Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Tim Duggan Books, 2015. 480 pp., $30
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” wrote Milan Kundera about the struggle against communism. After totalitarianism, this struggle is against selective forgetting. Official Russia today “remembers” the Soviet and Russian efforts to save the countries between Russia and Germany from foreign and domestic “fascism.” The Soviet Union expanded westward first in 1939 and 1940 to preempt Nazi occupation, goes the line, and then again in 1944–45 to liberate Europe from that occupation and from local fascists. Now Russia portrays itself as the historical “protector” of countries like Ukraine from the return of fascist, nationalist anti-Semites.
One implication of Russia’s selective history is that if East Europeans are fascist genocidal maniacs, they are culturally unsuited for a geopolitical alliance with NATO. Anti-Semitism thus spites the interests of “new Europe” by distancing it from “old Europe,” the United States, and the Atlantic Alliance, leaving Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and others to face the Russian juggernaut by themselves. That is why finding and advertising East European anti-Semitism, old and new, is now in Russia’s interest.
Timothy Snyder, in his much-discussed Black Earth, will have none of it. A history professor at Yale, he correctly notes that the Soviet Union attempted to assign significant responsibility for the Holocaust to Lithuanians and Latvians whose states the USSR destroyed, and to West Ukrainians whose national aspirations it crushed, because the “export of moral responsibility seemed to justify the renewed Soviet takeover of these lands after the war.” But instead of dismissing the Soviet and now the Russian history of these new independent nations as the transparent propaganda it is, Snyder flips it on its head. He wants to absolve the locals from all accusations of historical barbarity, to shift as much of the guilt for the Holocaust as possible onto Nazis and Germans alone:
The racist and colonial idea that the Holocaust began as an elemental explosion of primitive anti-Semitism arose as Nazi propaganda and apologetics. The Germans wished to display the killing of Jews on the eastern front as the righteous anger of oppressed peoples against their supposed Jewish overlords.
That’s true, but Nazi propaganda no more than Russian propaganda can obscure the motives of those complicit in Nazi crimes. When this absolution of the locals proves flimsy, Snyder blames the Soviet occupation for their complicity in the Holocaust. When even that fails to establish the case, Black Earth attempts to disassociate the peasantry not just from the state and the upper classes, such as the Polish szlachta, in societies where class divisions could be extreme, but from the nations themselves, proposing, for example, that Polish-speaking peasants were not quite Polish.
Snyder’s approach probably explains, at least in part, why some prominent Jewish intellectuals have praised the book. It pins the blame solely on the icons of absolute evil, the Nazis, and by so doing simplifies the Holocaust into a passion play. For Jews focused only on themselves and their forebears, and who could not care less about Eastern Europe today, that’s enough to warrant a quick heksher: bang goes the kosher stamp, thanks a lot, what’s for lunch? Black Earth is actually as much about “the Polish breast,” to borrow the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s lively phrase about the origins of Polish anti-Semitism, and more broadly about non-Jewish East Europeans, as it is about the Holocaust. But readers who care only about the Holocaust have not, and probably cannot, see this.
Another reason for the book’s warm reception is that it is written in an engaging and jargon-free style and, like Snyder’s previous book Bloodlands, has been successful in reaching a wider audience than most history books. It makes several important observations by taking a bird’s-eye view of the Holocaust, noting, for example, the Nazis’ improvised methodologies of extermination and the difference between the Nazis’ public mass murders and the Bolsheviks’ clandestine and centralized ones. Significantly, it also debunks the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, calculating that only 4 percent of NKVD employees were Jewish when the USSR invaded eastern Poland and the Baltic states in 1939–40.
The political agenda behind Black Earth does not make it either true or untrue; the only question is whether the historical evidence is sufficient to justify the conclusions. Acknowledging that traditional East European anti-Semitism, though pervasive, was not genocidal, the question is: To what extent were some East Europeans also responsible for or complicit in the Holocaust? Were East Europeans helpless, passive observers and sometimes victims of what Germans did to the Jews? Did some participate in the Holocaust actively by killing Jews, handing them over to the Germans to be killed, or refusing to help them? Since more than one but less than all East Europeans participated as perpetrators, the crucial questions become: How many were complicit, and in what capacities? Here, in trying to answer these and other questions, Black Earth, unlike Bloodlands, suffers from three serious methodological problems.
First, though the Holocaust generated much evidence, there is insufficient data for answering many interesting questions, and especially for making statistical generalizations. Perhaps one day innovative historians with sufficient resources will discover more precise answers to questions that for now remain unanswerable. Black Earth, however, presents speculative answers with insufficient proof, going beyond the available evidence to present underdetermined versions of history for reasons of political expediency. Some of the underdetermined claims of Black Earth also contradict each other, creating an historical narrative that is incoherent. The coherence it does display is of a different kind: All its claims beyond the evidence serve the same political agenda.
