“Black Earth” by Timothy Snyder – a Brilliant Book

A year or so ago, I read Yale Professor Timothy Snyder’s masterful history of World War II in Central Europe, primarily land that belonged to the Russian empire prior to the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, and then which was divided into newly created republics, either independent such as Poland or Soviet Socialist Republics, such as Belarus and Lithuania.  Much of this land was occupied first by Germans, then by the Soviets, then again by the Germans, and finally (directly or indirectly) again by the Soviets.  And through these twists and turns during the course of a vicious war, millions were murdered, especially Jews, not only in concentration camps but in the villages and cities in which they lived, and the nearly farms, forests and fields.

Would I classify “Bloodlands” as creating a new history of these tragic years.  Perhaps not, but it certainly provided a widened view of what the residents of this region faced during the six years of the war.

Now, I have just finished Snyder’s newest book, “Black Earth”, subtitled “The Holocaust as History and Warning”.  It’s a brilliant book.

I have read a number of reviews, and the reviewers don’t seem to know what to make of it.  They can’t decide if Snyder has presented a careful analysis of World War II and the Holocaust, or if he has described a real event in unreal terms.  This is because, of all of the thousands of Holocaust books which have been published, this one might be the best example of thinking “outside the box” about what happened.

Frankly, I don’t know if Snyder’s analysis is spot on, if it is pretty close to the truth, or if it is not sufficiently centered.  In fact, I don’t really care.  He brings up so many issues, and caused me to think about so many things that I have never thought about regarding these tragic years, that whether or not his conclusions are or are not accurate become, for me, secondary.

When people have asked me to tell them what Snyder says, I have demurred. I tell them they have to read the book themselves.  There is so much there that any summary I would attempt to give would be inaccurate.  This is both because it would necessarily be incomplete, and because my own accuracy would be compromised in the retelling.

But let’s see if I can give you some ideas of what this book is all about.

First, there is the concept of what is a “state”.  Poland between the wars is, to Snyder, a state – a state within certain boundaries whose majority might be ethnic Poles, but which also included Jews and Germans and Ukrainians, all of whom were considered to be citizens of the Polish republic.  Nazi Germany, on the other hand, was not a state – its boundaries were subject to shifts and expansions (with plans to expand even further), and its non-German citizens were second class citizens at best, and eventually non-citizens.

This is because Hitler, he says, did not believe in the concept of the “state” as we think about it; he believed in the concept of “race”, and he looked at human history as the story of the conflict between races – the Germanic, the Slavic, the Anglo-Saxon, and so forth.  His belief in the superiority of the German race led him to have no problem in waging war against, for example, the Slavs, whose lands he thought would eventually serve as the breadbasket for the Germans (an expanding German population would be unable to feed itself locally), and whose people would be subservient.

And, as to all of these competing races, the worst were the Jews.  Why?  Not because of any theological position, to be sure, but because the Jews were not conquerable as were the Slavs, for example.  You want to beat the Slavic race, you invade the Slavic countries.  But the Jews were everywhere.  You could not engage the Jews in battle, because they were abnormal; they had no army, no state structure.  Worse than that, the Jews were believers in everything cosmopolitan – Jews and Germans should live together, Jews and Slavs, Jews and Frenchmen.  The Jews believed in political states of various kinds, and each of these states would include not one race, but multiple races, always including the Jews themselves.  And as teachers and philosophers, the Jews created the concept of the cosmopolitan political state, as opposed to the primacy of the race.  And, because of their education and cosmopolitan thinking, the Jews over-influenced the culture of each place where they lived.

OK, now let’s go on.  Hitler’s German race was going to conquer the Slavic race, and to do this, it had to get rid of the Jews.  Hitler also had to trick the Slavs to make victory over them easier.  Hence, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which allowed the Germans to take over the western part of eastern Europe and the Soviets to move into the eastern part.  But, from Hitler’s perspective, there was a distinction.  The German invasion was to be permanent while the Soviet occupation was to be temporary – very temporary.  Thus, in places like Poland, Lithuania and so forth, where the Soviets moved in, the Germans a year or so later kicked them out, only to be kicked out in a few more years by the victorious Soviets moving west.  Snyder calls these areas “double-occupied” – he has harsh thinks to say about both occupying powers (see “Bloodlands”, where he came under some criticism for seeming to equate in some respects German and Soviet occupation), but he also talks about how it literally drove the residents crazy.  Take Lithuania. For the non-Jew, the Soviet occupation was worse – it turned society upside down, and they looked with relief at the reoccupation by the Nazis.  But during the brief Soviet period, a number of things happened.  Jews were treated well by the Soviets (except of course those who, along with non-Jews, had been involved in capitalist activities) and some of the Soviet occupying authorities were themselves Jewish.  And many Lithuanians, Jewish and not, collaborated with the Soviets, for what else could you do?

