November 20, 2019

The Holocaust in a new and revelatory light

Scholars are notoriously critical and even cranky readers, especially when it comes to the Holocaust. Lucy Dawidowicz (“The War Against the Jews 1933-1945”) was bitterly disparaged by Raul Hilberg (“The Destruction of the European Jews”), and Hilberg was faulted by Hugh Trevor-Roper for inspiring Hannah Arendt’s tendency to blame the victims in “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” may have been a best-seller but he endured a dismissive backlash from his colleagues, ranging from Walter Laqueur to Yehuda Bauer to the inevitable Hilberg, who complained that Goldhagen was “totally wrong about everything.”

So it was not without risk that a young historian named Timothy Snyder ventured into these treacherous waters in 2010 when he published “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” a highly original study of mass murder during World War II that courageously compared the victims of both Nazi and Soviet terror and, intriguingly, reframed the history of the second world war by pointing out that a stretch of territory in Eastern Europe and Western Russia has been mostly overlooked as the ground zero of mass murder in the mid-20th century.

Now Snyder tightens his focus on the Holocaust itself in “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” (Tim Duggan Books), and so far he has elicited only the highest esteem of his colleagues. “Timothy Snyder is now our most distinguished historian of evil,” Leon Wieseltier declares. “As he did in ‘Bloodlands,’ ” Deborah Lipstadt adds, “Timothy Snyder makes us rethink those things we were sure we already knew.” To which I must add my own praise: No matter how many histories, biographies and memoirs you may have already read, “Black Earth” will compel you to see the Holocaust in a wholly new and revelatory light.

From the outset of “Black Earth,” Snyder characteristically challenges the whole body of conventional wisdom about the Holocaust. “Our intuitions fail us,” he writes. “We rightly associate the Holocaust with Nazi ideology, but forget that many of the killers were not Nazis or even Germans. We think first of German Jews, although almost all of the Jews killed in the Holocaust lived beyond Germany. We think of concentration camps, though few of the murdered Jews ever saw one.” Above all, he insists that we have not yet fully understood the Holocaust, even after more than 75 years of effort. “The history of the Holocaust is not over,” Snyder writes. “Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

Hitler’s murderous intent toward the Jews has been no secret since 1925, when “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”) was first published, but Snyder allows the modern reader to see Hitler’s Jew-hatred in a wholly new and unexpected context. “An instructive account of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe must be planetary, because Hitler’s thought was ecological,” Snyder writes. “As in Genesis, so in ‘My Struggle,’ nature was a resource for man: but not for all people, only for triumphant races.” The brave new world that he envisioned would be not only Judenfrei, but also cleansed of all human beings whom he regarded as unworthy of life, and all in order to make room for the master race: “After murder, Hitler thought, the next human duty was sex and reproduction.”

Such vaunting aspirations would have remained nothing more than the broodings of an eccentric if Hitler had not also been a master strategist, or so Snyder allows us to see. By 1939, Hitler had succeeded in placing Germany under his totalitarian rule, pushing its boundaries to the outermost limits short of war, and preparing for the war that the Western democracies were willing to do almost anything to avoid. It is no coincidence, Snyder suggests, that the first shots of World War II were fired in Poland, the home of
3 million Jews and the place where the machinery of the Holocaust would be built and operated.

Along the way, Snyder reveals little-known facts that cast a new light on what may seem like a familiar history. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of right-wing Zionism, argued that the mandate to govern Palestine should be given to Poland, which had a more urgent motive than Great Britain to permit the entry of Jews by the millions. And when Snyder considers the so-called Madagascar Plan, a fantasy of some European diplomats based on the transfer of the Jewish population of Europe to that island in the Indian Ocean, he decodes the phrase: “It was synonymous with a Final Solution; or, in Himmler’s words, ‘the complete extirpation of the concept of the Jews,’ ” he writes. “German leaders would later continue to speak of ‘Madagascar’ even after their men had killed the Jews who were supposed to emigrate there.”

Snyder is a disciplined historian whose stock in trade is the documentable fact, but he has an obvious appreciation for poetry and an appreciation of poetic justice. The book opens with fragments of evocative verse, and Snyder pauses here and there to observe, for example, that the invasion of Poland was “a bloody tragedy that was equal to the darkest poetic fantasy.” At the same time, he marks it as a momentous event in Hitler’s grand strategy, which was fixed on the conquest of the Soviet Union: “The Polish state was to be destroyed because in 1939 Hitler was angry and impatient and had no better way of approaching the Soviet border than by obliterating the country that lay between.” And, at the same time, the outbreak of war was a necessary precondition to the Holocaust: “In the zone of double darkness, where Nazi creativity met Soviet precision, the black hole was found.”

A toolmark of Snyder’s study of history is his insistence on reminding us that, when Germany invaded Poland from one side and the Soviet Union did the same from the other side, “[T]he Soviets were the senior partners in political violence.” And it is a measure of Snyder’s vigor as a writer that he memorably describes their policy of murdering the Polish intelligentsia and terrorizing the rest of the population as “the Soviet decapitation of society … accompanied by a zombification of the social body.” But he also concedes that the Nazis engaged in “unprecedented mass murder” when they convinced themselves, in 1941, that “all Jews under their control could be eliminated,” and set out to do so. “By the end of 1941, the Germans, with help from Soviet citizens, had killed some one million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union.”

Although “Black Earth” is an overview of the Holocaust, no telling detail escapes Snyder’s attention. He ponders (and explains) the fact that Estonia and Denmark have much in common and yet 99 percent of the Jews in Estonia were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, while 99 percent of the Jews who held Danish citizenship survived. He compares the fate of three important chroniclers of the Holocaust — Victor Klemperer, Anne Frank and Emanuel Ringelblum — and explains why only Klemperer survived. And he explains why some of Germany’s allies did not bother to send their Jews to the Bloodlands, but killed them in home-grown Holocausts of their own.

Perhaps the most emblematic moment in “Black Earth” — a moment that is reminiscent of “Bloodlands” — is when Snyder considers the irony of Auschwitz, which was both a death camp and a labor camp and, for that reason, a place where a few Jews could and did survive. “Almost literally no Jew who stood at the edge of a death pit survived, and almost literally no Jew who entered Treblinka or Belzec or Sobibor or Chelmno survived,” Snyder writes. “The word ‘Auschwitz’ has become a metonym for the Holocaust as a whole. Yet the vast majority of Jews had already been murdered, further east, by the time that Auschwitz became a major killing facility. Yet while Auschwitz has been remembered, most of the Holocaust has been largely forgotten.”

This, of course, is exactly what Snyder sets out to correct. “The Holocaust is not only history, but warning,” he writes, and it is a warning that we ignore at our own peril. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the author of “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which is quoted and cited in “Black Earth.”