Second, Snyder’s two books use different standards for historical contextualization. Bloodlands presented the Holocaust in the context of the genocidal policies of Stalin’s Soviet Union, especially the deliberate starvation of Ukraine—the Holodomor. Some critics took issue with that contextualization, accusing Snyder of discounting the uniqueness of the Holocaust. That criticism was unjustified. A comparison of the policies of the two main totalitarian regimes is instructive for analyzing not only their similarities but also their differences, as long as historians do not fall for the totalitarians’ old ruse of using each other’s atrocities for mutual justification. But contextualization must be applied uniformly. Small, unexceptional, or insignificant historical events are made to seem far more relevant than they are in Black Earth because they are presented without their obvious historical context.
Finally, in its concluding chapter, Snyder the historian attempts to construct political and social theory on the ashes of the Holocaust, and to invoke other themes that have nothing to do with the Holocaust itself, in an attempt to find broader meaning for our times. These excursions never reach their intended destinations. Together with the methodological flaws within the properly historical parts of the effort, they produce at best a mixed result.
Theory Beyond History
Most historians who attempt to explain the Holocaust, including Snyder, agree with Milton Himmelfarb’s famous formulation: “No Hitler, No Holocaust.” Without Hitler’s obsession with the Jews, Germany probably still would have been an unpleasant and belligerent totalitarian state, but the Jews would not have been targeted for extermination.
If explaining is associated with predicting, Hitler is easily explained. Once one reads a bit on and by him, it is easy to predict what he would say about any topic and how he would act. But if explanation is associated with understanding (the German verstehen), Hitler is entirely inexplicable. If we attempt to develop an empathetic understanding of Hitler, we crash into a brick wall. We can attain empathetic understandings of other people by using our imagination to simulate emotions and modes of thought that are more extreme than ours: Józef Piłsudski was more ambitious and Janusz Korczak was more compassionate than I am, but I can understand them by magnifying my own experiences of ambition and compassion in my imagination. But Hitler and some of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust had minds of a different quality, not degree. In that sense, Nazis were not “extremists”; Nazis were different.
There is plenty of evidence for what was going on between Hitler’s ears: Mein Kampf, the incomplete “second book,” the Table Talk, the speeches, and above all the actions. Snyder finds Hitler to have displayed “consistency” and “logic.” Hitler believed in the survival of the fittest races through what Snyder (not Hitler) calls ecological natural selection: Demographic pressure should achieve natural selection through the starvation and extermination of the less fit. Therefore the master race had to guarantee its food supplies by conquering and colonizing lands in the east. Since agricultural science had long since made Malthusian natural selection obsolete, Hitler had to deny and resist it. Hitler believed, according to Snyder, that the “Jews uncannily generated concepts that allowed the world to be seen less as an ecological trap and more as a human order.” The Jews substituted ethics for the power struggle among races and the natural cycle of procreation and annihilation; metaphorically, they clear-cut the Black Forest and put up a charity hospital. The restoration of nature thus required the extermination of the Jews.
Hitler was repetitive; the same “loops” run continuously through his consciousness. But summarizing his obsessions and giving them a label does not amount to understanding him. Psychopaths are incapable of empathy. Without empathy, ethics degenerates into an abstract system of rules that are used to manipulate others in an endless struggle for power. But psychopaths can and do rationalize their obsessions. The historian may then add another layer of rationalization and hence confuse repetitiveness and obsession with consistency and internal logic—which is what Snyder seems to have done.
Hitler’s mental “loops” were not consistent and certainly not logical. Nazi “thinking” posited simultaneously contradictory statements, and never evinced any awareness of these contradictions. So, for example, the Jews were behind both capitalism and Bolshevism; they were both immensely powerful and pathetically craven and weak; and so on. The Nazi concept of race was incoherent, its Malthusianism was inconsistent with history, and the elimination of the Jewish “race” did not follow logically from Hitler’s assumptions in any case. Black Earth rationalizes more than explains Hitler. But nobody can offer a better explanation, at least until there is some breakthrough in abnormal psychology, and maybe not even then.
From psychology Snyder moves on to indulge in political science. Totalitarianism is the most statist ideology and regime type. The totalitarian party-state expands to overtake all the social space between the state and the family, abolishes civil society, and eliminates all alternative, not just political, elites. The USSR and Nazi Germany are the paradigmatic cases of such states. Black Earth, by contrast, argues that the Nazis were not totalitarians but anarchists. The Nazis, claims Snyder, did not attempt to expand and strengthen the German state, but rather wished to weaken it to create zones of Hobbesian pre-state lawlessness, where there would be a war of all against all in which Nazi gangs could roam and kill. They wished to do the same in the countries they conquered. If this thesis is correct, the concept of totalitarianism falls apart or becomes applicable only to the Soviet Union and its lesser Leninist imitators.
