History Meets Dogma

One way of putting the Holocaust in perspective.

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin was both critically acclaimed and fiercely denounced. Its detractors accused the Yale historian of relativizing the Holocaust by placing it in the context of the other acts of wholesale violence in the region, particularly the terror unleashed by Stalin against his own people. In Black Earth, Snyder implicitly responds to his critics by stating the obvious: “The Holocaust was different from other episodes of mass killing or ethnic cleansing because German policy aimed for the murder of every Jewish child, woman, and man,” he writes. But he is anything but apologetic.

Part of Snyder’s latest volume elaborates on the themes of his earlier work, while also examining Hitler’s worldview and how it could lead to the conclusion that all Jews needed to be wiped off the face of the earth. His short answer: “This was only thinkable because the Jews were understood as the makers and enforcers of a corrupt planetary order.” However, it is his longer answers in his often-ruminative chapters that make this such a valuable new contribution to a much-dissected subject. They examine everything from the differing prewar views of Jews in Germany and its neighbors, especially Poland, to the broad range of behavior of local populations during the Holocaust.

Snyder begins his study by examining Hitler’s descriptions of Jews in Mein Kampf as “a spiritual pestilence, worse than the Black Death.” Hitler’s creeds, he argues, indicated that he believed that “Jews were not a lower or higher race, but a nonrace, or a counter race.” While real races battled over land and food in a Darwinian world, Hitler maintained, the biggest sin of the Jews was to introduce the mendacious notion that ethics and ideals, including the concepts of good and evil, could and should play a role in the organization of modern society.

For Hitler, “nature was the singular, brutal, and overwhelming truth,” Snyder writes, and nature dictated racial struggles for supremacy, especially over the earth’s limited resources. The only credo was that the strong had to defeat the weak, and any show of mercy was in itself an indication of weakness. “Thou shalt preserve the species,” he intoned. Nothing else mattered. 

This is familiar territory. After all, the idea that the Germans had to fight to expand their Lebensraum and, in the process, subjugate or murder the Untermenschen was at the heart of all Nazi propaganda. But inBlack Earth, Snyder uses distinctly contemporary phrases to describe what he calls Hitler’s “ecological” worldview.

By presenting Jews as an ecological flaw responsible for the disharmony of the planet, Hitler channeled and personalized the inevitable tensions of globalization. The only sound ecology was to eliminate a political enemy; the only sound politics was to purify the earth.

To which a reasonable response might be: “Yes, but why bother to restate such theories using catchphrases of our era?” Far more interesting are Snyder’s observations as a historian who is not afraid to press his thesis that the Holocaust, while a singular event, did not occur in isolation. It was no accident that the Holocaust played itself out on territory between Russia and Germany that had endured the terror of “double occupation,” he argues. When the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in 1939 as a logical sequence to the Nazi-Soviet pact, Stalin’s henchmen promptly began deporting hundreds of thousands of Poles to the Gulag and murdering thousands of Polish military officers. In their part of occupied Poland, the Germans began by executing the Polish elite as well, everyone from university professors to early underground activists. Jews, at that point, were usually targeted because they fell into such political and social categories, not primarily because of their race.

The opening acts of the Holocaust took place after Hitler broke off his de facto alliance with Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. The early mass executions of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and others by Einsatzgruppen, special killing squads, largely occurred in the territories that had already been occupied and terrorized by Stalin’s security apparatus. These populations had lost any semblance of statehood, their leaders, and often their livelihoods. For instance, as a result of Stalin’s forced collectivization policy in the early 1930s, more than three million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died of starvation and disease. Little wonder that many Ukrainians initially viewed Hitler’s invading armies as liberators, only to be quickly disabused of that notion by the German dictator’s ruthless policies.

Snyder points out that Hannah Arendt, no stranger to controversy about the Holocaust herself, made a similar observation. Jews, she noted, “were threatened more than any other by the sudden collapse of the system of nation states.” Even in prewar Eastern European countries, where antisemitic attitudes and policies were often commonplace, the existence of the state offered more basic protections than what would soon follow.

As Hitler saw it, the Soviet Union was a Jewish empire, Snyder explains, and his followers eagerly propagated the myth of “Judeobolshevism.” In other words, the entire Communist experiment was a Jewish project. This was both Nazi doctrine—and a poisonous weapon to be exploited. When Hitler’s armies were pushing eastward, they were encountering local populations that had been forced to collaborate with Soviet authorities, the previous occupiers. Jews were among the collaborators, but far from the majority of them. “In defining communism as Jewish and Jews as communists,  the German invaders in fact pardoned the vast majority of Soviet collaborators,” Snyder notes.

