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.

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015), 480 pp., $30.00.


SEVENTY YEARS after it ended, the Holocaust remains the black hole at the heart of modern history. We possess mountains of meticulously collected information about it. Historians have produced libraries’ worth of sober, careful and often quite remarkable analysis. Even so, something about this evil still slips out of our grasp, resists interpretation and refuses illumination.

Timothy Snyder, the latest historian to propose an overall account of the Holocaust, is no stranger to the subject. His highly acclaimed book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin traced the immensity of the slaughter that took place between 1933 and 1945 in the spaces where the old German, Austrian and Russian empires bumped up against each other. It did not really try to explain why the Holocaust happened, but it did make an argument about how the slaughter became possible. In order to carry out the murder of the Jews, Snyder suggested, Adolf Hitler depended on Joseph Stalin. Stalin not only provided a model of large-scale terror and murder that the Nazis learned much from, but also destroyed civil institutions throughout the western Soviet Union (especially Ukraine), and then in the Polish and Baltic territories he annexed in 1939 and 1940. It was precisely in these areas where the Nazis could begin the genocide in 1941. Here, in these lands of destruction, not only did they meet with little institutional resistance, but they could also count on the active connivance of desperate local populations. Without in any sense denying Nazi Germany’s ultimate responsibility for the Holocaust, Snyder cast the event as part of a larger pattern of mass death that also encompassed Stalin’s deliberate starvation of Ukraine in the 1930s and the mammoth wartime atrocities committed during the war itself against prisoners of war and civilians of all ethnicities.

Now, in Black Earth, Snyder has taken on the Holocaust directly. He brings to the subject the same passion that infused Bloodlands, along with his impressive expertise in the history and languages of Eastern and Central Europe. The book effortlessly sifts through sources in Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and German. It is not a narrative history. Snyder takes largely for granted knowledge of the basic events of the war, and of the chronology of the Holocaust itself. Nor does the book amount to a sustained piece of analysis, with a clear thesis statement bolstered by the systematic marshaling of facts. It is more of a meditation on the Holocaust, written in language that occasionally veers in the direction of lamentation or even prophecy. “Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity,” Snyder writes in his conclusion. While most historians, if pressed, would probably confess that they hope to make a small contribution toward humanity’s preservation by seeking to increase its self-understanding, this is setting the bar very high indeed.

Unfortunately, Snyder does not surmount it. While his account displays flashes of brilliant insight, the different sections fit together poorly, and too much has been left out for the rest to be convincing. Black Earth feels like the fragments of a larger book. It does bring part of the Holocaust into sharp and revealing focus—but for the most part it does so by restating more clearly the arguments first made in Bloodlands. The book is also distorted by its inordinate attention to the secondary question of Polish gentile participation in the Holocaust. Such attention comes naturally to Snyder, a historian of Poland who has never disguised his affection for the Poles—especially those who struggled against Communism. But it leads him to some rather strange emphases and omissions.

Snyder begins with a rapid summary of Hitler’s worldview. Drawing from Mein Kampf, later writings, speeches and the work of the Nazi “crown jurist” Carl Schmitt, Snyder claims, plausibly enough—although without actually demonstrating the point—that there was a fundamental, career-long consistency to Hitler’s thought. Whether Hitler really did have a master plan for domination and the annihilation of the Jews or proceeded more fitfully is a question that historians will probably never answer definitively. According to Snyder, Hitler conflated science and politics, seeing the world in radically social-Darwinist terms as a death struggle between races for scarce resources, especially food (he read widely among various mystic cranks for much of his life and had also received weekly tutorials during his stint in Bavaria’s Landsberg prison from Karl Haushofer, a Munich professor of geopolitics and ardent proponent of Lebensraum). “He was a racial anarchist,” Snyder comments, “who believed there was a true state of nature to be restored.” It was the destiny of the stronger German race to subjugate, and ultimately exterminate, the weaker Slavs, and to expropriate their rich farmlands—the “black earth” of Snyder’s title. Standing in the way were the Jews, whom Hitler viewed as loathsome parasites who sought to subvert the natural victors through treachery.