There were several differences between Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany. The Bolsheviks had ruled for 16 years when the Nazis assumed power, so they had more time to consolidate total control over the state. The Bolsheviks came to power through a revolution and civil war in 1917–20 against a state that was weaker and more backward than the German bureaucratic state during the Weimar period. Consequently, they destroyed the Czarist state at the beginning, and by means of their party apparatus and secret police constructed a highly centralized totalitarian state. The Nazis came to power initially by parliamentary means and took over the state gradually, first by creating parallel institutions and then by merging them with the existing ones, allowing their cadres to control institutions from within. The most important achievement of this strategy was the unification of the security services under Himmler and Heydrich. The Nazis also did not eliminate the pre-Nazi non-Jewish German social elites; they incorporated them wherever possible and then sent them to war with everybody else.
But these differences do not add up to the categorical difference posited by Snyder. He presents German occupations as designed to destroy states in the service of lawlessness and anarchy. Snyder presents the mass murder of Poles as an attempt to obliterate the existing state, which is true. But the Soviets and Nazis both imposed the preconditions for totalitarian orders in their zones of occupation by killing all the elites, abolishing civil society, and ignoring all law and custom. Both aimed to eliminate all elites, all established social hierarchies, and all independent organizations. That is why both the Soviets and Nazis were so obsessed with killing educated Poles, irrespective of their service to the state or the military.
Since totalitarian regimes are interested mainly in elites, the lower rungs of the state, as Snyder notes (inconsistently with his state-destruction thesis), remained largely intact if they collaborated:
The Germans had neither the will nor the personnel to purge all of the hundreds of local administrators that had just been serving the Soviets—and certainly could not have done so in the brief time between their own arrival and the outbreak of anti-Jewish violence. The whole point of anti-Jewish violence, from a Lithuanian perspective, was to demonstrate loyalty before the Germans had time to figure out who had actually collaborated with the Soviets.
Snyder’s “anarchy” explanation of the Holocaust pivots on the generalization that “minorities depend the most on the protection of the state and upon the rule of law, and it is usually they who suffer most from anarchy and war.” Applied to Poland, his thesis is that the upper classes, the szlachta and a rising bourgeoisie, comprised the Polish state; the peasants were not Polish. The state protected the minorities. When the state was destroyed, sometimes twice (by the Soviets and then the Germans), nobody was left to protect the minorities from the occupiers or the majority. A Hobbesian war of all against all, especially against the Jews, ensued.
The underlying political theory here is that of classical elitist authoritarianism that goes back to Plato. Plato considered the soul to have three parts that are reflected in three social classes. The state rulers are dominated by reason, the multitudes by passions. When the political order was just, the ruling reason of the szlachta tamed the passions of the multitudes. When the Soviets and then the Nazis eliminated the upper classes, they unleashed the passions of the peasants, which were not benevolent, especially toward weak minorities.
As Snyder explains, the Nazis attempted to spread the responsibility for murdering the Jews among their own soldiers and policemen and among the locals in the lands where the killings were taking place. They attempted first to incite the locals to perform pogroms when they arrived and then recruited them to form auxiliary militias to participate in the shooting of Jews in pits, the first and most deadly phase of the Holocaust. Later, the recruited locals and Soviet POWs from “starvation camps” operated extermination and concentration camps. The Nazis organized much of the killing in public. Germans who participated in or observed the spectacle of genocide took pictures and wrote home about it. The contrasting historical context that Snyder provides is of Stalin’s NKVD, whose executioners were a relatively few “professionals” who murdered in secrecy. For this reason, there is so much more evidence, including visual evidence, for the Holocaust than for Soviet mass murders and gulags.
There is little doubt that the Polish countryside was not safe for the Jews who lived there and, after the deportations and exterminations, hid there. Snyder’s explanation is that the Polish peasants were so far from their state that they actually were not Polish, only Polish-speaking:
[I]t is not clear . . . how many Polish-speaking peasants identified with the Polish nation and state in 1939. The social distance between peasants and Jews (although they lived in the same places) and between peasants and Polish officials (although they spoke the same language) was perhaps greater than nostalgic sentiment or wishful nationalism might suggest.
Polish peasants, he suggests, were not loyal to the state; they wanted their own plots and ancient common rights, and were distraught when immigration to the United States was limited. Polish “patriotism” was the pursuit of the intelligentsia, the szlachta, and the middle classes, including some Jews.
