Black Earth: The Holo­caust as His­to­ry and Warning

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

Indis­pens­able” is an overused term in book reviews, but Tim­o­thy Snyder’s analy­sis of the polit­i­cal, social, intel­lec­tu­al, and his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances that gave rise to and even nour­ished Hitler’s bril­liant mad­ness is tru­ly that. The par­al­lels he draws between con­di­tions in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and those found today in many parts of the world — most notably in Africa — can­not be observed with­out the recog­ni­tion that the breed­ing grounds for ratio­nal­ized mass mur­der are still present in our world today.

Snyder’s obser­va­tions are based on the premise that state­less­ness is the pro­logue and nec­es­sary con­di­tion for geno­cide. Not only are state­less peo­ple the most vul­ner­a­ble, but the ter­ri­to­ries they inhab­it fall sub­ject to struc­tures in which estab­lished legal and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions no longer exist to pro­tect its cit­i­zens — espe­cial­ly its minori­ties — and cit­i­zen­ship is no longer a sta­ble reality.

Hitler, with his con­cep­tion of a nat­ur­al” order based on racial might and test­ed by war­fare, used his mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal pow­er to under­mine sur­round­ing states before herd­ing Jews into those shad­owy places to exe­cute the Final Solu­tion. On too many occa­sions, Hitler ben­e­fit­ed from the fact that the Sovi­ets had done the pre­lim­i­nary work for him, and exploit­ing the anar­chy in their wake made it pos­si­ble for those wear­ing the right uni­forms to take what­ev­er they want­ed to take from the state­less lands. The motive of Leben­sraum was not mere­ly, as pro­mot­ed in Nazi ora­to­ry, about secur­ing space to feed and shel­ter a deprived or con­fined pop­u­la­tion, but about ensur­ing the Party’s own thor­ough com­fort: the Nazis sought lux­u­ries for the vic­to­ri­ous race far beyond necessities.

Sny­der pin­points many mis­cal­cu­la­tions made by Hitler, but also high­lights how many of his cal­cu­la­tions were, amaz­ing­ly, entire­ly accu­rate. Hitler knew what beasts humans could be turned into, and he knew how to do it. The lessons of Hitler’s effec­tive­ness, are avail­able today and have been put to use in such places as Rwan­da, Soma­lia, and Ukraine. Though Sny­der hon­ors those who resist­ed the beast with­in and with­out and who even res­cued or oth­er­wise brought aid and com­fort to the oppressed Jews, he is not san­guine about humanity’s bet­ter selves pre­vail­ing. In com­par­ing the facts of the Holo­caust against the pat­terns of more recent his­to­ry, Sny­der reveals the blue­print of geno­cide lurk­ing beneath cur­rent events, at once astound­ing­ly com­plex and fright­en­ing­ly simple.

Acknowl­edg­ments, archives and abbre­vi­a­tions, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, intro­duc­tion, notes.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions