Soviet nationalists—bore a disproportionate share of responsibility for assisting the Nazis. In an all-too-revealing footnote, he writes that this allegation “should be the topic of detailed empirical study” (emphasis added). Snyder’s concern for distinguishing between the Nazi genocide and the behavior of non-Communist Poles and Ukrainians toward the Jews—including violence and murder—pushes him to the limits of his evidence and beyond.


IN THE remainder of this section, Snyder offers a comparison between the fate of the Jews in the zones of double destruction, and those in other parts of Europe under Nazi occupation. It was the existence of undestroyed state institutions, he argues, that made the biggest difference to Jewish survival. In Denmark, which experienced a relatively mild occupation that allowed existing institutions to remain in place, the population helped the Jews escape to Sweden, and 99 percent of them survived the war. In Estonia, a classic zone of “double occupation,” 99 percent of the Jews died. Even in France, where the quasi-independent Vichy government willingly collaborated in deporting Jews it did not consider French citizens to the death camps (above all refugees and recent immigrants), three-quarters of the Jews survived. Snyder offers these comparisons as a rejoinder to those who might attribute the Holocaust in part to the unchecked growth of modern state authority in general. To the contrary, he argues, it was the absence of state institutions that made genocide possible: “When states are absent, rights—by any definition—are impossible to sustain.” Snyder is especially insistent about not associating the Holocaust, as some historians have done, with bureaucracy: “Bureaucracy has the reputation of killing Jews; it would be closer to the truth to say that it was the removal of bureaucracy that killed Jews . . . Many of the things that make bureaucracies annoying in daily life could and did mean survival for Jews.”

This is intriguing but not entirely persuasive. Of course the Holocaust depended on the existence of a frightfully powerful German state, and German bureaucracy. Furthermore, Snyder’s relentless focus on the zones of “double occupation” prompts him to pay scant attention to the death camps, as opposed to sites of mass murder by machine gun such as Babi Yar (the ravine outside of Kiev where the Nazis killed more than thirty thousand Jews on September 29–30, 1941). Snyder attempts to justify this emphasis in a chapter titled “The Auschwitz Paradox.” He explains that where state institutions had not been destroyed, and local populations could not be enlisted for genocide, the Nazis did not try to kill the Jews locally, but instead planned to deport them to the death camps in Poland. But in these countries, particularly in Western Europe, state institutions, bureaucracy and local resistance slowed down the Nazi efforts. The result was the “paradox” whereby Jews under German occupation targeted for deportation to Auschwitz had a higher survival rate than Jews under German occupation not targeted for it.

This argument is suggestive. But does such a “paradox” really justify giving so little sustained attention to what many observers have seen as the greatest of all the horrors of the Holocaust, namely, the creation of a system of industrial-scale, impersonal murder in the gas chambers? To turn imprisonment and mass murder, in effect, into a business in which the killers sought, as far as possible, to profit from the victims? The problem for Snyder is that concentrating more on the intricate mechanisms of the death camps would have compelled him to consider the Holocaust not simply as the product of Hitler’s will, but as a complex process emanating from German society and Nazi state institutions. As it stands, of all Hitler’s willing executioners, Snyder devotes the most attention to former Communists in the east, while saying much less about the actions of the Germans themselves—or, for that matter, their non-Communist Polish, Ukrainian and Baltic collaborators.

Yet a further problem is that Snyder much too easily conflates the “saving” of the Jews with the delaying of the Holocaust in particular countries. Yes, the survival of state institutions in Nazi-occupied Europe outside the “bloodlands” delayed the implementation of the Holocaust there, allowing a higher percentage of Jews to survive. But they only survived because the Allies won the war and liberated them. Had Hitler won, or even taken longer to lose, is there any doubt that the Nazis would have exterminated the Jews of Western Europe as thoroughly as those of the Baltic states? The factors that kept relatively high numbers of Jews alive for what turned out to be long enough would not have kept them alive for much longer without the Allied armies. The armies are what saved them. Which means the Red Army saved them, because absent the massive Soviet war effort and the sacrifices made on an unbelievable scale by the Soviet population, the war could never have been won. Snyder cannot and does not deny this point. But Black Earth, like Bloodlands before it, nonetheless identifies the Soviet Union far more with mass murder and the destruction of states than with the successful struggle to defeat the Nazis.

The very same distortion appears again in a section of this new book in which Snyder highlights gentile saviors of the Jews. Snyder notes, correctly, that nearly every Jew who survived under Nazi occupation had some sort of help from non-Jews, and that where state institutions had vanished, this help could only come from individuals, often driven solely by extraordinary conscience and extraordinary courage. “In the darkest of times and places,” he writes, “a few people rescued Jews for what seems like no earthly reason.” One can hardly dispute the assertion. But once again, Snyder pays strikingly little attention to the fact that without the Allied armies—first and foremost the Red Army—all the efforts of these moral heroes would have come to naught. The saved would eventually have been lost. Close readers will also note that a very high proportion of the saviors Snyder has chosen to highlight are non-Communist Poles. He emphasizes as well the efforts made by the principal non-Communist Polish resistance force, the Home Army, to assist the Jews, and the fact that thousands of Jews fought in it, despite its overall ethnic Polish character.


IN THE conclusion to Black Earth, Snyder abruptly swerves from these saviors to the twenty-first century—from the Holocaust as “history” to the Holocaust as “warning,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Speaking predominantly in the first-person plural, he chides “us” for too easily identifying with the saviors, with the moral heroes, rather than with the perpetrators. “There is little reason to think,” he writes, “that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s.” In our world, where climate change threatens massive ecological and economic disruptions, is it absurd to imagine that political leaders may again try to “follow or induce panic about future shortages and act preemptively, specifying a human group as the source of an ecological problem”? Returning to the theme that Hitler had a “coherent worldview,” developed in response to the specter of massive food shortages, Snyder rapidly sketches out various scenarios—droughts in China, water shortages in the Middle East, coastal cities flooded—that might “perhaps...make Hitlerian politics more resonant.” Faced with this threat, he argues, “we” must free ourselves from the “common American error” of believing “that freedom is the absence of state authority.” In the present day, we need strong states that can develop sustainable forms of energy and address the problems of climate change. “The answer to those who seek totality is not anarchy,” Snyder pronounces. “The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions: an unending labor of differentiated creation.”