But Snyder is speculating, choosing to endorse an underdetermined thesis that pre-modern peasants in the Polish countryside lacked a sense of national identity. Due to conscription, however, the sons of the peasants served in the Polish military. Together with universal basic education, that experience should have instilled in them at least some sense of national identity.
Black Earth also overlooks a context that actually could serve to shift some of the responsibility back to Berlin, even at the cost of the author’s state-destruction thesis: Pogroms did not exclusively follow the destructions of states or double occupations; they were organized by the Nazi state. The first pogrom in the Nazi era was Kristallnacht. It was unpopular in Germany and so the Nazis did not initiate another one on German soil. But when they annexed the Czech lands in two stages in 1938 and 1939, the local Sudeten Germans held festivities that usually included at least the burning of the synagogue (for this reason, surviving synagogues in the Czech Republic are exclusively in formerly Czech ethnic areas). Kristallnacht as well as the Sudeten “celebrations” were organized by Heydrich’s office. Following the Soviet invasion of the Baltic countries, some of the local leaders decamped to Berlin, where they tried to be helpful. By contrast, the Nazis had few established networks in Poland; they had to build what they could quickly when they arrived. The pogroms in Poland that greeted the German occupation were at least in part organized by Heydrich’s office and reflected the comparative weakness of his networks. Snyder’s thesis of the double occupation and the destruction of the state cannot explain them.
A possible alternative to Snyder’s emphasis on the state is to consider civil society. Totalitarian states destroy and atomize civil societies to avoid any challenge to their hegemony, leaving individuals entirely exposed to the manipulation of their petty passions and interests. In countries where civil society was weak to begin with, or where societies were divided into ethnic and religious communities, the Soviet elimination of civil society and the elites, and the institution of a culture of informing, had“prepared” the locals for the arrival of the Nazis. Neighbors kill neighbors in the absence or breakdown of civil society, not the absence or breakdown of the state. Ordinarily, neighbors do not rush to kill each other even in the absence of the police. When they do so in circumstances that are not ordinary, it becomes very difficult thereafter to re-create the trust upon which civil society relies, and so disposes governments toward totalitarian means of maintaining order. It is no coincidence that the country that suffered the most destruction in the war, Belarus, is also the European country with the weakest civil society today, and one that has never transitioned out of totalitarianism.
Black Earth’s conclusion, that “millions of European Jews who were condemned to die at Auschwitz survived” because they were protected by their state, is innovative but false, or trivially true. As of April 1945, about three and a half million Jews were alive in Europe—about two million in Russia, half a million in the British Isles, and one million in Continental Europe. Five out of every seven European Jews who survived the war did so because they lived neither in areas that were occupied by the Germans nor in countries that were allied with them. If we consider them to have survived because “their states protected them,” then Snyder’s conclusion is true, but trivial.
If the state-protection thesis applies exclusively to the other million, then they were saved not because of strong (as opposed to destroyed) states, but because the Germans were losing the war. Most of the mass killing in the Holocaust started in earnest in late 1941, as the Germans began to lose to the Soviets and the United States entered the war, whereupon the Jews lost their value as “hostages.” The impending loss of the war had opposite effects on Germany and its allies. As Snyder correctly explains, for the Germans, the Jews had to pay for the German losses; Hitler considered the extermination of the Jews his last and eventually only “achievement.” Germany’s allies were opportunistic, not fanatic. They killed Jews to satisfy the Germans, but as often attempted to avoid killing Jews because they were afraid of being held to account later. The result was indecisive policies in countries like Hungary and Italy.
Snyder’s thesis is therefore tantamount to saying that only the Germans (and to an extent the Romanians) were fanatical enough to go on with the extermination of the Jews as they were losing the war. The reason is not that organized states were protecting their Jews, but that states allied to the Nazis adopted policies that balanced their fear of direct German occupation with their fear of postwar punishment by the victors. They gave up some Jews, especially foreign Jews, to the Germans, and they attempted to protect some of their compatriot Jews.
Black Earth distinguishes three distinct types of scapegoating in the construction of the Holocaust. (Though Snyder does not refer explicitly to the writings of the theoretical anthropologist René Girard, he is clearly influenced by them.) The Nazis metaphysically scapegoated the Jews. They blamed them for anything and everything, from the loss of the war with the Soviet Union to food shortages. Political scapegoating was used to encourage local collaboration. The Nazis encouraged those who had collaborated with the Soviets to project their own guilt onto the Jews. Economic scapegoating emerged toward the end of the war, and after it, when occupants of “vacant” Jewish properties needed to blame the former owners somehow for having stolen these properties in the first place.
