Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Timothy Snyder
The Bodley Head  480pp  £25

Even against the prodigious catalogue of human criminality that so tarnished the European experience over the course of the last century, the Holocaust  is set apart by its bewildering brutality, its unimaginable extent and its darkly systematic implementation. In this profoundly philosophical work, Timothy Snyder reorientates our understanding of the ideological structures and political circumstances that made the Nazis’ genocidal programme possible. 

In his subtle analysis of National Socialism’s ideological foundations, Snyder places competition for natural resources and for geographical expansion in pursuit of Lebensraum, at the very centre of a closed political vision. It is a vision in which any politics beyond the struggle for racial supremacy and geographical space merely distort a natural ecology in which the strong dominate the weak. Though they might masquerade as expressions of universal human values, other political doctrines - communism, capitalism, liberal democracy - are in reality only cover for the self-advancement of those who profit most from the perversion of the natural order: international Jewry. To restore the natural order, this perceived pestilence would need to be expunged, by eradication or exile. However, it is in his analysis of the special geographical, temporal and political space, in which the massacre of Jews moved from rhetoric to reality, that Snyder’s work is most compelling. In a welcome corrective to the view that mutated state bureaucracy was chiefly responsible for the murder of Jews, Snyder argues that the escalating violence against Jews in collaboration with local populations from 1941 onwards was in fact made possible by a context in which states and their protective institutions had been destroyed: crushed beneath the brutal dual occupations of the Soviets and the Nazis. It was in this stateless space in Eastern Europe that ideological mass murder became a lived reality. 

Snyder is able to deploy compelling empirical evidence to the effect that, where state institutions remained intact (even under Nazi occupation), Jews were better insulated from the Nazi’s exterminatory programme. For instance, in Denmark (occupied by Germany, but with its institutions of state left relatively unmauled), Snyder explains that virtually all the Jews alive at the time of the German invasion in 1940 survived, whereas in Estonia (where pre-war state institutions were  completely destroyed), fully 99 per cent were murdered. Indeed, although Auschwitz has become emblematic of the Holocaust as a whole (despite the fact that the majority of Hitler’s Jewish victims were killed elsewhere and, indeed, were already dead before it became a major killing facility), those Jews the Auschwitz extermination facilities were built to murder mainly lived outside this zone of state destruction. Paradoxically, therefore, those European Jews destined for Auschwitz (such as in Denmark) more often survived than those who were not.   

Snyder’s conclusion is arresting: as the Earth’s climate changes, as demands for resources intensify and where scarcity threatens, the temptation to seek Lebensraum and to seek strategic prizes, such as those that Hitler sought in the fertile black earth of the Ukraine, increases. It is here that the opportunity may reappear for demagogues of blood and soil to designate vulnerable groups as planetary enemies. With some few reservations, this is a deeply insightful and original treatment and, as the Holocaust drifts slowly but surely from living memory and into history, a warning against future complacency.

John Owen has undertaken research on a number of recent BBC2 documentaries, including, David Starkey’s Magna Carta and Churchill: When Britain Said No.


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