Black Earth – the Holocaust as History and Warning – Timothy Snyder (2015)

We tend to establish an internal narrative of events to facilitate what we believe is our understanding of things. Almost invariably it is not only complete but also hermetic, and exclusionary of information that would require revision of the internal narrative.


Timothy Snyder – Black Earth

We tend to view the Second World War, in the European theatre, as a war of conquest. But it was not. It was a war of eradication driven by racial theories which placed all the primary burdens of corruption of purity of blood upon the Jews. And the area most corrupted was seen to be the USSR. The solution was extermination preceded by eradication of the state. Any state. States, such as Poland, were eradicated by first destroying its institutions and those who made them function. The first waves of large killings were not of Jews but of other Polish nationals.

The USSR was fully complicit in this. From Germany’s perspective, this may seem peculiar, but Poland, which declined to be a German ally in the destruction of the USSR, needed to be eliminated so that Germany had a greater proximity to the USSR.

We also tend to think that it was the German invasion of Poland that triggered the formal declarations of war by Great Britain and others. But it was a dual invasion by Germany, on the 1st, and the USSR, on the 17th. Poland was destroyed in a month, and its territory divided between the two invaders, with USSR granting Warsaw, with its Jewish population, to Germany.

German troops parade through Warsaw, 1939 (Courtesy: US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

German troops parade through Warsaw, 1939 (Courtesy: US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

There was no logic, but there was consistency, in Hitler’s thought on the nature of Jewry. (Just as there is no logic, today, in Trump’s on Mexicans and Muslims in the United States; nor, yesterday, in Harper’s on Muslims and other impurities in the Canadian body politic.) “Hitler was equipped by ideology to envision the destruction of states in the name of nature and had at his disposal an imposing army and special task forces whose essential mission was the destruction of institutions to permit racial war.” It is worth noting that “[l]awyers were extremely prominent among those who exported anarchy from Germany.”

It remains unclear to many how close we are, and how close we came, to the edge; and how quickly any state can disintegrate. Hatred neither requires nor seeks any consistency of its speech or action. Snyder comments that racism, “after all, was a claim to judge who was fully human.” Furthermore, the “logic of legions is that supporting an empire in times of war creates debts to be repaid in times of peace. The logic of terrorism is that fear can destroy a weak system and make way for a new one.”

We tend to forget that Austria and Czechoslovakia were creations of the victors of the First World War; that the Anschluss was a capitulation by the Austrian government, and the assimilation of Sudetanland a capitulation of the granting powers. Once statehood is extinguished, so is law and the world within the state that it governed. And this permits, in “an instant, violence organized by race.” Jews everywhere in Europe taken by the Nazis were stripped of everything they had. And this, in Poland, and as “was the case everywhere, people … tended to hate those from whom they stole because they had stolen from them.” “Mendacity supported murder; murder supported mendacity.”

“… from a Soviet perspective any organization, regardless of purpose, was either pro-Soviet or anti-Soviet. In the Stalinist understanding of reality, there was no society as such and no space for independent action. Anything that took place had to be seen not as an element of a complicated reality but as a reflection of the basic conflict between the proletariat and its global capitalist oppressors—which meant, in practice, the Soviet leadership and those it deemed hostile at any given moment.”

“… after the war, Soviet propaganda was helpless to explain how so many people produced by the Soviet system had proven to be useful collaborators in the mass murder of so many other people produced by the Soviet system. It was enough of a problem, in the post-Stalin era that began with his death in 1953 and continues to this day, to explain why Soviet policy brought about the death of millions of Soviet citizens by famine and terror in the 1930s. This historical reality remains thoroughly politicized. The perhaps deeper problem, that tens of thousands of Soviet citizens could contribute to the murder of further millions of Soviet citizens on behalf of a totally alien system, has never been addressed.”

Babi Yar, Kiev, September 1941

Babi Yar, Kiev, September 1941

Snyder comes to several conclusions how the past informs the present, now increasingly deeper in its own mortal morass.

“The popular notion that free markets are natural is also a merger of science and politics. The market is not nature; it depends upon nature. The climate is not a commodity that can be traded but rather a precondition to economic activity as such. The claim of a “right” to destroy the world in the name of profits for a few people reveals an important conceptual problem. Rights mean restraint. Each person is an end in himself or herself; the significance of a person is not exhausted by what someone else wants from him or her. Individuals have the right not to have their homelands defined as habitat. They have the right not to have their polities destroyed.”

“When states are absent, rights—by any definition—are impossible to sustain. States are not structures to be taken for granted, exploited, or discarded, but are fruits of long and quiet effort. It is tempting to gleefully fragment the state from the Right or knowingly gaze at the shards of the Left. Political thought is neither destruction nor critique, but rather the historically informed imagination of plural structures—a labor of the present that can preserve life and decency in the future. Our plurality is between politics and science. A recognition of their distinct purposes makes possible thinking about rights and states; their conflation is a step towards a total ideology such as National Socialism. Another plurality is between order and freedom: each depends upon the other, although each is different from the other. The claim that order is freedom or that freedom is order ends in tyranny. The claim that freedom is the lack of order must end in anarchy—which is nothing more than tyranny of a special kind. The point of politics is to keep multiple and irreducible goods in play, rather than yielding to some dream, Nazi or otherwise, of totality.”

“Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity. That is not enough for its victims. No accumulation of good, no matter how vast, undoes an evil; no rescue of the future, no matter how successful, undoes a murder in the past. Perhaps it is true that to save one life is to save the world. But the converse is not true: saving the world does not restore a single lost life.”

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