Nation & World

Retracing a path of destruction

long read

Yale historian aims for wider picture of momentum behind the Holocaust

In his new book “Black Earth,” Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale University, explores the ideological roots of Nazism and the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

Snyder will deliver this year’s Zaleski Lecture in Modern Polish History at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES). His talk is titled “The Holocaust in Poland: Controversies and Explanations.” He will also take part in a panel discussion about his book at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday at CES.

Snyder spoke to the Gazette by phone.

GAZETTE: How is “Black Earth” different from other books that deal with the Holocaust?

SNYDER: Essentially, the Holocaust is written as an episode in German history, something that flowed somehow from the 1930s. What I tried to do in my book is to present Germany in the 1930s in a different way, not as some kind of authoritarian or national project but as the preparation of a racial war. I’m also presenting a particular planetary idea of anti-Semitism, which could only be implemented during a very special kind of war, in which other states were destroyed. I’m shifting the emphasis away from the strong state and toward a deliberate policy of destroying other states.

GAZETTE: Let’s focus on state destruction, which is one of the big factors, according to your book, that led to the Holocaust. How does this theory help us understand what caused it?

SNYDER: Most history is written nationally. If you write the history of the Holocaust as a German national history, then you’re constrained to German sources and to questions such as: to what extent was it Hitler’s ideas or to what extent was it German institutions? To me, neither answer explains the Holocaust. And if you’re writing about the Holocaust from another national perspective, the Jewish point of view, very often you’re not after explanations so much as you’re after experience.

In the 1930s, Germany as a state not only did not, but could not have carried out a Holocaust, and in fact the Holocaust did not happen until the war against the Soviet Union in 1941. You only have a Holocaust as German power moves into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Soviet Union.

When you look at what happened to states that were destroyed, for example, how the loss of property rights allowed the government to move Jews into ghettos, how the destruction of interior ministries meant that police forces can be used in different ways, and how the politics of state destruction tended to encourage collaboration with the new rulers and so on, it all makes more sense. Also, consider the numbers. The whole Holocaust happened in a stateless zone and the Jews who didn’t live in a stateless zone have to be shifted to a stateless zone to be killed. The rule of thumb was to send Jews to places that the Germans had already made stateless. And if you look at the percentages, the places where states were destroyed had the highest percentages of Jews that were killed. And vice versa, the places where occupation was more conventional were the places where the fewest Jews died. Those are some of the ways the state argument works.

GAZETTE: Some may say that your book downplays anti-Semitism as one of the factors that caused the Holocaust. What role did anti-Semitism play in the events leading up to the Holocaust?

SNYDER: No matter what you say about the Holocaust, someone will say that you’re downplaying anti-Semitism. It’s a kind of unfortunate tendency in this field, which is meant to intimidate and to prevent serious discussion of the causes of the Holocaust. Of course, anti-Semitism matters, and it matters at the level of Hitler’s ideas, which involved from the very beginning the notion of complete extermination of the Jews.

However, if you want to explain how the Holocaust happened, one has to account for why so much killing suddenly happened in 1941 and 1942 as opposed to the previous five or six hundred years of Jewish settlement in Central and Eastern Europe. So we’re looking at an event that can’t be explained with just anti-Semitism. When the state is destroyed, precisely local prejudices come into play, and that’s why the argument of state destruction is so important. If you take away the institutions that make Jews citizens, whether it is in Latvia, Poland, or the Soviet Union, no matter what kind of system it is, those Jews are suddenly vulnerable. I think any serious historian has to insist that an event such as the Holocaust has multiple causes, and if I insist on the multiplicity of these causes it is not because I’m minimizing one thing or another. It’s because I’m serious about trying to explain the Holocaust as a phenomenon, and I worry very much that the Holocaust falls into a discursive game where you say the things that everybody expects you to say, and everyone has given up on causality.

GAZETTE: What are the causes of Holocaust, according to your research?

SNYDER: At the most abstract level, there are three factors: ecological crisis, anti-Semitism, and racial struggle, but they’re all bound together. In the very beginning of “Mein Kampf,” Hitler describes the world as a limited space with limited resources, and he describes human beings as being divided into races, and the races are species, and therefore should compete with one another for limited resources. And then his proposition is that, if we think that’s not true, if we think there are religious, or moral, political, or legal reasons why we shouldn’t be killing each other all the time for resources, that’s because our minds have been infected by Jewish ideas. So anti-Semitism, racial struggle, and ecological panic are really all part of one big idea. Now the reason we don’t remember the ecology factor is that we live in a different ecological situation than Germans in the 1930s. For them, anxiety about food was a normal part of life. The country had been blockaded during and after World War I and was unable to feed itself. We look at the Holocaust and we see discourse, symbols, and ideas, and, of course, that’s very important, but the material side we tend not to see at all.

GAZETTE: You have mentioned racial struggle, scarcity of resources, and anti-Semitism as forces behind the Holocaust. What about Hitler’s role in this? Without Hitler would the Holocaust have taken place?