Ukrainian nationalists who participated in pogroms as the German forces arrived were helping the new conquerors “translate the experience of Soviet rule into a fantasy of Ukrainian innocence and Jewish guilt,” Snyder writes. Many of the Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, and, yes, Russians who attacked Jews had been Soviet collaborators; in a world of double occupation, double collaboration was all too common. And what better way to prove your loyalty to the new German masters than to kill Jews? In some cases the tradeoff was clearly spelled out: Imprisoned young Lithuanian Communists were offered their freedom if they would murder a Jew.

Of course, it was the Einsatzgruppen, backed by regular German Army units, who carried out the major massacres of approximately one million Jews in that first chapter of the Holocaust, marked by the methodical executions by firing squad in town after town, village after village. But the Nazis sought to recruit, or at least implicate, the local populations wherever possible, especially in the double occupation zones. Collaborators could also share in the spoils, seizing the belongings of victims.

The iconic symbol of the Holocaust is Auschwitz but, as Snyder points out, that camp became the major killing ground for Jews only in 1943-44. Before then, in 1942, some 1.3 million Polish Jews were murdered in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. To be sure, Auschwitz was where the gas chambers started working with deadly efficiency, speeding up the process of mass murder. But Snyder is troubled by the conflation of Auschwitz with the entire Holocaust, which “made plausible the grotesque claim that Germans did not know about the mass murder of the European Jews while it was taking place.” He concedes that some Germans did not know exactly what was happening in that camp, but “millions of Germans” knew about the earlier mass executions on the Eastern Front from the letters, photos, and stories of the executioners themselves, along with the stream of loot they sent home.

Snyder argues against any sloppy syllogism along the lines of Eastern European countries were antisemitic before the war; Jews died there during the war; therefore, it was local antisemitism that killed the Jews. The world’s largest prewar concentrations of Jews were located in Poland and the Soviet Union. To fulfill Hitler’s vision of a world without Jews, his executioners did their work in the places where most of them lived. To that end, they destroyed the states and institutions that had allowed Jews and gentiles to live together for centuries—despite frequent tensions and, at times, violence on a scale that cannot be compared to what followed.

Then there were the anomalies that defy easy explanation. In the Netherlands and Greece, there were very few virulent antisemites, while antisemitism was far more prevalent in France. Yet, Snyder notes, three-quarters of French Jews survived while three-quarters of Dutch Jews and Greek Jews were killed.

Snyder paints a particularly complex picture of Polish-Jewish relations, both before and during the war. Even when the relatively liberal autocrat Marshal Józef Piłsudski died in 1935 and was replaced by a right-wing regime, the government supported the aspirations of Zionist activists by providing military supplies and training. Polish Army officers helped train the young men of Betar, the Jewish right-wing paramilitary group that included Menachem Begin as one of its leaders. They also backed Irgun, the paramilitary group that was already fighting against the British in Palestine and attracted many of the Betar members from Eastern Europe. The Poles were eager to encourage migration to Palestine as a way of reducing their Jewish population, and antisemitism was officially tolerated after Piłsudski’s death. But his successors rebuffed Hitler’s overtures to join forces with him against the Soviet Union as part of a worldwide crusade against Jews.

During the war, the Polish government-in-exile and Jan Karski, the famous courier of the Polish underground, warned the West about the Holocaust, providing detailed, chilling testimony about what was happening inside their occupied country. While some Poles denounced or even killed Jews, others risked their lives to save them. The Polish Home Army, the largest resistance movement, had a special unit that saved Jews. Among the saviors were antisemites, again demonstrating the complexity of the times. The odds for survival had more to do with the level of organization and dedication than the personal views of the saviors, Snyder insists. While some people saved Jews on their own, they were certainly the exceptions.

In his final chapter, Snyder warns against the complacent assumption “that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized.” He is hardly the first to suggest Nazi analogies to the current era. But he risks losing a lot of readers when he slips into a rambling discussion of global warming and denounces conservative politicians who “deny the validity of science.” How this ties into the Holocaust becomes murkier and murkier, but it does explain his effort to frame his argument using contemporary political terms. He suggests that those who deny science and “fantasize about destroying governments” are conspiracy theorists who “edge towards Hitler.”

For a historian who has done an impressive job presenting his extensive research, and spurred genuine intellectual debate with controversial ideas, the temptation to take the next step and apply history’s “lessons” to today proved too powerful to resist. That’s unfortunate, since there is a rich trove of information and reflection in this volume. The final chapter only detracts from Snyder’s accomplishment.

Andrew Nagorski is the author of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power. His next book, The Nazi Hunters, will be published next year.