Thursday, August 6, 2015

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth” offers a mixed bag for readers.  Those familiar with the topic will undoubtedly find themselves making notes in the margins of practically every other page, while those new to the subject will be awed by what, at best, can be classified as historical “sound bites” or factoids.  As such I have to admit that in places this book is very readable, much more so than your usual historical monograph on these topics.  Snyder is a historian of Poland and it shows well enough as at the heart of “Black Earth” is not so much the Holocaust as is Poland.  The problem is that putting Poland on a pedestal as Snyder so often does leaves a bad aftertaste.  Although Poland participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (using the same ideas of self-determination that both Germany and the Soviet Union utilized during the Second World War) and had similar plans to the Germans in the mid-to-late 1930s in removing Jews from Polish territory, according to Snyder it wasn’t so bad.  Polish citizens and institutions helped train Jewish Zionists to fight in Palestine against the British so that they could pave the way for a Jewish state and rid Poland, and, by extension, Europe, of its Jews sooner rather than later.  The party in power in Poland in 1938 “announced its preference for the emigration of about 90 percent of Poland’s Jews” (59).   But it’s not a big deal, as, according to Snyder, the leader of the party was married to a Jew.  The real difference between the two, for Snyder, is that Germany eventually aimed for the “destruction” of states where Jews lived whereas Poland wanted to create a new state in the Middle East for Jews.  But such a “sound bite” seemingly puts ideology as it would develop in Germany above everything else, the numerous exceptions made by Hitler in regards to decisions dealing with Jews and occupied territories, etc. 

In more than one instance Snyder also seems to be working backwards, with hindsight in mind to make his arguments hold water.  For instance, in discussing the creation of the first concentration camps in Germany he claims that “the concentration camps were training grounds for the more general SS mission beyond Germany: the destruction of states by racial institutions” (42).  But such a claim means that Hitler knew exactly how the Second World War would unfold before it even began.  Snyder also claims German plans for resettling Jews in Madagascar were equivalent to the “Final Solution” (76).  Further examples of using hindsight would be Snyder’s discussion of Stalin wanting to “seize” the opportunity to destroy the Polish state, leaving out any discussion of Soviet foreign policy in the 1930s, the more than two weeks spent by the Soviet Union after Germany invaded Poland in seeing how the western allies would react, or the threats made to the Soviet Union by Germany in regards to what they’d do with territories within the Soviet “sphere of influence” if the Red Army did not invade. 

On numerous occasions Snyder shows a lack of knowledge or understanding for the Soviet position in either the 1930s or throughout the Second World War.  Whether it’s Stalin “waiting for an alliance with Hitler,” for which no evidence is presented, or discussing the crisis over Czechoslovakia where he posits that the Soviet offer of help to defend Czechoslovakia against Germany would, in the end, have turned into some type of “truce with Germany that allowed it to take territory from Poland without having to engage the Germans” (92).  I was not aware that “fantastical what if scenarios” were now the norm for historians.  Snyder also makes the familiar claim that Soviet foreign minister Litvinov, a Jew, was dismissed and Molotov assumed his position just in time to make the non-aggression pact with Germany.  Recent research by Geoffrey Roberts on Molotov suggests that the move had less to do with Litvinov being a Jew than his inability to make a coalition with the western allies work and Stalin wanted someone new to make a foreign policy move that would last. 
Similar to a lack of any understanding in Soviet foreign policy is Snyder’s take on Hitler’s foreign policy.  The claim is made that “Hitler was consciously provoking a European war, and would have taken it in whatever form it came.” (93)  Is this why Hitler consistently said he would avoid conflict if the allies did anything to initiate a war when he remilitarized the Rhineland or when the Anschluss of Austria occurred?  Is this the same Hitler who was surprised when Britain and France declared war over Poland?  Worse was the statement that “Hitler understood the minutia of war; indeed he grasped its details far better than any other head of state and better than most of his generals.” (241) Once again, the sound bites are running the asylum.  No real evidence or further explanations are offered for either that make sense.

When it comes to the Holocaust itself I am somewhat ambivalent about Snyder’s claims.  Some of the arguments presented are comical: “people in Poland tended to hate those from whom they stole because they had stolen from them” (109).  Sure.  But at other times the analysis seems to go deeper and provide an interesting take on events that have been covered in so much detail already.  One of the most important arguments for Snyder is his idea that the Holocaust was, in part, the creation of both the “east” and the “west” meeting in an area that was without coherent rule or institutional policies (143).   That area is within the territories that were “doubly occupied” (he uses that phrase a lot) in what his previous book called the “Bloodlands.”  In some ways it seems self-evident that when you introduce violence and anarchy, little if anything is off-limits.  Thus I cannot say this is a revelation when it comes to the evolution of the Holocaust, more so because today more than ever many researchers are looking toward local collaboration and accomplices to the Holocaust.  In many ways I would agree that the Holocaust would have been impossible to achieve without the numerous variables inherent in both the rise of Nazism within Germany after the Great Depression and the Treaty of Versailles, as well as its evolution on the Eastern Front, starting with the Einzatsgruppen and reserve police battalions leading the way for locals to help perpetrate the “Holocaust by Bullets” and eventually leading to gas vans, death camps and death marches.   

Snyder’s look at the perpetrators themselves also offers a look at research on collaborators that’s already been done.  Often it was the same men (and perhaps women) that offered their services to the institution or government in power and readily switched sides when those in power altered.  Thus those who served the Soviets readily served the Nazis and then once more the Soviets.  They worked within the German military and police institutions and did the same under the Soviets.  They killed Polish or German “spies” under the auspices of the NKVD or Soviet partisans and Jews just as readily under the Nazis.  The latter parts of this text offer a look at what happened to Jews in other states with the argument that those who deemed Jews “citizens” and where state institutions continued to exist, there the majority of Jews survived the war or at least had a better chance to survive the war.  Finally, the second to last chapter looks at those who risked their lives to help Jews, mainly Poles (surprise!).  There is no doubt that tens of thousands risked their lives to save Jews, and, in part, Poles make up the majority of those among the “Righteous” because there were so many Jews in Poland and because of the numerous connections and networks that intertwined both Poles and Jews.  Neither takes away from the selfless actions of the many men and women that chose to go above and beyond what was expected and saved thousands of Jews throughout the war years (and not just in Poland).   Snyder also provides numerous examples of diplomats throughout Europe (from countries like China, Japan, etc.,) doing their utmost in trying to get visas and passports for Jews to get them to safety.  As they are the faces of state institutions, this once more supports Snyder’s larger argument(s).

In the end Snyder’s “Black Earth” is a nice popular history with the needed sound bites to make the general reader shake their head in agreement without actually understanding many of the intricacies at work.  The topics Snyder covers, and forgets to cover, have volumes already written on them that offer much more in-depth analysis.  But, unfortunately, they are not as well written or as accessible to the general public, for whom Snyder is writing.  

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