Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning has received exceptional attention and nearly universal praise. Prof. Timothy Snyder’s knowledge of the holocaust is almost encyclopedic. This is his second large book devoted to the horrible history of much of Eastern Europe during World War II. His main inquiry and subject is what happened to the Jewish population of Poland (a country whose history and language he knows well) and also that of the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It ends with a survey of what happened to Jews in almost all other countries of Europe. Above his scholarship floats a cloud of moral concern—that a satanic chapter of history be remembered, lest we forget that something like it just may happen again.
His main contribution is his corrective emphasis on how and when the holocaust took place in that portion of Eastern Europe during World War II. Let me begin with something obvious. Elements of antisemitism or Judeophobia existed just about everywhere in German-occupied Europe from 1938 to 1945. But a holocaust as such, meaning the murdering of a vast majority of the existing Jewish population, is mainly applicable to Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic countries. A more important distinction, customarily overlooked or insufficiently known, is that Auschwitz, with its gas ovens, was not where most Jews were killed. The numbers of the mass killing of Jews, most of them by gunfire, was about twice as large in Poland before Auschwitz began to function, sometime in 1942. (By that time there were at least three sites in Poland where thousands of Jews were asphyxiated by motor gases.) Among the million Jews transported to Auschwitz, almost half survived the war. Germans, all kinds, from plain soldiers and policemen to special units, began the imprisoning and then the killing of Jews as early as late 1939, perhaps almost two million of them by 1942. The horrible sequence of this is Snyder’s main topic: His chapter on Auschwitz is a very short one. An important theme of his book is how much the relatively short-lived Soviet occupation of Poland and of the Baltics from September 1939 to June 1941 contributed to the holocaust afterward. Another significant addendum is Snyder’s assertion that many Polish and Ukrainian people were indifferent to (and sometimes even approving of) what their German occupiers were doing to the Jews.
This is not a conventional academic history (even though Snyder read almost everything relevant to his subject, in addition to consulting personal records and chronicling his impressions of the places he visited). Black Earth contains some inaccuracies and errors, and sources are not provided for many quotations and references. In 1917, “of the 60,000 or so Jews in Moscow about half of them were refugees.” No. “Not very long after Hitler published his ideas about daily bread and the commandment of self-preservation, Europeans were forcing Jews to recite the Lord’s Prayer and killing them when they could not.” Europeans? No. “The Polish countryside was massively overpopulated.” No. In 1932 Stalin “claimed that the whole crisis [in the Ukraine] was a result of Polish intelligence work.” No. In late 1944 “about 100,000 Jews were forced to leave Budapest.” No. In Brest-Litovsk in September 1939 “the Soviet commander invited Germans reporters to visit him in Moscow after the common ‘victory over capitalist Albion.’” Nonsense—and no source.
These are minor matters. But an essential fault in the major, and principal, portion of Snyder’s book is his wanting consideration of a most important German—and also Hitler’s—decision in January 1942. The Wannsee Conference in January 1942 decided to proceed with the extinction of as many Jews as was still possible; Wannsee is mentioned in but one sentence of Snyder’s massive volume. Yet it was at that time that Hitler made the same kind of decision. And here I arrive at my principal disagreement with Snyder: He knows much about the holocaust, but he does not know much about Hitler.
His book begins with a Prologue and two chapters about Hitler, a total of about 31 pages. They are inadequate, shortsighted, shallow. Most of his evidences Snyder took from Mein Kampf, the agitated book Hitler wrote during his few months in jail in 1924. (Hitler himself said later that Mein Kampf was a volume that ought to be spoken rather than read.) In any event, Hitler’s phrases and speculations in 1924 are not the proper explanations of what he did after he became the leader of Germany in 1933 and the master of Europe another seven years later. “In Hitler’s world the law of the jungle was the only law.” “For Hitler there was no human history as such.” “It was a sin not to seize everything possible, and a crime to allow others to survive.” “For Hitler, the bringer of the knowledge of good and evil on the earth, the destroyer of Eden, was the Jew.” Etc., etc. In the largely useless second chapter of Snyder’s book he deals with what for him was Hitler’s second obsession: the absolute need for more living, more food-growing space for Germans. Here, too, Snyder is mistaken. “While Hitler was writing My Struggle he learned of the word ‘Lebensraum.’” That term was current among Germans well before 1924.
