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Books Review: Black Earth, Timothy Snyder’s new book on the origins of the Holocaust, is sure to spark controversy

Timothy Snyder

Ine Gundersveen

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books / Crown

In 2010, Timothy Snyder, a Yale University history professor, wrote Bloodlands, a bestselling, though controversial, study of the linkages between the brutality and carnage resulting from communism and Nazism as enacted by their respective dictators, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Snyder was praised for his creative approach and engaging prose in describing and analyzing the mass killings that took place between 1933 and 1945 in the western Soviet Union and eastern European geographic area that he designated as the "Bloodlands." But he was equally criticized for ignoring or dismissing factors such as the fanatical ideology of the Nazis and the (independent) anti-Semitic actions of Eastern Europeans that did not fit precisely into his thesis.

Five years later, he has returned with Black Earth, a sequel of sorts and a rejoinder to his critics. In this new work, his prose remains as engaging as ever. Yet his thought-provoking "take" on the Holocaust, a circuitous and often abstract analysis of cause and effect, of the motives and actions of the perpetrators and collaborators, and the tragic experiences of the victims – Jews as well as other Europeans – is certain to generate as much comment and criticism as Bloodlands did. Perhaps more.

Was the Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of approximately six million European Jews during the Second World War, unique in the history of Western civilization? Snyder offers a qualified "yes," but not with the generally accepted reference to the industrialized mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other Nazi death camps. As he argues in one of several debatable conclusions: "The vast majority of Jews were murdered elsewhere [shot in pits or at three other death camps] and indeed were already dead by the time Auschwitz became a major killing facility."

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His narrative focuses on several overarching themes. The first is that the traditional interpretation of Hitler as a slightly psychotic fascist-nationalist empire builder is incorrect. Instead, Snyder utilizes Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler's diatribe about anti-Semitism, history and other assorted subjects that he composed while he was imprisoned in 1924 for his role in the ill-fated Munich Putsch, to delve deep into the inner recesses of the Fuhrer's mind. Snyder concludes that the Holocaust was born from Hitler's Social Darwinistic and eugenics-inspired global vision of cleansing the earth of Jews. Only in this way would the planet be saved. Related to this was Hitler's concept of Lebensraum or living space. This was much more than providing Germans with sufficient land, as has been usually postulated. Rather, Snyder argues, Lebensraum in Hitler's writings "expressed a whole range of meaning that he attached to the natural struggle, from an unceasing racial fight for physical survival all the way to an endless war for the highest standard of living in the world."

Hence, if Snyder's theory is accepted – and many historians will question it – then it follows that from 1933 to 1939 the various attempts by Western powers to appease Hitler were truly futile since his strategic objectives were not concerned with a choice between peace and war, but with an abstract notion of a global struggle. Ground zero in this battle was the agricultural lands of the Soviet Union, which would provide the food for the growth of the German master race. At the same time, the millions of Jews who resided in this area could be eliminated through deportation to Siberia or Madagascar, or in some other way yet to be determined in the late 1930s.

This "Judeobolshevik" conception or myth as Snyder terms it, "allowed Hitler's view of a planetary ecosystem polluted by Jewish ideas to become a specific program for violence." This, argues Snyder, was the reason Hitler initially courted Poland as an erstwhile ally, and then when that ploy failed why he agreed to the Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin, his declared enemy. It was more than an act of convenience; it fit into Hitler's overall plan to reshape the world. The German attack on the Soviets in June, 1941, marked the real start of the Holocaust as in the five months that followed more than a million Jews were slaughtered in death pits at Babi Yar near Kiev and the Ponary, outside Vilnius, among many other execution sites. Had Hitler been able to quickly defeat Stalin and occupy the Soviet Union, as he had intended, the Holocaust likely would have proceeded much more slowly in Snyder's view. But once the Nazis became stalled outside Moscow and the Red Army soon pushed back, the tragic fate of millions of Jews caught in this geographic area where no state law or bureaucracy existed to protect them was sealed.

Snyder definitely does not ascribe to Ockham's razor, the dictum that "the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex." He prefers it exactly the reverse: the more complex, the more it fits his historical hypotheses. In his quest, moreover, to establish discernible trends and patterns, he frequently makes sweeping generalizations about who was killed, when, where and why; about the behaviour of East European collaborators, informers and rescuers, a touchy point to this day; and advances conclusions about geography and demographics without support from tables or population graphs that would have gone a long way in strengthening some of his more questionable assertions.

The Holocaust does not fit easily into a theoretical model of the type Snyder has constructed. By its very design, it did not take place in a neat chronological order. And, despite the top-down Nazi hierarchy, many decisions and actions at thousands of European locales were left to the discretion of underlings who believed they were implementing Hitler's overall objectives. Thus, making clear sense of how the Holocaust unfolded has been problematic.

In the fall of 1941, as Snyder relates, a German (Austrian) soldier who had been assigned to a killing squad in Belarus wrote home to his wife about the "difficult" task of murdering Jewish infants. "During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it," he noted. "By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse…Infants flew in great arcs in the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water."

No academic theorizing of the kind presented by Snyder, no matter how brilliant, will ever truly make such incomprehensible horror understandable.

Historian and writer Allan Levine is the author of Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War. His most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.

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