Black Earth – The Holocaust As History and Warning
By Timothy Snyder
The Bodley Head – £25.00
The Holocaust is not only history, but warning.
How very true, for in light of what happened in Paris a mere few days ago, we really do need to ask ourselves if we have we actually learnt anything as a result of The Holocaust? Reason being, there are those who, for whatever delusional reasoning, readily subscribe to ”the temporary strains of murder” being ”a worthy sacrifice to the future of the race.”
As such, ignore this book at your peril.
Not for nothing has Timothy Snyder’s marvelous, albeit very dark and harrowing Bloodlands – Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which I reviewed on this site in 2011: https://davidmarxbookreviews.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/bloodlands-europe-between-hitler-and-stalin/ since received the Hannah Arendt Prize, the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding and the literature award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And when aligned with the fact that Snyder is also a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement as well as a former contributing editor to the New Republic, it really ought come as no surprise that his new book, Black Earth – The Holocaust As History and Warning, is something of an epic, humanitarian work of nigh meticulous beauty.
Not that I’ve read every book on the Holocaust, but of the ones I have read (and often reviewed), this surpasses most. Thus accounting for it perhaps being one of the finest I’ve ever had to come to terms with. To quote Leon Wieseltier: ”Timothy Snyder is now our most distinguished historian of evil. This is a haunted and haunting book – erudite, provocative, and unforgettable.”
One of the many reasons Wieseltier and myself might actually feel the way we do, is because Black Earth wrestles, tackles, addresses and defines so many uncomfortable, yet phantasmically dark areas that are so irredeemably entrenched within that of mass murder.
Yet, to say it does so from an exceedingly well researched premise of philosophical, as well historical, psychological, as well as political variants – is a vast understatement. Simply because said premise never ceases to so strongly resonate with the trajectory of time and pain.
Film and literature. Heartbreak and sorrow.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing and didactic of these is the fraught mindset of Adolf Hitler’s depraved and utterly ill-informed lunacy, of which Snyder so tenaciously writes: ”[…] for Hitler, there was no human history as such. ”All world historical events,” he claimed, ”are nothing more than the expressions of the self-preservation drive of the races, for better or for worse.” What must be registered from the past was the ceaseless attempt of Jews to warp the structure of nature. This would continue so long as Jews inhabited the earth. ”It is Jewry,” wrote Hitler, ”that always destroys this order.” The strong should starve the weak, but Jews could arrange matters so that the weak starve the strong.This was not an injustice in the normal sense, but a violation of the logic of being. In a universe warped by Jewish ideas, struggle could yield unthinkable outcomes: not the survival of the fittest, but the starvation of the fittest.”
Hence the sentence: ”Tens of millions of people would have to starve so that Germans could strive for a standard of living second to none.”
Along with the two afore-quoted sentences at the outset of this review, there are a further number of very powerful, perplexing one-liners throughout these twelve chapters, that at first glance, quintessentially trigger a profoundly personal preponderance that continue to remain stunning as well as relevant. Current as well as frightening:
”Why do strangers kill strangers? And why do neighbours kill neighbours?”
”For Hitler the bringer of the knowledge of good and evil on earth, the destroyer of Eden, was the Jew.”
”Ideas of political reciprocity, practices in which humans recognize other humans
as such, came from Jews.”
”Africa as a place was lost, but ”Africa” as a form of thinking could could be
While naturally those espoused by Hitler, are all the more venomous and preposterous:
”Our racial enemies were chosen by nature, and our task was to struggle and
kill and die.”
”Therefore I believe myself to be acting according to the wishes of the Creator.
Insofar as I restrain the Jew, I am defending the work of the Lord.”
”Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew.”
Furthermore, one aspect of Black Earth I found particularly pertinent, is its crystal-clear exploration into that of the scourge known as racism – surely one the vilest of sociological cancers inexorably available to man. Not mankind, as there really is nothing kind about any man who subscribes to said illness of ideology: ”Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonization of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imaginations of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. Like millions of other children born in the 1880s and 1890s, Hitler played at African wars and read Karl May’s novels of the American West. Hitler said that May had opened his ”eyes to the world.”
Karl May may have indeed opened Hitler’s eye to the world, but it was through a seemingly contaminated and rather myopic lens, through which Hitler chose to (only partially) see.
It was thus, adamantly considered viewing, the result(s) of which were ultimately Munich and Poland, The Blitz and of the course, The Holocaust.
The malignant manifestation of which, as Snyder explains, was colonization: ”The history of the colonization of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavour the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples […]. Hitler’s racism was not that of a European looking down at Africans. He saw the entire world as an ”Africa,” and everyone, including Europeans, in racial terms. Here, as so often, he was more consistent than others. Racism, after all, was a claim to judge who was fully human. As such, ideas of racial superiority and inferiority could be applied according to desire and convenience. Even neighbouring societies, which might seem not so different from the German, might be defined as racially different.”
Once again, the ”desire” of said ”convenience” was utterly polar if not both tantamount and paramount to that of all reasoned reasoning; if indeed, such a thing actually existed within the confined parameters of Nazi Germany.
These 342 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, A Note on Usages, Published Sources Archives and Abbreviations and Index) traverse a very wide and in-depth terrain of how The Holocaust could have happened to begin with, what it meant to Hitler, and, as its title essentially suggests, what it means within the vast pantheon of history.
But where Black Earth resonates with the most potency, is within the ever fluctuating gambit of warning.
As that other terrific writer of history, Ian Kershaw, has since remarked: ”Thought-provoking and disturbing… Black Earth uses the recent past’s terrible inhumanity
to underline an urgent need to rethink our own future.’
The endless possibility of which, for better or for worse, lies within each and every one of us, just as it did when the ovens were in operation almost twenty-four hours a day: ”Where Germans obliterated conventional states, or annihilated Soviet institutions that had just destroyed conventional states, they created the abyss where racism and politics pulled together towards nothingness. In this black hole, Jews were murdered. When Jews were saved, it was often thanks to people who could act on behalf of a state or by institutions that could function like a state. When none of the moral illumination of institutions was present, kindness was all that remained, and the pale light of the individual rescuers shone.”
Henry Kissinger has referred to this altogether outstanding book as ”Part history, part political theory,” as well as ”a learned and challenging reinterpretation.”
That it most certainly is. Although more than anything else, it really is a warning.