The Nazis’ metaphysical scapegoating is well documented in Hitler’s speeches. The more it became obvious that Germany would lose the war, the more fanatically the Nazis went about killing the Jews. The scope of the second type of scapegoating, however, is underdetermined by the evidence. Black Earth’s thesis is that widespread local collaboration with the Soviets led these collaborators to subsequently prove themselves loyal to the Germans by killing Jews. The real NKVD perpetrators retreated with the Soviet troops, often not before they executed all their prisoners. The collaborators assisted the Nazis in framing Jews for collaborating with the Soviets and “punished” them in order to cleanse themselves. They forced Jews to remove Soviet slogans and monuments, bury NKVD victims, and march with Soviet flags singing Soviet songs before being slaughtered or burned alive.
Ethnic Russians caught in the German occupation behaved like Ukrainians, Poles, and Belarusians, killing Jews as scapegoats and informing on each other and on Jews. The Latvian “Arajs Commando” that participated in the extermination of Latvian Jewry, and then killed non-Jews such as psychiatric patients and Belarusian partisans, were “very likely . . . men who wished to undo the double shame of losing Latvian independence and wearing the Soviet uniform.” Snyder writes “very likely” but he lacks the numbers to back up his thesis.
Snyder carefully debunks the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, and here he does provide the numbers. In the Great Terror, before the Soviet invasions of Poland and the Baltic states, the percentage of “Jews” in the NKVD fell from 40 to 4 percent and all its Poles were executed. Russians and Ukrainians came to dominate the secret police. By “Jews” historians mean people whose ethnic identity was listed as Jewish in their Soviet identity papers. This data can easily be collected and aggregated. But Soviet-constructed ethnic identity had little to do with communal, national, or religious identity, so it is safe to assume that none of the Jewish NKVD employees worshiped in a synagogue, observed Jewish holidays at home, and so on. At most, their parents or grandparents may have practiced Judaism. By the same criteria, Hitler and Himmler would have to be categorized Catholic, and Eichmann a Calvinist. The post-invasion pogroms against Jews identifiable by their traditional garb and appearance targeted exactly that section of the Jewish population, traditional and religious, that was least likely to have had anything to do with communism.
Snyder emphasizes that Polish and Baltic Jews were the most overrepresented group, not in the NKVD, but in the Soviet deportations to Siberia prior to the Nazi occupation. This was because they were overrepresented among class enemies (which goes to prove again that the rich get all the breaks—by getting deported to Siberia they had some chance of surviving; the poorer Jews left behind had no such chance when the Germans arrived). Of the half a million Polish citizens deported from eastern Poland to Siberia, Jews made up 20 percent, despite being only 8 percent of the population; Poles were 60 percent of the deportees and 40 percent of the population; and Ukrainians were underrepresented.
Given that Judeo-Bolshevism was a political myth, it is unsatisfying that the only explanation Snyder gives for its effectiveness is guilt-driven scapegoating. How much political scapegoating was there after less than a year (in the Baltic states) or two (in eastern Poland) of Soviet occupation? Some, to be sure. Yet Snyder undermines the scope of his own scapegoating thesis: Anti-Semitic pogroms following the Nazi occupation did not conform to the pattern of collaboration after the Soviet invasion, but instead to a pre-occupation political pattern. There were more pogroms in southeastern Poland, where Ukrainians had local grievances, than in areas in northern Poland where “only” a few thousand Jews were killed. Areas in Poland with strong pre-war support for Piłsudski or for the Communists killed fewer Jews. The Polish partisans of the Home Army and the National Armed Forces were presumably Polish patriots who never collaborated with the Soviets and did not want to collaborate with the Germans, so they did not need to project guilt on anybody, yet “the home army was instructed to treat armed Jews as bandits. . . . Although the National Armed Forces were much smaller than the Home Army, they probably killed more Jews.” Their “lethal error,” Snyder explains, was the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism combined with the credible fear of the return of the Soviets.
But why did they believe in the myth if they had no guilt to project onto Jews? By the time Polish partisans started searching for and killing Jews who were hiding in the countryside, almost all of Polish Jewry had already perished. What sort of threat could these survivors plausibly have posed to Poland? Surely, in the Polish struggle against the Germans, they could have chosen only one side. The evidence for which partisan group killed more Jews is missing; the partisan executioners did not leave their calling cards, the Jews who were executed could not testify, and informers did not come forward. So Snyder presumes rather than proves that the smaller but more politically extreme group, rather than the larger and more mainstream partisan group, deserves a greater share of the guilt.
Snyder acknowledges that the best bet of Jews in Eastern Europe was to join the Soviet partisans, the only group that did not kill them systematically. But then he criticizes the Jews who joined for participating in actions against the Home Army. Obviously, the Home Army should have given them a better alternative. Once they were in effect part of the Red Army, they acted as soldiers in that army. The same held true for Jews who fought each other in armies during World War I and in the Russo-Polish War of 1920.
