Today, when we think Holocaust, we imagine “extravagant anti-Semitism,” says Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian. But what if the Holocaust wasn’t propelled by racism so much as by politics? That’s the claim Snyder makes in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, and it’s an unsettling one. A society might take measures to reduce racism. But it can hardly purge itself of politics. So Snyder’s proposal comes as a blow to our tacit historical assumptions—and to our sense of moral immunity. While the particular political circumstance that made the Holocaust possible may have expired, Snyder warns, its kind lives on; in fact, we know it well.
Snyder awakens us to the political dimensions of the Holocaust with an array of little known facts. To wit: prior to World War II ten times as many Jews lived in Poland as in Germany; most Germans, in fact, didn’t know any Jews and had to be taught how to recognize them. Ninety-seven percent of the Jews the Nazis killed lived beyond pre-war Germany. Only 700,000 were citizens of Germany’s allies. Three-quarters of France’s Jews survived; 80 percent of Italy’s. What does this mean?
It means—and this case Snyder persuasively builds, chapter by chapter—that while Nazi politics were thrusting the Final Solution forward, the political structures of other states proved able to stop it. “Nazi malice stopped at the passport,” he concludes. “They did not proceed with killing Jews until states were actually destroyed or had renounced their own Jews.” Even Nazi Germany, with all its vaunted bureaucratic precision and efficiency, found itself stalled in the face of structures designed to protect human beings. “Bureaucracies in Germany,” writes Snyder, “could kill Jews only when bureaucracy-free zones elsewhere had been established.”
How did these the stateless regions emerge? Snyder begins his explanation in the realm of worldview, showing how mind-controlling ideas led to state-destroying ideology. The “tangible and total truth” upon which Hitler constructed his ghastly program was that humans are governed by biology, the law of survival. Race wars against race. Each race must embrace this end or face extinction at the hands of those more dedicated to what Hitler understood to be life itself.
So why did the Jews so merit Nazi enmity? What made them so uniquely malign, so distinct from all other races caught up in the battle for the “black earth,” Snyder’s image of finite fertility? It was precisely their refusal to submit to this (supposed) final law of nature and to instead seek a public life ordered according to universal moral principles—principles that rebuked the urge for ruthless domination.
The Form of Destruction
At first Hitler and his inner ring weren’t sure how they would marginalize the Jews. Early on their thoughts ranged to Siberia, a possible site for a collective mass exile, where the Jews could be enslaved for Aryan purposes. In fact, the vast region east of Germany was attractive for many reasons, particularly as Germany was trying to secure a future on a continent still quaking with the aftershocks of World War I. Hitler and his cohort took inspiration from Europe’s own imperial past, discovering “source mythologies,” Snyder writes, terrifyingly, in historic conquests of North America and Africa. What the indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere had been to the Spaniards and the English, the Slavs became for the Germans: unworthy keepers of a bountiful land and the potential tillers of it—bonded tillers, that is, fit only for imperial ends.
And so east the Nazis moved, toward Poland, first allying with the Soviet Union and then less than two years later invading it—but not before these nations together converged on central Europe, including Poland, “the heartland of Jewry,” where three million Jews lived. They obliterated the Polish state and forced the lower civil structures to do their bidding. And so it was in regions such as this—where, Snyder writes, “millions of Germans” gained “a taste of the pleasures of lawlessness”—that the Holocaust took form. Or, rather, destroyed form: first the form of the state, then the form of the human being itself.
It was within what Snyder terms “the zone of double darkness”—those regions first occupied by invading Russia only to be taken over anew by Germany—that this radically de-forming vision became possible. These were “consecutively occupied lands,” with a populace laid low by raw force, fighting for their own survival and groping unscrupulously for whatever measure of freedom was available. To secure it, non-Jewish natives turned against the Jews, their own less ideologically-charged racism inflamed by desperation and despair. “Liberation from the Jews was the only liberation on offer,” Snyder notes. Most took it. This was “the politics of relative deprivation,” as Germany starved millions into compliance with their own malignant ambition.
It was in Ukraine that industrial killing began, in 1941. Still, again contrary to what the name Auschwitz stands for, most Jews did not die in concentration camps. Rather, their fellow Europeans—Germans, Poles, Latvians, Slavs—simply shot them over pits, by the tens of thousands, in Eastern Europe.
Who stood against this vicious ideology, this “new politics”? In his wrenching concluding chapters, Snyder points to several clusters of souls who risked all in behalf of Jewish rescue. Some did so as bureaucrats, taking advantage of whatever crumbling structures remained to keep Jews under legal protection. The possibility of welcoming Jews into a family, or taking a Jew for a wife, inclined others toward intervention. Snyder summarizes the ethic of these “righteous few” as founded upon “disinterested virtue.” They were people who had in common a sense of decency and mutuality rooted in what Snyder calls “self-knowledge”—and so said little to credit themselves for anything heroic or extraordinary. “When you know yourself”—when you truly grasp that you are simply one human being among equals—“you have little to say.”
It’s an aptly foreboding note upon which to end, and in his last chapter he fashions from it a coda that haunts the mind long after the book is closed. The global circumstance of the 1930s—geopolitical unrest, economic instability, agricultural scarcity, consumerist ambition—is altogether recognizable today, as he lays it out. If anything, he claims, the environmental degradation caused by technological advance has intensified these conditions—setting up, for instance, the prospect of cataclysmic warfare for “resources in Africa and Russia. With the looming threat of scarcity, is it so hard to imagine a search for collective scapegoats—what Snyder calls “planetary enemies”? Jews are once again under threat in parts of Europe and the Middle East, he notes. But any “groups that can be associated with changes on a worldwide scale” are vulnerable—including, he suggests, Muslims and the LGBT community.
Membership in Another Realm
Snyder thus delivers his warning: To prevent another Holocaust-level catastrophe, we must strengthen, in our minds as well as practices, the modern state, which is not just a “construct” but an achievement.
Might the church have a part to play? Certainly Christian institutions should, on deep theological grounds, counter what Snyder calls “a common American error,” the equation of freedom with the absence of the state. But his book also suggests another role for Christians. While in the main Snyder’s work exposes what he calls “the moral catastrophe that was Christianity during the Holocaust,” he also points out a curious fact: Those Christians who did help Jews tended to be distant—“alienated,” he says—from state authority prior to the war. Both Catholics and Protestants tended toward the rescue of Jews where they themselves were minority populations.
Perhaps the ethic of sacrificial love requires the lived reality of powerlessness in order to spring to life. Perhaps a cruciform identity only takes shape when we know ourselves as lowly, as numbered among the least of these, feeling sorrow, acquainted with grief. And maybe this way of life—the precise opposite of Hitler’s demonic triumphalism—also serves to form us for service, if not to the state exactly, then certainly for the ideal, echoing from another kingdom, that the modern state at its best seeks to enact: the preservation of the human person.
Of course, the modern state is not always at its best. The state may have been enough to keep millions from genocide. But it wasn’t enough to keep Germans, Russians, and others from becoming genocidal. “Tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years”—and “most people knew what was happening.” That is a warning.
However critical the presence of the state, its citizens still require a rigorous moral and civic formation. Christians must work to ensure that the formation the state provides is adequate for its highest ends. But paradoxically, our active membership in another realm may aid the state as well, as we dedicate ourselves to keeping human beings in communion with their Creator and in service to one another, across racial, ethnic, and national lines. For surely Hitler was right about one thing: Such an ethic threatens self-deifying projects of all kinds, from the tiny to the vast. Of these, sadly, there is on this black earth no lack.
Eric Miller teaches history at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.