Book Review: Black Earth
by Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan/Crown Books, 2015
Several of the bolt-rifle pronouncements in Timothy Snyder’s new book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning will be familiar in tone and thought-provoking vigor to anybody who read Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands. He writes about “the story of survival” at Auschwitz, for example, and the ways it’s entered the collective memory, and the bulk of this book, just like the bulk of Bloodlands, functions as a scholarly jeremiad of caution:
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. 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.
It’s a nervy prospect for any writer, implying that he is at last providing readers with the true history of something as oft-chronicled as the Holocaust, and Black Earth is a bit hampered in its efforts by a tendency to flaccid phrasing – “No accumulation of good, no matter how vast, undoes an evil,” “no rescue of the future, no matter how successful, undoes a murder in the past,” “saving the world does not restore a single life,” and so on – that wasn’t present in Bloodlands, although like that earlier book, Black Earth succeeds in startling its readers out of some of their own staid assumptions. That the entirety of the Holocaust’s killing was done outside the borders of prewar Germany, that the vast majority of Jews killed weren’t German, that, as Snyder stresses, many of the Germans who did the killing were not Nazis – these are the kinds of assertions that give the book its dark energy, and they share a contentious nature with his stance that the commodification of the Auschwitz symbol in postwar years may have done more harm than good to the cause of remembrance, especially where the touchy subject of accountability is concerned:
The conflation of Auschwitz with the Holocaust made plausible the grotesque claim that Germans did not know about the mass murder of the European Jews while it was taking place. It is possible that some Germans did not know exactly what happened at Auschwitz. It is not possible that many Germans did not know about the mass murder of Jews. The mass murder of Jews was known and discussed in Germany, at least among families and friends, long before Auschwitz became a death facility. In the East, where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening.
In Snyder’s view, Hitler conceived his war against the Jews of Europe not primarily as a racist struggle but as an “ecological” one, with the Jews taking the role of a “parahuman” living infection that needed to be eradicated from Europe – and against which Germans needed to be protected (including sometimes, paradoxically, by spared Jewish doctors). According to Snyder, it was this “ecological” angle that allowed the Nazis to tap into collective paranoia and shutter normal collective perspective:
The abolition of politics and science empowered a Fuhrer to define what was good for his race, racialize German institutions, and then oversee the destruction of neighboring states. His worldview also compressed time. By combining what seemed like the pattern of the past (racial empire) with what seemed like an urgent summons from the future (ecological panic), Nazi thinking closed off the safety valves of contemplation and foresight. If past and future contained nothing but struggle and scarcity, all attention fell upon the present. A psychic resolve for relief from a sense of crisis overwhelmed the practical resolve to think about the future.
The “dark zone of statelessness” is once again the main ideological crux of Snyder’s inquiry, the “deathlands” created by Nazi conquests out of nations once governed by law. “The Jews of the rest of Europe,” Snyder writes, “would survive Hitler’s murderous logic only insofar as they and their neighbors remained attached to the conventional state institutions.” In this sense Black Earth is a continuation and elaboration of Bloodlands, a deeper and more psychological – and therefore grimmer and more throat-grabbing – study, and a genuinely disturbing indictment of easy historical complacency. This is an author who writes uncomfortable, essential books, books that resonate long after they’re read even if readers disagree with them. Black Earth is a harsh benchmark in Holocaust studies.