Nazi Garden Party

Hitler the Mass-Murdering Ecologist?

Timothy Snyder’s new history of the Holocaust has many theses, but its biggest is also its most flawed.

09.27.15 4:01 AM ET

The first sign that Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth is not just another history of the Holocaust can be found in the blurbs on the back cover. These endorsements come not from historians but from famous diplomats like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and influential intellectuals and journalists like Leon Wieseltier and Jeffrey Goldberg. Clearly, Black Earth is meant to shape not just our understanding of the past but of the present and future; it is an intervention not just in historical debates but in political ones. This is in keeping with the developing public profile of Snyder himself.

Since the 2010 publication of Bloodlands, his influential book about Soviet and Nazi depredations in Eastern Europe, he has emerged as an important commentator on Eastern European affairs, and in particular a strong critic of Putinist aggression in Ukraine. Writing in the New York Review of Books this summer, Snyder warned that Russia’s slow-motion invasion of Ukraine was not just a political crisis but a “philosophical crisis,” whose stakes were nothing less than “the erosion of Europe as a source of and home for universal values.”

Black Earth has been duly received as an important book, with long and serious reviews in all the major English and American venues. Yet this reception has not been especially warm. In particular, it’s noteworthy that the leading historians who reviewed the book—Michael Marrus in the New York Times Book Review, Christopher Browning in the New York Review of Books, Richard Evans in the Guardian have been largely skeptical. They take issue with Snyder’s interpretation of particular issues — the role of local collaborators in the Holocaust, the connection between Hitler’s territorial ambitions and his anti-Semitism. But also, more fundamentally, they seem to dislike Snyder’s very attempt to make the Holocaust, in the words of his subtitle, a “warning” as well as a “history.” They correctly perceive Snyder’s break with historiographical protocol, his desire to influence as well as educate. This ambition animates the whole book but comes to the fore in his concluding chapter, pointedly titled “Our World”; this is the part of the book that Evans called “wild in the extreme,” and that Browning called “a perilous venture.”

To understand Snyder’s prophecies, however, it’s necessary to come to grips with his interpretations of the past. Black Earth is a challenging book in part because it has not just one historical thesis, but a whole handful, whose connections are not always obvious. It reads less like a chronological history than like an extended essay, in which Snyder zeroes in on particular themes and problems that he believes are misunderstood by the educated public. (This emphasis on correction may be another reason for the hostility of the historians; after all, they are the ones being implicitly corrected.) Among the topics he discusses are some of the most delicate and controversial in Holocaust studies: the collaboration of Eastern European peoples in the murder of Jews, the role of the Soviet Union in laying the groundwork for genocide, and the contacts between fringe right-wing Zionists and the Third Reich. Yet unlike Norman Davies, to take one notorious example, Snyder is able to discuss these morally complex subjects without seeming censorious or aggrieved. His compassion and obvious moral integrity are central to his power as a historian.

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Perhaps the most important, and surprising, thing about Snyder’s approach to the Holocaust is that he is not especially interested in anti-Semitism. The Holocaust is most easily understood—in the terms advanced by blunt-force polemicists like Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, in Hitler’s Willing Executionersas an expression of German Jew-hatred. What else if not hatred could lead so many ordinary Germans to be accomplices to the murder of six million Jews? Isn’t the Holocaust the culmination of a millennial tradition of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, of the kind that David Nirenberg recently documented in his book Anti-Judaism? Germans, and others across Europe, killed Jews because they wanted to kill Jews; that was the core of their guilt. And if this is true, then the “warning” the Holocaust offers has to do with avoiding prejudice and xenophobic hatred, especially but not only against Jews. This is a moral task incumbent on each individual; and that is probably the way the Holocaust is taught and understood in most schools, as a moral lesson.

Snyder, by contrast, spends little time discussing the history or psychology of anti-Semitism. In his introduction, “Hitler’s World,” he situates Hitler’s own Jew-hatred in the context of his racist and Darwinian worldview, according to which life on earth was a perpetual struggle of races for survival and superiority. The Jews, however, were not merely a rival race; they were “a nonrace, or a counterrace.” They didn’t play by the rules of racial struggle, but duped other peoples by inventing ideologies like Christianity, liberalism, and socialism, which elevated the individual over the group and justice over victory. For Hitler, all such notions of fairness and justice were Jewish tricks, and it was only after the annihilation of Jews and their ideas that the Germans, as a master race, would enjoy the triumph that was their due.

Crucial for Snyder is the idea that Hitler was not, in the ordinary sense of the word, a German nationalist. A nationalist identifies with a particular nation and state, and wants to aggrandize that state by making it bigger and richer and more powerful. Hitler, who was born in Austria, was essentially indifferent to Germany as a country; he had no interest in its laws, traditions, borders, or even the well-being of its people (as became clear during the disastrous final phases of World War II). What mattered to him, rather, was the Aryan race; and because he believed that racial struggle was permanent and natural, his vision of geopolitics involved endless struggle to the death against other racial groups, such as Slavs. He was, in Snyder’s phrase, a “zoological anarchist,” who saw human beings as violent animals, rather than as political subjects.