Now I come to a thesis of Black Earth that is questionable. Hitler was “pitilessly consistent, and exuberantly nihilistic”—a linguistic contradiction, though that is not my main objection. My point is this: Hitler was not always consistent, when or because he did not have to be so. Early in his political career Hitler said that states were ceasing to be overall important, that the modern state is a “Zwangsform”—an artificial framework forced on the lives of entire peoples. Perhaps; but once in power he had to deal with states. This was so even after his conquest of much of Europe. Snyder makes too much of this. He writes that even under their German occupation “sovereign” states in Europe existed. He does make the significant argument that during the war considerable numbers of Jews survived in states where there were still governments and bureaucracies (Denmark and, to lesser extents, Italy, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria). Where there were no such remnant authorities the elimination of Jews was entire, without obstacles (Poland, Estonia). But Snyder stretches the category of sovereignty unduly. There were no “sovereign” states in Europe under German occupation. What Hitler, as early as in 1940, demanded was not the imposition or even the adoption of National Socialism in most states but the subservience of their governments to Germany, which he largely achieved.
In sum: Hitler, at least for a time, had to deal with states, rather than with peoples or races. Even before 1939, he wished for a German-British alliance, and in 1940 for a Britain whose sea power and empire could exist next to a Germany dominating the Continent. Here I come to a fundamental matter that Snyder disregards.
In his view Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was preordained. For Snyder, Russia, even under Stalin, was an example, or even an incarnation, of “Judeo-Bolshevism.” I believe that Hitler’s wish to defeat and conquer Russia in 1941 had little or nothing to do with race or even with ideology, but with his actual view of the war: Once he conquered Russia, what could Churchill and Roosevelt do? They would have to face a German-Eurasian empire, one with an enormous, undefeated, and unconquerable army. (Once or twice Hitler told some of his generals that this would lead to a negotiated peace, largely on his terms. What this had to do with “Judeo-Bolshevism” is neither clear nor real.)
Allow me at least to suggest another conundrum that escapes Snyder. Hitler’s obsession with Jews (and, yes, it was an obsession) was neither total nor changeless. There is some evidence that in the 1930’s Hitler allowed a few contacts with a few persons of Jewish or half-Jewish ancestry; and then in 1944 with some emissaries of Jewish institutions. But much more important than such snippets of exceptions was that, until early 1942, Hitler’s goal was not the physical extinction but the forced emigration of Jews, from Germany and then from much of Europe—expulsion rather than extermination. The great exceptions to this were Poland and the Ukraine, where more than two million Jews lived: Should they go on living, during and especially after the war? In early 1942, when their forced emigration or displacement was no longer possible, he chose their extinction. (There are evidences, too, that after this turning point his interest in what was happening to the remaining Jews in Eastern Europe ended.)
We cannot now avoid a profound question: Was Hitler entirely evil? Timothy Snyder implies so; I do not believe it—yet misunderstood I do not wish to be. Am I implying that Hitler was only 75-percent or 80-percent evil? Such mathematical formulae are meaningless. We have been made by God; and there is a potentiality for evil and for good in every human being. What human beings are responsible for is when they choose to do or say things that are evil. Much of human evil is an outcome of human hatred. Telling it is that even before Mein Kampf Hitler often said and repeated in his speeches that Germans must know how and whom to hate. Yes: No Hitler, no holocaust. At least about that Timothy Snyder and this reader of his book agree.
[Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder (New York: Tim Dugan Books) 480 pp., $30.00