Yet Snyder says little about why or how such a manifestly insane ideology could come to appeal to a modern, civilized nation, and still less about how it could help turn so many members of that nation into witting mass murderers. Was it just Hitler’s perverse political genius, his ability to turn what he gleaned from the cranks and fanatics he read into a compelling political message? Were there reasons more deeply rooted in German society, whether from far back in its history or from its recent experiences of defeat and depression? Snyder doesn’t say, and indeed does almost nothing to situate Hitler’s ideology within the broader histories of anti-Semitism or Western political thought. This is a particular pity given the recent appearance of David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, which suggests that hostility to Jews is in fact a constituent element of Western culture. Furthermore, Snyder says little about state and society in Nazi Germany, presenting them essentially as passive and static instruments of Hitler’s will. Throughout the book, Hitler often comes across as the only significant political leader, the sole source of consequential action.


THE SECOND part of the book proceeds briskly through the 1930s, after Hitler’s Machtergreifung, or seizure of power. Here, Snyder’s preoccupation with the Polish question starts to make itself felt, and he devotes considerable space to the rise of an anti-Semitic nationalist movement in Poland committed to the goal of an ethnically homogeneous Polish state. He sharply distinguishes this movement, which wanted to expel the Jews but not exterminate them, from the Nazis, and to this purpose highlights the strange alliance between Polish nationalists and revisionist Zionists (including Menachem Begin and Avraham Stern, future leader of the terrorist Stern Gang) who shared an interest in sending Polish Jews to Palestine. He also argues that the differences between Polish and Nazi varieties of anti-Semitism created enough misunderstanding to derail Hitler’s hope for a German-Polish alliance against the Soviet Union. But he never makes clear why, or even if, this Polish story is central to an understanding of the Holocaust’s origins.

It is in the third, longest and most important section of the book where Snyder makes his real, if still problematic, contribution. Here, he returns to the central themes of Bloodlands, and to the lands themselves: the eastern half of pre-1939 Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. These territories, Snyder argues, suffered from a crippling one-two punch. First, they were ravaged by the Soviet Union. Belarus and especially Ukraine endured the enormous disruptions and depredations of Stalinism, including the man-made famine and Great Terror that killed millions. After the start of the war, under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Soviets occupied eastern Poland and then the Baltic states, destroying state institutions and in several cases carrying out mass murder (notoriously, of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940). Up until this point, however, despite widespread atrocities and the confinement of the Jews of western Poland in ghettoes, the Nazis had not yet begun systematically murdering entire Jewish populations. But then, in the summer of 1941, with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, that changed. By the end of the year, in Lithuania and Latvia, nearly all the Jews had perished.

As in Bloodlands, Snyder devotes relatively little attention to the question of why the Holocaust began at this point. He repeats his earlier claim—much criticized by specialists, some of whom suggested that it was redolent of the German historian Ernst Nolte’s incendiary assertion in 1986 that the Holocaust had essentially occurred as a response to the Red Terror—that Hitler only decided on genocide in reaction to the German army’s failure to make the USSR collapse “like a ‘house of cards.’” If the Soviets—whom Hitler saw as controlled by the Jews—could not be quickly defeated, Snyder writes, “then Germany would have to be defended by a systematic campaign against the Jews under German control.” As early as July 1941, the German press began to trumpet Hitler’s claim that “the Jews must be exterminated because they wish to kill all Germans.” As the historian Richard J. Evans has pointed out, however, this explanation for the shift to genocide is implausible, given the enormous successes the German army compiled throughout the first months of the campaign, occupying vast territories and major cities like Kiev and Minsk, destroying much of the Soviet air force and taking millions of Soviet prisoners. As Evans noted, Hitler himself declared on November 8, 1941: “Never before has a giant empire been smashed and struck down in a shorter time than Soviet Russia.” It is quite implausible that Hitler launched the Holocaust out of fear of Bolshevism or dismay at the performance of the Wehrmacht.

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.”

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