by Emily Shwake
No matter how much you think you know about the Holocaust, Timothy Snyder’s new book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning threatens to dismantle the entire infrastructure of research on the topic. At a lecture he gave last month at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, the Yale professor of history startled a packed auditorium by challenging the fundamental historical understanding of Hitler’s rise to power and the genocide that murdered 6 million Jews on top of the 5 million more that Hitler saw as too weak to belong to a perfect German race. He says that thinking about the Holocaust as an event that happened in Germany is not only wrong, but is also deterring us from reaching the real Why? of the Holocaust.
Jews were most likely to be killed when they were in a stateless zone, or an area where there was no state sovereignty protecting its citizens. Social scientists have found that there are two political preconditions for genocide and ethnic cleansing: having a one-party state (countries that are run by one political party and forbids competition) or the failing of a state. “Nazi Germany is the one example in history that brings both of those trends,” says Snyder. “It is a party state, but it is a party state that kills citizens beyond its own borders by artificially generating state collapse.”
Snyder argues that 97 percent of Jews killed in the Holocaust did not die in Germany; discussing the Holocaust as having happened in Germany would refer to only 3 percent of those that died. Instead, they died in zones where Germany had destroyed the original state—where the original state had surrendered its sovereignty. The destruction of sovereignty opens the political gates to ridding the world of the Jewish race. When states are destroyed, there is no citizenship protecting Jews and there are no laws stopping the Germans from killing them.
Snyder’s understanding of Hitler’s ideas differs sharply from the conventional interpretations. According to Snyder, Hitler was neither a nationalist nor an authoritarian. His intentions were not to advance the German state, but to jumpstart a racial struggle he believed was inevitable. Hitler saw the human race as fighting for resources, and believed races to be as distinct as different species. He could not be a nationalist, Snyder argues, because he perceived states and nations as concepts that bind people of different races together, something unnatural and impossible in Hitler’s eyes.
Moreover, he saw Jews as the source of all abstract thought that dissolves the boundaries between races. “Any idea that allows for a notion of human solidarity or human reciprocity, any idea that allows two people to see each other as members of humanity rather than as members of races, this idea must be Jewish,” Snyder said. Hitler saw the Jews as fabricators of ideas such as Christianity, communism, and even science. He claimed that the Jews used these lies to manipulate societies and keep them under their own control. In this way, the Nazi regime diverged from a long history of genocide in that it was not based on the advancement of an idea, Snyder said, but on the elimination of all ideas.
The German state assumed that communism was a Jewish invention; in order to both destroy the idea of Communism and to associate that idea with a group, the Nazis made the first killings of Jews symbolic and propagandist. The Polish police—who reallocated their support from the Red Army to the Nazis—would force Jews to carry Soviet flags, haul statues of Stalin, and sing Soviet songs. Stereotypes were used to implement the Holocaust, and are now used to explain it. “I think everyone…has heard all three of these clichés: the organized Germans, the barbaric East Europeans, the Communist Jews. I barely get through a day without hearing all three, frankly,” says Snyder. Snyder asserts that the stereotypes the Nazis promoted about Jews obscured reality. Similarly, today, we use stereotypes and assumptions to explain history; this practice obscures a true understanding of our past, and displaces responsibility. “This is an example of how ideas that are familiar to us can change history. In partaking in [stereotypes], we are partaking in some way in its history.”
Snyder poses the question: if anti-Semitism was the only reasoning behind the mass murder of millions of Jews, why was it only in 1941 that the mass murder began? Anti-Semitism existed for centuries before Hitler, and all over the world. The annihilation of an entire race had to come with an incentive. Hitler believed—according to Snyder—that human life is merely the struggle between races for more resources and a higher standard of living. He deconstructed Hitler’s argument further, explaining that Hitler told the German people, “If you are afraid about the future, if you are concerned about survival, if you worry that your children and grandchildren might not have enough, you are right. Be afraid. There is no reason to not be afraid. You need to take everything now.” Hitler was able to appeal to the desires of Germans and identify the Jews as an obstacle to the boundless desire for more.
Snyder proposes that perhaps Hitler did not want Germany to acquire more and more political power: perhaps he just wanted to deconstruct the idea of sovereignty because, yet again, any idea that binds races together is a deterrent to the racial struggle. Hitler’s logic goes that any concept that removes the need to fight for resources overrides the law of nature, specifically because nature demands that races fight for resources. (Snyder emphasizes that Hitler used logical circles to make his pluralistic reasoning possible.) He believed that the Jews used universal ideas to weaken other races so that the Jews could keep all the resources to themselves. Hitler used the concept of Lebensraum—the idea that the only human goal is to acquire more and that the German people needed more “habitat” in order to prosper—to capitalize on the German people’s fear of the future and incentivize the advancement of the elimination of political institutions. The concept of the state therefore had to be removed so that the natural struggle for food and resources could continue and the natural order could be restored. Then and only then could the Germans regain their proper status as the “highest race” and have as many resources as they find necessary.
Snyder often emphasized how important it is that we reevaluate the way we understand the Holocaust because in doing so, we reevaluate the way we understand history. “If people are being killed for a lie, the lie has to become true. We are very good at murdering; we are even better at lying,” he said. “The thing that we don’t seem to be able to do as a species is admit that we killed for a lie. The reason that we killed has to become true.” As Snyder says, easy explanations of hard ideas reshape history and threaten how we shape our future.