We are apt to make two mistakes when we think of the Holocaust, Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale instructs us in his extremely important analysis, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Vintage, 2016). The murders of 6 million Jews were not primarily carried out by a tyrannical state that had overwhelmed terrified citizens into passivity. But the facts are complex and the plans were continually shifting.
First, Hitler and those who ideologically agreed with him, considered human reality in racial rather than political terms. The natural state for races is competitive, a state of eternal enmity and conflict in which the fittest race is victorious and the defeated are unworthy of pity or consideration. This noble warfare, however, is interfered with and prevented by Jews, who everywhere intervene to prevent the natural way of doing things. Hitler’s goal was to wipe out this interference so that the contest could regain its natural character. He was confident that the Aryan race could prevail in a natural field of combat.
Second, in order for the Aryan race (Teutonic Germans and their kin) to prosper they needed room to spread out – they needed “black earth” to grow food and be secure. Germany, as hemmed in by political history, had to regain its natural extent, and that meant taking over land from the inferior Slavic race, especially land in Russia and Ukraine. To proceed with that eastward expansion, however, Germany had to close its back door by defeating the French and others in the west. With France defeated, Great Britain would either join the Reich or they would have to be defeated, too.
Things did not go as Hitler expected.
Although Hitler thought political states were irrelevant to the eventual configuration of racial territories, they counted in the meantime. The strategy for gaining living space (lebensraum) in Russia and the Ukraine was to gain access to it through the territory in between. This was accomplished between 1936-1939 by annexation, treaties, and agreements (many of which were duplicitous, but temporarily useful). Then the war began. When Germany over-ran lands to the east beginning with Poland, the rhetoric was that those places had never been real or legitimate political entities. This rendered the people there as essentially stateless. So, as war came there were nation-states that had been absorbed (e.g. Austria) or regained (Poland), some that had been forcefully taken over (Poland, followed by Netherlands, Belgium and France), some that had become allied in the Axis (e.g. Italy), and some that resisted (e.g. Great Britain), and a few that hung onto neutrality (Switzerland).
Snyder makes a solid case that it was the rendering of areas stateless, dissolving their political authority and legitimacy, and turning all the people into unincorporated individuals that enabled the first phase of the Holocaust to begin and proceed with dizzying haste. Nearly half of the Holocaust victims were shot by cooperative residents in order to gain some advantage (such as Jew’s property or positions) under the new regime – and to expunge guilt and gain credibility after collaboration with the preceding regime.
Citizenship, it turned out, was the most dependable protection one could have as the Nazis took over. The Nazi plan to dissolve political entities was to include all of Europe and then the whole world, but the Aryan Army was not invincible after all. Wherever a country got rid of Nazi control as the Germans retreated after losing the war in Russia, the deportation and killing of Jews stopped. Meanwhile, the killing became mechanized as Hitler believed one last thing he could do for the world was to rid it of Jews. He expected to be remembered and appreciated for that.
But details are important, and that’s what makes Snyder’s exhaustive analysis persuasive. He concludes with two somber warnings. 1. “A common American error is to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority.” The burden of Black Earth is to document that it was precisely where state authority was most thoroughly eradicated that the Jews were completely decimated. In most places they were accepted by the people of the region as the convenient scapegoat group, chosen by common consent, to be terrorized and cleansed. 2. “As Russia demonstrated [when they regained Poland and Belarus], the Second World War can shift quickly from being a cautionary tale to an instructive precedent.” Russia used the Nazi model in its empire-building. Even today Russia is positing a new scapegoat, homosexuals, as being responsible for modern decadence, in hopes, Snyder asserts, that the right and left on this issue will engage one another in mutual destruction that will undo the European Union.
I heartily endorse this book, if only for the data and forceful analysis that leads up to his final paragraph which begins, “We share Hitler’s planet and several of his preoccupations; we have changed less than we think.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.