A New Vision of the Holocaust

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
A woman in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, Poland, 1940–1944; from Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, edited by Maia-Mari Sutnik, published by the Art Gallery of Ontario, and distributed by Yale University Press

How does Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning differ from previous histories of the Holocaust? Like many other historians, Snyder begins with a careful analysis of Hitler and his ideology, but he is not concerned with the broader, long-term context of German and European culture and the anti-Semitic tradition that provided the milieu in which Hitler’s views found resonance. His geographical focus, as in his previous book Bloodlands (2010), is on Eastern Europe, rather than Germany. His political focus is first on East European diplomacy, then Soviet and Nazi policies of occupation and state destruction, rather than on Nazi decision-making and Jewish policy per se. The people at the center of his story are less often German perpetrators and Jewish victims and more often East European collaborators and various kinds of rescuers. And to a far greater extent than any other historians who have tackled this subject, Snyder is explicitly concerned with the lessons of the Holocaust and warnings for the future.

Snyder begins by setting out what he dubs “Hitler’s portrait of a planetary ecosystem.” Races were real, different, and unequal, and they competed in a zero-sum game for the planet’s limited resources (land and food). For Germans to live and live well (what Snyder considers the two meanings of the word Lebensraum), others races—which at this particular time meant for Hitler the Slavs of Eastern Europe—had to be defeated, displaced, and decimated.

The Jews, on the other hand, were not another race competing in the zero-sum game for Lebensraum decreed by the law of nature, but a subhuman pestilence or unnatural nonrace that threatened nature at large and Germans in particular by spreading the ideas of ethics, conscience, and common humanity. Such ideas subverted every race’s capacity to wage the inexorable, no-holds-barred racial struggle necessary for survival. The eternal Jewish conspiracy of humanitarianism and morality manifested itself in various pernicious forms throughout history, such as Christianity’s “love thy neighbor.” (To this one should add Liberalism’s “equality before the law.”) Above all Snyder focuses on Hitler’s obsession (shared by many others) with the twentieth-century manifestation of the Jewish danger in the form of Judeo-Bolshevism.

For Snyder, therefore, Hitler’s ultimate vision of an attack upon the Soviet Union would combine a “victorious colonial war against Slavs with a glorious anti-colonial struggle against the Jews.” In this way “a single attack on a single state, the Soviet Union, could solve all the problems of the Germans at the same time,” as Germany would both “win an empire and restore the planet.” Then, illogically and unpersuasively in my opinion, Snyder argues for the temporal primacy…

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