Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
Reviewed by Steve Minett, PhD
As its title implies, this is a very dark book about a very dark subject; the Holocaust and its causes. Snyder’s innovative theory is that the immediate cause of the terrible, and almost unimaginably massive, slaughter of human beings which took place in Eastern Europe during the Second World War, was the destruction of the legitimate states which had existed in the region before the war; namely, and especially, Poland, the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, Austria and the Western Soviet Union. For many of these states this was a ‘double destruction’; first by Soviet and then by Nazi invasions. Snyder’s thesis is that this destruction created ‘zones of statelessness’ in which the millions of people who lived within these areas were stripped of any concept of citizenship.
This disappearance of citizenship made these populations vulnerable to the murderous racial ideology of the Nazis: “When there was no state, no one was a citizen, and human life could be treated carelessly.” (p.220) The vast majority of those who were murdered were, of course, Jews and Snyder briefly considers a contending cause; anti-Semitism. He uses statistics, however, to refute this as the principal cause: in France, where there was a long and entrenched tradition of anti-Semitism, a sizeable majority of Jews survived the war, whereas in the Baltic states (which, in the pre-war period, were period renown for their tolerance toward Jews) virtually their entire Jewish population was wiped out during Nazi occupation.
There is, however, something I find both wrong and disturbing about this explanation: in Snyder’s model, the Jews of Eastern Europe needed protection from effective states because (in the Nazi worldview) races will (inevitably and continually) engage in a merciless, life-and-death struggle with each other and the ‘morally correct’ outcome is that the strongest race should wipe out the weaker ones. I can agree with Snyder that at the particular historical conjuncture when the holocaust took place, this ‘state-protection’ was a practical necessity which clearly failed. What I find disturbing, however, is that Snyder appears to assume that there is something ‘natural’ (or perhaps ‘biological’) about this worldview, although he clearly condemns it from an ethical point of view.
He says, on the one hand, that the Nazis applied ‘the law of the jungle’ and on the other that Hitler conflated politics and science: Hitler posed, “ … political problems as scientific ones and scientific problems as political ones.” (p.321) Snyder also says that; “to characterise Hitler as … [a] racist underestimates the potential of Nazi ideas. His ideas about Jews and Slavs were not prejudices … but rather emanations of a coherent worldview that contained the potential to change the world.” (p.321) Snyder states that, “ … if states were destroyed …., few of us would behave well.” (p.320). He also records the consistency of Hitler’s worldview: when the tide of the war turned against the Germans, “Hitler decided, ‘the future belongs entirely to the stronger people of the east.’” (p.242)
What’s wrong with all this? Well, it seems to imply that there’s something ‘biologically natural’ about Hitler’s racist worldview which only law and citizenship, backed up by powerful states, can protect us from. This is a very Nineteenth-Century, Social Darwinist view of ‘nature’: firstly, in modern times, there is no ‘scientific concept of race’ – ‘race’ is a social construct, based on ethnic divisions of culture and religion. Rather than protecting ourselves from the ‘natural aggression’ of other human groups behind the ramparts of Law and the state, we might rather ask; what makes people want to engage in mass murder of members of their own species?
The answer, I think, lies in centuries of pathological child-rearing. There is a growing body of scientific evidence to support this view. Pathological child-rearing practices were particularly prevalent in pre-war, Germanic Europe, and indeed, Hitler’s own childhood was an extreme example of such appallingly negative parenting. Here, I believe, we can find the real and ultimate cause of the holocaust: pathological parenting had stripped the wartime generation of Germans of their instinctual aversion to the mass murder of members of their own species. Hitler’s ideas about what was ‘biologically natural’ did not represent a ‘coherent worldview’ – they were the nightmares of a demented psychopath.
Steve Minett is a social scientist, author of Gazing at the Stars