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 in Black 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.