But then the Germans came in and pushed the Soviets out.  Everyone knew the German position regarding Jews – including (as could now be corroborated to some extent by some limited experience) that the Jews were in cahoots with the Bolsheviks, and the concept of Judeobolshevism was born.  In Lithuania, the Soviets were the enemy and, by this theory, so were the Jews.  And if you were a non-Jewish Lithuanian who had abided, or perhaps even cooperated with, the Soviet occupation, how can you prove to the incoming Germans that you are an anti-Soviet patriot?  You go after, and kill, the Jews – what better proof could you give the Germans.  And this in a Lithuania which had no history of pogroms, and which was even a center of Jewish immigration between the wars.

The same dynamics more or less are followed in all of the countries which Germany occupied.  But only more or less.  Poland was another example – the Polish republic too, between the wars, was tolerant of its large Jewish population.  During the Pilsudski years, antisemitism was frowned upon, and after Pilsudski’s death, although antisemitism grew, there was no movement to ghettoize or destroy Jewish communities.  What there was, in fact, was a feeling that Poland would be better off if some (most? all?) of its Jewish population moved elsewhere.  After some thinking that Madagascar would be a good “elsewhere”, the Polish authorities began to think that only Palestine would be an appropriate place.  In this of course, they had strong allies – the large Polish Zionist movement.  And Snyder talks a lot about the relationship between Jabotinsky and the other right wing Zionist leaders, and Polish officials.  The government supported the Zionist efforts through official activities not only in Poland but in Palestine, and supported financially the various training facilities for the Betar movement in Poland (which trained young Zionists).  But of course, none of this outlasted the German/Russian invasions (and in the east of Poland, the Russian/German/Russian invasions).

The key to much of this, in Snyder’s view, was the German destruction of the “state” – destruction of the governments of many of the places it invaded and occupied.  For example, when the Germans invaded Poland, they didn’t invade the Polish republic.  For them, the republic (which of course was set up after World War I) was never legitimate.  The minute the Germans invaded Poland, the only government (to the extent it was a government) was that which was set up by German invaders.  Poland itself never existed.  (And Snyder reports that the invading Germans did not at first specially target the Jews; they targeted the Polish opposition – the Jews came later.  Similarly, when it was time for the Russians to move into Poland, they first murdered tens of thousands of Poles living in Russian borderlands, so that they would not oppose the movement of Soviet troops.  The Poles did not have it easy, either.)

The story was similar in the Balkans – and of course in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, taking over by the Germans early in 1939.  (The Sudetenland, by the way, was to Snyder a pure German construct – it was not a geographic location earlier and the concept that it was in effect occupied German territory was a myth.  The Sudetenland was filled with non-Germans.  What it did have was a significant amount of heavy industry and a defensible frontier – all important to the spread of the German race.)

Where the state withered (not only to the east, but to the west as in France), the Jews became stateless – they had no defenders.  Where states continued to exist, the Jews fared much better (that does not mean they fared well, but better).

Snyder also focuses on economic issues.  For instance, food was scarce both in Germany and occupied territories throughout the war.  Why share it with these Judeobolsheviks?  Housing became scarcer as the war continued – he says that part of the reasons that Jews were moved to ghettos was to open up their housing and their possessions to the non-Jews.  Certainly, once this was done, the non-Jews were not looking forward to a period of time when the war would be over and the Jews could return to their homes. Yes, says Snyder, a lot of what took place regarding the Jews in eastern Europe involved scarcity….and thievery.

Snyder also speaks about Germany itself – how most of the German Jews left the country and how in some respects the remaining Jews were treated better than in neighboring Poland, for instance.  There were no death camps in Germany – when German Jews were finally sent to death camps, they were moved out of the country, and into places where the “state” had ceased to exist.  There were no ghettos in Germany.  And, although rights were lost as well as jobs and educational possibilities, it was not until the destruction of another state – this time the Austrian republic – with the 1938 Anschluss and the immediate unbridled actions of gentile Austrians against Austrian (largely Viennese) Jews, that the Nazis realized that Germans would stand for more violent actions.  This is what led to Kristallnacht, which Snyder says got so out of control in Germany itself that the Nazi leadership viewed the action as a mistake.

And who perpetrated all of these atrocities?  Everyone – some gladly, some out of legitimate fear that failing to follow extermination orders would lead to their own deaths (and that someone else would kill the Jews anyway) or that of their families.  And who were the rescuers – those that saved or hid Jews.  Again, Snyder shows them to be a mixed bunch – hard to generalize.  There were those who liked Jews or had connections with them.  There were those who didn’t believe in killing.  There were antisemites among them whose antisemitism had its limits.  There were those who didn’t know why they acted as they did.  And the rescuers were certainly not all “angels” – like so many people, there were many who could do both great and terrible things at the same time.

As I said above, my description of this brilliant books incomplete and undoubtedly not accurate – but it gives you an idea of what you are in for when you read it.  And a final word must be said about the concluding chapter – where Snyder wraps up and summarizes much of what he has been writing about, but then goes somewhat off topic, to suggest what could happen in the future, as a result of shortages brought about by a changing climate.  And how, if today’s nations are not careful, once again one race could be pitted against another, leading to another Holocaust.  Is this last chapter brilliant?  I am not sure about that – perhaps it is in the wrong book, perhaps it deserves more than summary treatment, perhaps it is not Snyder’s forte.




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