Timothy Snyder, "Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning"

Tim Duggan Books
New York 2015

Historian Timothy Snyder’s previous book that was not co-authored, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (first published in 2010 / published in Poland in 2011), an extensive description of the mass murder which took place in Western Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, emphasised a gap – or shift – in contemporary memory, namely, that people tend to focus on concentration camps and ignore the “Holocaust by bullets”, even though the sheer number of executions and mass shootings outside concentration camps inspires a different approach to the problem. The starting point of Black Earth– in which Snyder analyses and interprets the Holocaust, so to speak – is quite similar: the notion is a set of intuitive ideas that actually turn out to be simplifications, convenient oversights and defensive conclusions, which help those who remember (i.e. us!) to take the easy way out.
“We rightly associate the Holocaust with Nazi ideology, but forget that many of the killers were not Nazis or even Germans. We think first of German Jews, although almost all of the Jews killed in the Holocaust lived beyond Germany. We think of concentration camps, though few of the murdered Jews ever saw one” (p. xii) – Snyder begins.
His aim, however, is not merely to correct common misconceptions.
The aim is implied in the above quotation by “we”, which makes it clear to whom the warning in the book’s slightly exaggerated title is directed. Interested in the contemporary workings of history, and its explorative and ethical accomplishments (namely, commemoration), Snyder acknowledges their political aspect and their relevance in “Our World” (the title of the final chapter). He poses simple, specific questions about the past: how could they have be killed? The focus here is not on the absurdity and cruelty of the murderous plans, but above all on the logic and technology behind the Holocaust. Furthermore, what must have happened to make this all possible? And once we know what had to be done to kill them, how could one rescue them? Again, this is not an inspired question about how to become a hero, the Righteous One, human in inhuman conditions, etc. – because Snyder means to approach history in a serious, pragmatic and political manner. Certainly, another Holocaust could happen again. It is not metaphysical evil, or a result of incomprehensible madness. Hitler’s ideology was consistent, the actors of history carried out complex objectives, the Nazi plans and undertakings did not involve black magic, but they worked in a well-thought out, comprehensible way. Hence, what can happen again can be prevented.
In Black Earth, comprising twelve chapters, Snyder moves smoothly between diverse modes of historical writing, analyses documents to explain Hitler’s ideology, reconstructs diplomatic relations between countries, presents long-term objectives and underlying political premises, utilises macro-scale data, infers theoretical models, asks about the viability of specific situations, formulates rules – and at the same time refers to microhistory, individual testimonies such as single images or words to which he also lends explanatory power (while employing some unusual figures of speech that do not really work, at least not in the Polish translation, such as “rescue was usually grey”, p. 257, or “a private choreography of warmth and safety”, p. 302). Hence Snyder’s book as a whole is like a mosaic: his essayistic disquisition (most quotations from specialist sources are referred to in the extensive Notes) is embellished with close-ups of individuals, who have had to face situations determined by seemingly abstract political powers.
The crux of Snyder’s line of reasoning is that there must be a connection between the series of events which make up what we describe in the single word “Holocaust”, and the destruction of the state – the institution “that made ideas of reciprocity seem plausible” (p. 319). This destruction is not only a condition for the Holocaust: Snyder claims that the more destroyed the state was, the more people were killed. By this he explains why, for example, “a Greek Jew was three times more likely to be murdered than a French Jew.” (p. 232). Hence his assumption that the Holocaust happens in the gap left by the state (he also reconstructs the ways to destroy it), where rescue can be provided by para-state actors such as diplomats or commune representatives. Otherwise the only chance for rescue is the moral choice of an individual, unsupported by conventional social structure – which is a rare thing indeed. Snyder’s conclusion therefore involves hypothetical constructs (rules, formulas), which he produces by classifying, reordering and juxtaposing – that is to say, interpreting – historical facts.
And even if some of Snyder’s interpretations fail to convince, his zealous approach seems one of the most enlightening, or even revelatory, aspects of Black Earth, especially bearing in mind that the past has usually been portrayed in a dark, “schoolish” way (by no means do I mean to insult schools). History ought to be more deliberate; it must not evaluate superficial facts or turn trivial anecdotes into convenient myths that cannot be questioned.

Maria Kobielska

Translated from the Polish by Paweł Łopatka