Black Earth; The Holocaust as History and Warning

Black Earth; The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder. Crown Publishing, 2015.

Timothy Snyder is the author of the prize-winning Bloodlands; Europe between Hitler and Stalin. His new book attempts to understand the murderousness of both the Russian and German occupations of Eastern Europe during the Second World War. And how the slaughter in each state was conditioned by their political environments in the 1930s


His thesis is that the trajectory of atrocities can be explained by the presence or absence of states, that is governments and bureaucracies and their civil codes. Where those states were annihilated, alternatively by the Russians and the Germans, they became place names. Nationality – Polish Jewry, for example, – was transformed into race – Jewish.


Snyder introduces the notion of “double occupation.” He first looks at the German-Russian negotiations which led to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in September 1939. Less well known are the German-Polish negotiations which preceded that Pact. The two governments conspired to co-operate in remaking the map of Eastern Europe and European Russia. They failed to come to an agreement, Snyder maintains, because the Poles realized that although they would receive territory, they would remain a minor partner in Germany’s plans for the Ukraine and Belorussia and the destruction of Russian Bolshevism. Poland instead opted for an alliance offered them by Britain and France.


Part of that German-Polish negotiations was a plan for the forceful removal of Jews from Eastern Europe. Adolf Hitler was no ordinary German anti-Semite. He believed that the Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe were the remnants of wondering Asiatic tribes and were “poisonous.” There were, however, as of yet no solid plans about how to eliminate Jewish populations, nor yet any death camps. The German did hope, however, that the Poles would carry out spontaneous pogroms.


When talking to the Poles, his diplomats would not have revealed another design, Hitler’s plan to create slave populations out of the Slavs that would serve the master race of Germans. Superfluous Slavic populations would be starved to death.


Snyder argues that Hitler had some early ideas about the planet’s ecological future in which there would be food shortages and starvation. He hoped, however, to ‘allocate that hunger.’ He could not envision anything like the post-World War II ‘Green Revolution’ which has at least postponed starvation.


The Nazis were motivated by the Judeobolshevik myth: Russian Jews were responsible for the Bolshevik Revolution and hence, the German view, doubly damned.


Snyder takes us through the several instances of Germans destroying nations and creating statelessness: Austria (March 1938), Czechoslovakia (March 1939), and eastern Poland (June 1941.) The earlier Russian occupation of Eastern Poland (September 1939), Snyder argues, had produced “resources” that would facilitate the subsequent German occupation. Economic resources: the Soviets had appropriated land and other forms of capital, including Jewish wealth, which the Germans could subsequently seize. Political resources: cadres of Poles had been stripped of their civil rights and expelled from civil society, leaving them to be rounded up by the Germans.  Psychological resources: once an individual or group had collaborated with one occupier, it was easier for the second perpetrator of the “double occupation” to enlist those compromised individuals.


Eastern European Jewish communities were transported to ghettoes and work camps but mostly survived the early years of the war, according to Snyder. Polish Jews were an exception, though there were more Polish Catholics killed by Germans than Polish Jews. Perhaps the most notorious was the 21,892 Polish officers and political elites killed by the Russians in April 1940 in the Katyn Forest and other sites. Snyder argues that the mass killing of Jews began with Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, when Russian Jews became “stateless” in the areas of Russia occupied by the Germans. But even then he points out, the Germans were killing vastly more Russian prisoners of war than Jews.


Snyder would agree with Daniel Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners; Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.)  The Einsatzgruppen and the SS were primarily responsible for the killing. However, the Wehrmacht assisted them; German paramilitary groups and auxiliary police units participated. And the Germans were joined in their slaughter by other nationalities: Poles, Lithuanians, and Russians. Local participation was encouraged!


Thousands of Jews and gypsies were shot by an executioner facing his victim. That took its emotional toll of the Wehrmacht, particularly during the Russian campaign. Carbon Monoxide was tried, piping automotive exhaust into the tightly packed vans. Eventually Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide) was used in the death camps. Of course the least technological solution was simply to allow people to starve to death; the fate of Russian prisoners of war and citizens of Leningrad.


The title of a final chapter entitled “The Righteous Few” is telling. Snyder gives instances of the bravery associated with hiding or in other ways assisting Jews. The penalty, if caught, was generally immediate execution. Hence those “few” are justifiability celebrated in Europe and America after the War.

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