Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New History: The Holocaust

Black Earth:
The Holocaust as History and Warning,
by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s last book (reviewed previously here) was the much praised--and much talked about--Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. In that book, Snyder sought to shift our collective historical attention about World War II and the Holocaust from Western Europe to the lands of Eastern Europe and the western regions of the Soviet Union (the newly Soviet-seized Baltic Republics as well as Belarus and the Ukraine) where the greatest number of combat deaths and civilian murder took place in the war. In a meticulous and statistical accounting, Snyder chronicled the deaths that took place in the wake of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, which was the scene of an astonishing number of deaths of combatants, partisans who resisted the German occupation, prisoners of war from both sides, and millions of Jews.

Snyder has returned to this region as the major focus of Black Earth, and looks specifically at the origins and development of the Holocaust. In my opinion, he has written the essential history of the Holocaust for our times. In his introduction, he writes, “We recall the victims, but are apt to confuse commemoration with understanding.... The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal and its lessons have not yet been learned.” Snyder analyzes Hitler’s political thought, a belief in which racial struggle took primacy over what he saw as the artificial borders of nations and states, one in which he believed that the natural struggle that was the essence of life could take place and the strong would emerge when states were destroyed. Hitler got the opportunity to put these ideas in practice in the reign of anarchy he created by destroying states in Eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union. Snyder argues that “it was in the zone of double occupation, where Soviet rule preceded German, where the Soviet destruction of interwar states was followed by the German annihilation of Soviet institutions, that a Final Solution took place.” Anti-Semitism alone, he maintains, cannot explain what happened: “This unprecedented mass murder would have been impossible without a special kind of politics.”

Four men with SS-Einsatzgruppe A execute Jews in the
vicinity of Kovno, Lithuania
Snyder shows us how the Holocaust began in Latvia and Lithuania, where a murderous politics emerged as a joint creation of the invading Germans and the locals (the dynamic worked much the same, with some local variations, in Belarus and Ukraine). Supporting the Nazi hatred of Jews pleased the occupier and gained locals amnesty for prior collaboration with their recent Soviet overlords. The annihilation of local Jews also materially benefited locals who had gained from the Soviet expropriation of many Jewish businesses. It made those thefts permanent. There would be no claims from their prior owners for restitution. And the killing of almost all the Jews in Latvia and Lithuania further enriched locals who came into possession of their homes and personal property. This dynamic, one created by the destruction of the state in these occupied lands, with the chaos that ensued, demonstrated to the Nazis that the mass killing of Jews was possible. The greatest killing of Jews occurred in these areas. “The likelihood that Jews would be sent to their deaths depended upon the durability of institutions of state sovereignty and the continuity of prewar citizenship.” 

Ponary, Lithuania: Jews being forced to dig a trench in which
they were later buried

In a ravine at Babi-Yar near Kiev in the Ukraine 33,700 Jews
were murdered in a two-day period in 1941. By the end of the
war it is estimated that 100,000 to 120,000 or more people
were murdered at Babi-Yar.
The lessons learned in western Russia were employed to lethal effect in eastern Poland and other areas of Eastern Europe as the Soviets repulsed the German invasion. For Germany, the war turned from its objective of finding lands and resources for the German nation, Lebensraum, in the rich soils of Belarus and Ukraine, to a total war against what Hitler saw as world Jewry. The death camps, rather than mass shootings over open pits as had been the practice in the Bloodlands, became the means of killing Jews in Poland. The camps were the transport destination of Jews who lived in countries throughout Europe that the Germans occupied. In Black Earth, Snyder expresses concern about the primacy of place of Auschwitz in our memory of the Holocaust. He argues that it causes us to fail to understand the breadth of the Holocaust, and most importantly, the political factors that made it possible, those that developed from the deliberate destruction of state sovereignty. He tells us that by the time Auschwitz began killing Jews in large numbers, “The vast majority of Jews had already been murdered.” He is uncomfortable that in modern memory, “The gates and walls of Auschwitz can seem to contain an evil that, in fact, extended from Paris to Smolensk.” 

By the time the killing began at Auschwitz, most of the Jews
in Europe and the western lands of the Soviet Union had
already been murdered.
Snyder follows this extended analysis with stories of those who helped Jews in varying degrees. There were not many, and we are to understand from this survey that human beings tend to act the same in similar situations and that we are not so different from the people who lived through the times of dislocation and anarchy that made the Holocaust possible. His warnings are eloquent. He sees states as the organized instruments that make human freedom possible. We need to understand and mitigate the future threats to our planet that might result in a real crisis or make plausible the panicked sense of impending catastrophe that created the political conditions that allowed for the Holocaust, “The defense of states and rights is impossible to undertake if no one learns from the past or believes in the future.” We seem to live in a culture in which our vision of the future is people living in a post-catastrophic world. We need to create a vision of the future, he contends, in which we can have faith that we will be able to do the things that will help us avoid the moments of human crisis and chaos that made the Holocaust possible.


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