A third reason for scapegoating was the appropriation of Jewish property, some of which had already been seized by the Soviets. The ghettoization of the Jews allowed the appropriation of their property even before they were murdered. This generated a material interest in blaming the victims and killing or intimidating them if they attempted to return and repossess their property. “The Germans allowed Poles to steal, and the Soviets allowed Poles to keep what they had stolen. The consequences of the Holocaust became part of the legitimation of Soviet rule,” Snyder writes. Likewise, in the case of German property after the war, the Soviet Union disrupted property rights and then acted as the guarantor for those who benefited from the redistribution in western Poland, the Baltics, Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine. A little known fact is that Poland was the only former Warsaw Pact country to ask the Soviets to keep their soldiers on its soil in 1990, because its government was afraid of German territorial demands following reunification.
The Banality of Good
Snyder claims that people “not very different from us” killed people like us:
If states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted, and economic incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized.
Can he mean that, given appropriate political circumstances, ordinary people would bash the skulls of babies, fling them in the air as target practice, shoot pregnant women, flog naked women so they pose for photos before being shot, lock worshipers in their shrines to burn them alive, engage in sadistic humiliation rituals, kill millions of entirely harmless old, young, and disabled people, and so on?
Some of the people on the lowest rung of the extermination process were probably close to ordinary. The Nazi vision was to turn people into slaves without agency or autonomy, which they achieved through starvation and the constant threat of death. Yet the people above the Jewish prisoners and the Soviet POWs in the hierarchy chose to become sadistic killers. What was the meaning or purpose of flogging naked women, sometimes raping them, filming them, and then killing them? This is not an example, not even an extreme one, of normal male sexuality. Even if we ignore morality, and even if the socio-biologists are right that rape increases male reproduction prospects, murdering women afterwards would remove their rapists’ genes from the gene pool.
Another significant element of the Holocaust was humiliation. What sort of person takes pleasure in humiliating the weakest members of society, who were already dehumanized and doomed to extermination? The real target of the humiliation was perhaps not the doomed Jews, but what Nazis felt the Jews symbolized, namely God. The Nazis had locked themselves into an Hegelian master-slave dialectic with the divine. They needed to humiliate and enslave God to be recognized as gods themselves, and since God was hidden, they had to satisfy themselves with the chosen people as surrogates. These sadists were indeed sociopaths with delusions of grandeur. The “higher” Nazis may therefore have gotten something right when they sensed themselves to be biologically distinct. Their distinction, though, was not racial but psychological.
The thesis that environmental factors, rather than the pathologically obsessive quality of their anti-Semitism, somehow drove the Nazis’ hatred of Jews simply cannot explain the sadistic character of their behavior. Nor can it explain the routinization of mass murder by psychopathic functionaries who managed to misrepresent themselves as normal by appearing conformist. Yet Snyder not only upholds Arendt’s naive banality-of-evil thesis, he adds to it the banality of good. He suggests that the motivations for protecting Jews in the countryside ranged from men’s sexual desire for women, the instinct of families who had lost children to adopt others, and the need for an agricultural workforce after the Germans stole the horses and enslaved the young men.
Snyder brings only anecdotes in support of this thesis. He explains away contradictory evidence, preserved in Yad Vashem’s archive of “righteous gentiles,” of saviors of Jews who received no material gain, by positing that these righteous gentiles had ulterior motives that the Jews whom they saved suppressed out of gratitude.
As Snyder notes, the strategy that maximized profit was to promise Jews to protect them, take their money, and then denounce them, preferably to anti-Semitic partisans who would kill them without killing the denouncer for hiding a Jew. There were such cases. But there were also cases of people who may have had some gain or at least covered their expenses and risk, yet did not maximize their profits by lying and denouncing Jews, and then robbing their dead victims. But without further research it is impossible to estimate how many of the people who sheltered Jews did so in order to denounce and rob them, how many did so for reasons other than profit maximization, how many covered their expenses, and how many were genuinely righteous. There must have been a continuum with many shades, but specifying that distribution must await further research.
A major part of Black Earth is dedicated to Lehi (a Hebrew acronym for Lohamei Herut Yisrael—Fighters for the Liberation of Israel—also known as the “Stern Gang”). This is inexplicable on grounds of historical analysis; it only makes sense as a sidebar to Snyder’s political purpose in the book.
