Black Earth

Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder

This is a truly great work of history, one I would highly recommend.  It's also quite a dense and difficult read, which is why it took me something like 3 months to get through.  It took some concentration to read -- something I don't always have in large supply! -- and it was one of those books where it's very easy to read two pages and then realize you have no idea what those pages said.  It was very worth it, though; this is an important work.

An interesting thing about this book is that it barely touches on the usual focus of the Holocaust: Auschwitz and other famous concentration camps.  Most of this book is about the political background and development of the Holocaust, the beginnings, who cooperated and how.  There is much more about death squads in Eastern Europe.

Snyder gives the most lucid and practical explication of Hitler's philosophy -- if such it can be called -- that I have seen.  Hitler said a lot of things, depending on who he was talking to and trying to persuade, so it's important to pin down what he actually thought, which is there to find.  He wasn't quiet about it or anything, he just also said whatever would help him get what he wanted.

The main claim of the book is that the really important element in killing Jews was to take away the state somehow.  If the structure of the state could be destroyed, Jews were extremely vulnerable.  Being a persecuted minority in a state was a good deal better than being stateless.  Thus it was easiest to kill people in Eastern European states where Soviet Russia had already come in and destroyed or changed much of the government; all they had to do was to destroy what was left.  And the killing was first mostly not done by camps, but by squads of men assigned to the job.  Camps came later. 

What made it possible to get squads of men -- who were often not Germans or Nazis, but members of the invaded lands -- to do this job?  Or for area residents to betray their neighbors to the squads?   That's a large part of Snyder's analysis.  An awful lot of them just thought they would profit or benefit somehow.  Many were people who had cooperated with the Soviets; the Nazis made it clear that killing Jews would get them immunity from punishment, and their neighbors' property.  They were promised benefits to their country if they killed Jews.  And there was always the fear of famine and not enough food to go around.

One lesson of this analysis -- and also of Say Nothing, which I was partly reading at the same time -- is one that I can't seem to put into clever words.  It sounds utterly banal.  But so many of these people did terrible things -- because they thought they would get what they wanted if they did.  A lot of the time they wanted something that sounded good, like freedom for their people.  (Or, quite often, a house or apartment, or some property.)  It never worked, though.  Don't commit bad actions in order to get what you want.   You can't build on a terrible foundation.

The idea of rescue seems close to us; the ideology of murder seems distant. Ecological panic, state destruction, colonial racism, and global antisemitism might seem exotic.  Most people in Europe and North America live in functional states, taking for granted the basic elements of sovereignty that preserved the lives of Jews and others during the war; foreign policy, citizenship, and bureaucracy.  After two generations, the Green Revolution has removed the fear of hunger from the emotions of electorates and the vocabulary of politicians.  The open expression of antisemitic ideas is a taboo in much of the West, if perhaps a receding one. Separated from national Socialism by time and luck, we find it easy to dismiss Nazi ideas without contemplating how they functioned.  Our forgetfulness convinces us that we are different from Nazis by shrouding the ways that we are the same. 
A very important book; read it if you can manage to do so.


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