Book Review: Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning

Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning, by Timothy Snyder

[Note: This book was provided by Blogging For Books/Tim Duggan Books for free in exchange for an honest review. It should be noted also that this book discusses matters of an extremely unpleasant nature.]

It appears that after writing the dark and gloomy Bloodlands that historian Timothy Snyder [1] had both a surplus of material about that particular space between the expansion of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia but also some dark and burning questions that he felt compelled to address. In this large and immensely detailed examination of the particular set of disastrous circumstances that led to the near-destruction of European Jewry during the horrors of the Holocaust, Snyder not only examines history but gains a dark glimpse into apocalyptic prophecy in the weakness of states and the replacement of orderly if somewhat inefficient bureaucracy and ordinary if somewhat boring pluralism with the threat of horrific violence in the face of a collapse of hope in a better future and a loss of the protections of citizenship by any identifiable and vulnerable minority. The author here presents the dark inverse of libertarian dreams of freedom from oppressive governmental restraint by pointing out, in equally panicky and dark ways, that government has a legitimate role through the restraint of evil.

It should be noted that even if I do not agree with the way that the author chooses to argue for the legitimacy of government in the contemporary period that I do support his argument for the legitimacy of government, especially as it relates to Christians. After all, it must be conceded and should be embraced that passages like Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, and 1 Peter 2:13-17 all counsel willing obedience and a desire for the well-being of civil authorities. The Hebrew scriptures, in Exodus 22:28, forbid believers from cursing or ridiculing leaders, which is immensely difficult. Nevertheless, a respect for authority and a wide respect for the citizenship of others, regardless of our personal feelings towards them, is a defense not only of them but also of us, because an increase in civility and respect provides the space by which the lives of people is granted widespread legitimacy. As the history of World War II demonstrates, the survival of many millions of people depend on their legitimacy, on the fact that they are seen not merely as individuals but as part of a greater and legitimate and integral whole of which they have an honored and accepted part. As the author makes chillingly clear, the survival of Jews in Europe during World War II depended on their having a place, as citizens of functioning, even if subordinate, civil societies, as members of families and communities, and that as this place was threatened, all restraint in how they (and other groups, like prisoners of war or Romany or religious or political opponents of the state) was removed. The author is right to note that these results could happen based on the circumstances of our times.

In terms of its structure and organization, this book is a frame story that begins with a discussion of Hitler’s world and ends with a discussion of our world, showing the similarities in the mistrust of science and the abuse of science in serving political ends that are often hostile to the dignity of human beings, in the widespread absence of hope in the future, in the belief that preserving a way of life depends on exploiting the lands of others, or other people themselves, and in the support of political movements on the right or the left that destabilize existing political regimes in the support of visionary ideologies. In between there are twelve chapters that examine Hitler’s concept of living space, one that was widely shared by Germans and by contemporary Russians and Chinese (among others), examine the attempts of Polish leaders to mediate between Germany and Russia only to be crushed between the two, examine the promise of Palestine in removing the Jewish presence from Poland, to the benefit of both Jews and the Poles who wanted Jewish land and fewer Jews as neighbors. The book then turns from the prewar period to examine the calamitous results of the destruction of state infrastructure by the Nazis and Soviets and the particularly sad fate of those areas that suffered the double occupation that led to repeated cycles of exploitation and the greater evil that resulted from those who had collaborated with one wicked regime to clear their reputations in the eyes of later regimes by killing innocent Jews in a horrific form of political ritual sacrifice. After examining the tortured connection between the various peoples of Eastern Europe, and the paradox that the memory of Auschwitz obscures the greater reality of the way that Jews were killed and the processes that were involved, shrinking the blame to allow the guilty to shirk their responsibility, the book turns to the fact that those Jews who were able to find safety in sovereign states were far more likely to survive because those states had an interest in protecting Jews to defend their own freedom of action vis-a-vis other nations. The final three chapters of the book then examine the morally murky aspects of survival by looking at the grey nature of many people who helped Jews, at the way that partisans of God and man often provided spaces for successful survival through fighting, and how the righteous few acted against their economic interest and in loyalty with their own moral beliefs in simply seeing Jews and human and treating them accordingly, despite the risks that involved.

In many ways, this book seeks to preserve and expand the relevance of the Holocaust by expanding its threat and its responsibility. By demonstrating that many of the same conditions are present in the contemporary world that were present in Hitler’s time, the author seeks to demonstrate that we are not immune from the same momentous cruelty that the age of Hitler and Stalin exhibited. Therefore, as we are vulnerable both as victims and perpetrators of crimes like this, we cannot simply push the matter away as being the special plague of Nazism and of no contemporary significance. Likewise, by pointing out the specific political and geographic significance of what allowed for the death and destruction of so many Jews (and others), the author points out that habits were important in leading to various actions. Those who had an ambivalent or tense relationship with authority tended to have the moral strength necessary to resist the tyranny of Nazi oppression and protect Jews as fellow threatened minorities, by seeing within themselves the same humanity and dignity under extreme stress. Those who collaborated with one wicked regime tended to find it easy to collaborate with other wicked regimes and to expiate their political guilt through committing atrocities against others. Hitler had many willing executioners, both in Germany and abroad, many of whom escaped any judgment in this life for the wickedness they committed, while others who were equally wicked and suffered for it did in fact save at least some Jews that they knew personally and played chess with and respected as peers, despite their identity. Human beings are complicated, and whole national histories in places like Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states have whitewashed their own horrible complicity in the events of the Holocaust, as this book makes brutally clear.

In many ways too, this book is the stuff of which personal nightmares are made of. As one who has been experienced with the sudden and forcible removal from one state to another, and to the feeling of vulnerability that results from not feeling as if one has a settled place in this world, that one is not connected sufficiently well to the future through marriage and one’s own family, and that one is under a state of more or less consistent stigmatization and difficulty, this book hit home in a personal way as well. In pointing out that those who are to be treated as the Jews were during the Holocaust must first be removed from the protections of citizenship and the removal of rights, the increasingly rancorous and disorderly internal situation in countries, where the stability of authority is threatened both by its own corruption and by the behavior of other corrupt groups that seek to influence or infiltrate the institutions of statehood and destabilize them, this book makes it clear that survival requires some sense of larger cohesion, and that when that cohesion is threatened and people can be isolated from any kind of larger institutions that would care about their well-being or even their survival, that there is no limit to the horror that can be inflicted on those who are so isolated. In staring deeply into the darkness of the world that was during World War II, especially in Eastern Europe, the author simultaneously stares into the darkness of a world that may yet come and that he hopes to avoid, and that which only the most monstrous among us would ever want to see.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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