Lehi had but a few hundred members, or about 0.00003 percent of the world’s Jewish population before the Holocaust. It had no connection to the Holocaust, only with pre-war Poland; the Lehi leadership received training and funds from the Polish government, which considered them its agents. Lehi functions for Snyder in the contradictory roles of character witness in the defense of Poland and evidence for the tu quoque thesis—that Jews could have formed the kind of nasty nationalist militia that, in a different context, helped perpetrate the Holocaust in Nazi occupied states. Radical historical decontextualization is necessary for both uses.
Snyder notes that the political-cultural origins of some of the classical streams in Israeli politics were Polish. But Black Earth presents none of these historical links between Poland and mainstream Israel. It focuses entirely on Lehi, which is a wild distortion of a complex relationship. Before the Holocaust, most Jews in Eastern Europe were not political. A minority were Zionists, meaning that they supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Most Zionists were “General Zionists,” supporting the liberal-centrist party of Israel’s future first President, Haim Weizmann. Most of the Zionists in the Yishuv (the Jews of British Palestine) were left-wing labor Zionists. The Zionist Revisionists, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were a right-wing minority both among the Zionists in Europe and in the Yishuv.
Within the Revisionist minority of Zionists (who were themselves a minority of Polish Jews), Betar was the Youth wing. It was founded in Riga in 1923 and had about 70,000 members worldwide during the 1930s, 40,000 of them in Poland. A minority of former members of Betar formed the Irgun, which numbered at most a few thousand members. Betar was not a front for the Irgun as Snyder claims, but its preexisting reservoir. When World War II began, the Irgun declared a ceasefire in its struggle against the British. A few hundred Irgun members rejected the ceasefire and in 1940 formed a splinter group, Lehi, led by Deputy Commander of the Irgun Avraham Stern (better known by his nom de guerre, Yair). It went on fighting the British during the war and was distinguished by its tactic of targeted personal assassination, which the Irgun opposed. In this context, Lehi, as a minority within a minority (the Irgun) within a minority (Betar Revisionists) within a minority (Zionists), was unsurprisingly close to insignificant. Describing Lehi as a right-wing group, as Snyder does, is also misleading, as it had a left-wing anti-imperialist faction.
The military training that the Irgun leaders who later formed Lehi received in Poland also needs to be contextualized. The other source of training and weapons for Lehi was Fascist Italy. Further, Poland’s offer of military training to Jews was nothing special, because Polish military training was available to all Polish-Jewish males. Though there was conscription, some Polish Jews enlisted with the thought of learning how to fight for Poland against the Soviet Union today in order to fight in a Jewish military the day after tomorrow.
Snyder distinguishes the Polish government, or at least leading circles within it, who wanted to “resolve” what they conceived as their “Jewish problem” by assisting Zionists in the creation of a Polish-Jewish colony or state in Palestine, from the Nazis who wanted to create a racial empire in Eastern Europe, empty it of its inhabitants, and build colonies up to the Urals. As Poland had no overseas colonies, an Asiatic state with a majority of Polish speakers was a pleasant prospect—a kind of Polish-Jewish Liberia. But this confuses two different historical contexts. The Nazis instituted a similar policy of assisting Jews to emigrate, including to Palestine, before the war. They negotiated a Transfer Agreement with representatives of the Jewish Agency, whereby German Jews could transfer their capital to Palestine if they used it to purchase German products, thereby breaking the boycott on German exports. Adolph Eichmann was a specialist on Jewish emigration rather than extermination both before and during the time of the Anschluss with Austria.
The goals of the German and Polish policies regarding Jews in the mid- to late 1930s were thus quite similar. Since Snyder does not acknowledge this similarity, he cannot emphasize the differences in means: The Polish state did not enact Nuremberg-like laws. It did not terrorize its Jewish inhabitants or organize the kind of extreme economic pressure on Jewish professionals, traders, and civil servants that the German state did. Consequently, most German Jews emigrated before the outbreak of war, whereas most Polish Jews did not. The sad historical irony is that a bit more Polish anti-Semitism before the war could have saved many more lives than tolerance.
Snyder claims that after 1935 (the year Marshal Piłsudski died) Polish anti-Semitic policies—including the exclusion of Jews from professional associations, the assignment of Jewish students to the back of the class, a law against kosher slaughtering that was not enforced, and above all the loss of Polish citizenship for those who stayed out of the country longer than five years—were “regarded as a loathsome betrayal of tradition and principle by much of the Polish Center and Left,” but “were meant to prevent the pogroms organized by nationalists.” This is as plausible as explaining segregation as an effort by Southern elites to prevent lynching. Snyder acknowledges that the common motivation for both anti-Jewish and pro-Zionist policies after 1935 was anti-Semitism. But he rationalizes Polish anti-Semitism as political and economic, as distinct from the Nazi racial variety. Yet there was no economic rationale for encouraging the emigration of the professionals or the rural middle classes who made up the trade and manufacturing sectors; they could have developed the Polish economy much like non-conformist Christians did in rural England in the 18th century. It was economically suicidal for the Polish state to deny itself the income from the most-taxed social group in the country. But that is what it did.