In this opposition between politics and violence, we see the germ of what will become Snyder’s key argument in Black Earth. This is the idea—formulated by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, a key inspiration for Snyder—that politics were not to blame for the Holocaust. Rather, the Holocaust took place only in those places where politics had ceased to exist. As Snyder argues in his chapter “Sovereignty and Survival,” the Nazis killed the greatest percentage of Jews in countries like Poland and Ukraine, where they had done away with government and law altogether. Jews were most likely to survive in countries like Bulgaria and Denmark, which retained some degree of sovereignty and thus had room to resist or bargain with Nazi demands. “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,” Snyder writes. This conclusion vindicates the insight of Arendt, who argued that the first step in the Nazi genocide was to render the Jews stateless, depriving them of any claim on the protection of laws and governments.

The trademark of Snyder’s analysis is to see politics at work where others see only instinct and prejudice. This is the case when he comes to analyze the collaboration of Eastern European populations with the Nazis, without which the Holocaust could not have taken place. Why, Snyder asks, did Ukrainians, Latvians, and Poles participate so eagerly in the murder of Jews? It was not, he maintains, because of simple anti-Semitism: “The notion that local east European antisemitism killed the Jews of eastern Europe confers upon others a sense of superiority akin to that the Nazis once felt,” he writes hyperbolically. Rather, Snyder argues that Eastern European peoples hurried to collaborate with the Nazis as a way of effacing or atoning for their prior collaboration with the Soviets, who had occupied Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States before the Nazis arrived. In other words, their motives were political: they were acting rationally in response to a new set of political incentives. This is meant to rehabilitate them in the eyes of the reader, by eliminating mere instinctive Jew-hatred as a motive for their actions; though whether self-interested murder is less reprehensible than hateful murder is an open question.

The supremacy of politics, finally, connects Snyder’s historiography with his prophecies. The reason Hitler was so dangerous, Snyder argues, is that he abolished politics as a distinctive sphere of life, governed by ethics, law, tradition, and theory. In its place he put the struggle for mere existence, in which human beings were considered as animals. In particular, Hitler was obsessed with the need to secure food supplies for the Germans, which he hoped to do by annexing the fertile “black earth” of the Ukraine. Today, in our age of ecological anxiety and climate change, Snyder warns that it is entirely possible that such a contest for resources will once again turn politics into an outright war of all against all: “a vicious circle can begin in which politics collapses into ecological panic.” In such circumstances, the scapegoating impulse that led Hitler to blame the world’s evils on the Jews could well return, with the Jews or some other group as the chosen targets. (Vladimir Putin, Snyder points out, has already begun speaking of an international gay conspiracy in terms that recall classic anti-Semitism.)

Because Black Earth touches on so many subjects, it is open to a variety of lines of criticism. Some of these are questions of emphasis. Is it necessary for Snyder to pay so much attention to the minuscule and ineffective Lehi group of Zionist terrorists, whose role in the story of the Holocaust is effectively nil? Does he spend too much time telling stories of individual resistance and rescue of Jews, when again these are a small part of the whole story? Others are matters of historical debate: Richard Evans argues that Hitler developed his Final Solution in July 1941, when the invasion of the USSR seemed to be succeeding, rather than in December 1941 as a reaction to its failure, as Snyder believes.

These are questions that historians have already begun to debate, and rightly so—that is what historians are for. But Black Earth is also addressed to the general reader, and so it’s also worth asking what such a reader ought to take away from the book. Is Snyder’s argument about the primacy of politics and the danger of anti-politics convincing? Can a line be drawn from Hitler’s Darwinian vision to the ecological crises of the present day? Does Black Earth serve as a “warning” for us all?

The central problem with Snyder’s argument, it seems to me, lies in the ambiguity of the term “ecological” as applied to Hitler’s thinking. Hitler’s belief that it was necessary to secure additional territory for the German people, in order to guarantee their Lebensraum or “room for living,” does not seem essentially different from the motives of many conquests throughout history. Surely the desire for land and riches has always been the chief driver of war. And if the nightmare scenarios of Snyder’s last chapter come to pass—a Chinese invasion of Africa, for instance—they will not be inherently novel, or necessarily genocidal.

It is not here that we should look for the specific difference of Hitler’s racism. His conviction that Jews are responsible for the world’s evils was not so much a belief that Jews “upset the balance of nature,” in some ecological or environmental sense, as a metaphysical claim. That is what made his hostility to Jews different, and more dangerous, than his hostility to the Slavs or for that matter the French. These groups might be rivals for resources, but the Jews were (as Snyder himself says) against and beyond nature, the bearers of an ineradicable corruption and evil.

The continuity of this belief with generations of Christian and Enlightenment anti-Semitism is impossible to miss; as is its continuity with the resurgent anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism of our own day. The belief that history is a problem with a final solution, and the further belief that this solution involves the elimination of Jews and Judaism, is too deeply rooted in European thinking—medieval and modern, left and right—to be easily uprooted. This does not mean that Snyder’s defense of politics is wrong; he is surely right that the preservation of liberal political regimes is crucial for the prevention of mass killing. But it is not only animal need that can overturn such regimes, and biological thinking is not the only danger to political thinking. Indeed, we are such creatures of imagination that what we call biology is usually just a disguise for ideology; and it is the desire to be saved, rather than the desire to be fed, that drives humans to their worst crimes.