Snyder also wants to credit Polish anti-Semitism for the establishment of Israel. “The efforts made by Polish diplomats and intelligence officers in the late 1930s to create the conditions for a state of Israel did bear fruit, but only after the war,” he writes. But the much larger mainstream Yishuv and its major military organization, the Haganah, had nothing to do with the Polish government. Their orientation was British, and the British Empire patronized the Zionist movement until the Arab Revolt of 1936–39.
Most disturbing is Snyder’s attempt to excuse local nationalist militias that collaborated in the perpetration of the Holocaust in places like Ukraine by construing Lehi as such a group: “The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and Lehi were fringe groups representing national minorities who could imagine that somehow the destruction of states provided opportunities.” In the Baltics, “Soviet state destruction made the political perspective of people who had been marginal right-wing national terrorists seem like the mainstream.”
But Lehi was nothing like those East European militias. It consciously modeled itself after the Irish Republican Army. It wanted to imitate the Irish struggle for independence and was ready to use similar means. Shamir’s nom de guerre was Michael, after Michael Collins. Some members advocated “population exchange” with Arab countries, which meant the expulsion of the Palestinians. But neither they nor any other Jewish group was genocidal, not in practice, not in theory, not even potentially.
Global Warming and the Jews
There is a genre of jokes that starts with God informing various world leaders that He is about to bring the end of the world. One such joke about a second flood ends with the Israeli Prime Minister declaring in a televised address the fulfillment of a campaign promise and a civic defense announcement: There will never be a Palestinian state, but everybody is drafted the next day for expedited training in deep-sea diving. As I was reading the last chapter of Black Earth, this joke kept ringing in my ears.
In Bloodlands, Snyder referred with approval to Amartya Sen’s famous argument that the causes of hunger in the modern world are always political rather than natural: There is enough food, but problems in distributing it cause famine. Snyder appropriately applied Sen’s theory to Ukraine’s Holodomor; the Soviets caused the 1932–33 famine for political reasons. But Black Earth ignores Sen’s anti-Malthusian conclusion, endorsing instead a Malthusian vision of world history wherein ecological imbalances between people and resources result in the survival of the fittest. At times one could be forgiven for thinking that Snyder is unwittingly echoing Hitler.
The “Green Revolution,” the rise in agricultural productivity, stalled this destiny, Snyder argues, but global warming will restart it, bringing an era when “The earth’s surface grows wild, humans go feral, and anything is possible.” He expects Muslim migrants to bring back anti-Semitism to Europe and blame the Jews for climate change. “In a Middle Eastern war for resources, Muslims might blame Jews for both local problems and the general ecological crisis; that was, after all, Hitler’s approach. Naturally, Israelis could also blame Muslims and seek to draw their American allies into a larger conflict.” The reason is that “some of Israel’s political allies in the United States—Evangelical Christians—tend to deny the reality of climate change while supporting hydrocarbon policies that accelerate it.”
The punch line of this chapter is that the Jews, or at least Israel, are to blame by association for climate change through Evangelical Christianity: Evangelical Christians support Israel for religious reasons and also support the oil and gas industry because they mainly live in Southern states around the Gulf of Mexico where the industry operates and has its corporate centers. (An historical aside: since the major U.S. energy corporations did much of their business in Middle East countries, they traditionally supported the Arabs rather than the Israelis.) Today, the single biggest polluter in the world is China, and Snyder, obviously no expert on energy, is optimistic about its “green” future because it has no oil and gas lobbies. He neglects to note that the main source of energy in China is the far dirtier but cheaper coal, produced by an industry that is a major domestic employer and a power player within the Communist system. Similarly, the domestic coal industry is powerful in Poland and the Czech Republic, where many major politicians deny climate change.
What has any of that got to do with the Jews? Not only do Snyder’s Malthusian speculations have nothing to do with any history of the Holocaust or with the Jews, they have very tenuous links with economic and geopolitical energy realities as well.
Jews understand the sacred as that which cannot be instrumentalized. The use of the sacred demeans and desecrates it. The burnt offerings to God (the original meaning of the Greek etymology of Holocaust, or Olah, in Hebrew) were consumed entirely by fire so they could have no utility. If using the Shabbat candles as light for reading (to confess my favorite childhood sin) is such a desecration, then so is using the Holocaust to push a political agenda. But if it is forbidden, human beings will attempt it. Let us be grateful the world is ordered in such a way that all such attempts will fail.