SNYDER: It’s pretty unlikely. Here I take a view which is similar to that of most of my colleagues. The idea of “No Hitler, No Holocaust” is pretty widespread. Referring to your previous question, it’s something that people who wish to consider anti-Semitism to the exclusion of other factors should ponder because if, for example, Hitler had been killed in the assassination attempt of November 1939, then we wouldn’t have had the Holocaust but we would likely have had more anti-Semitism than we do now. What I’m trying to show is that Hitler’s ideas matter because they stand behind a truly alternative vision of politics in which there are no ideas, no virtues, there is only struggle. That worldview was incorporated into institutions, in the Nazi Party and into the SS. In my telling, the SS are very important because they’re not just a police force. They’re an institution whose purpose is to destroy other institutions, to help bring about a state of things closer to anarchy.

That Hitler was necessary for the Holocaust is true, though one has to tell the story of how he mattered. Thus far the story has been simply about how he came to power in Germany and how he transformed the German state. That’s part of the answer, but in order to get the whole answer you have to explain what happened beyond Germany because the Holocaust happened beyond the pre-war German state. Ninety-seven percent of the Holocaust victims were Jews who had no experience of the German state until it came for them. These are people who lived beyond pre-war Germany. So one has to have an account of Hitler and his ideology and his institutions, which takes us beyond the 1930s and beyond the confines of the German state.

GAZETTE: What are the most common misconceptions about the Holocaust that your book is trying to dispel?

SNYDER: Let me start with what people believe that is true. People believe that about 6 million Jews were deliberately murdered, and that there was a German policy to murder Jews who were under German political control. Those two fundamental things are true.

After that, almost everything that is generally believed is at least partially false. People believe that the victims were German Jews whereas in fact most German Jews survived, and German Jews were not very numerous, just a few hundred thousand. People believe that Jews were killed as a result of a kind of powerful, mechanized, and perfectly organized German state. That’s largely false. The German state is important, essentially because of its ability to destroy other states. So it does matter but not in the way that people think. The German state was actually never able to discriminate against, classify, and murder all of its own Jewish citizens. They could only do that after they destroyed other states. In that way, the murder of German Jews is actually not just a chapter in local German history; it’s a chapter in the destruction of Latvia, Poland, and the Soviet Union.

But the main mistake that people make is the identification of Auschwitz with the Holocaust. It’s true that a million or so of Jews were killed there, and that Auschwitz was the last stage of the Holocaust. But it happened after 2 million Jews had already been shot and after death facilities like Treblinka and Belzec had long been established in Poland. The reason why people concentrate on Auschwitz is that Auschwitz has become a kind, ironically speaking, of non-place, something separated from history with its own memory as opposed to an episode in the history of the Holocaust. Paradoxically, Auschwitz allows people to minimize the Holocaust because it’s associated with the idea of mechanized killing. It allows people to overlook the basic fact that hundreds of thousands of Germans and other European were killing Jews at very close range for several years before Auschwitz ever happened. As horrible as Auschwitz was, Auschwitz becomes, in a terrible way, almost an alibi for all the horrors of the Holocaust. If we focus on Auschwitz we ignore the other killings. People imagine machines, bureaucracy, something impersonal, but Auschwitz was personal not just for the victims but also for the perpetrators. I’m trying to insist that the Holocaust is the central event in the Europe of the 20th century, and that it does require us to remember certain important things. In a way, our memory of it has already gone wrong before the history has been fully established.

GAZETTE: In your book, you say that the Holocaust is not only history, but warning —what do you mean by that?

SNYDER: The first thing I’m saying is that it’s important to see the Holocaust as history and not just as memory. The paradox of memory is that it tends to allow us to put an event away in the past, in a manner that can’t be recovered. Memory is subjective, not objective. When you characterize the Holocaust as memory, you’re saying it’s not about things that happened, but it’s about how we react or remember things that happened, and it removes it from the objective world. When I say the Holocaust is history and warning, I’m insisting on the history part because if you can convince people that the Holocaust is history then the warning follows very naturally.

We all accept that the Holocaust is something from which we can learn. But if we don’t know what caused it, it’s not clear what we can learn from it. Ideology is something that most people agree with, but if I say state destruction matters, too, that means that in 2003, Americans should have thought differently about invading Iraq. They shouldn’t have thought, “We’re destroying an authoritarian state like Hitler’s authoritarian state.” They should have thought, “We’re destroying a state just like Hitler did.” And that would have given people a moment to consider the whole enterprise in a different way. When in 2014, Russia declared that the Ukraine state is illegitimate and invades part of it, we should be thinking, “State destruction was part of the end of the European order, part of the history of World War II,” but no one is thinking that way because we haven’t learned that about World War II.

Nothing exactly like the Holocaust will ever happen again, of course, but things very much like it certainly could. If climate changes leads to a situation in which people in developed societies, like the United States or China, are anxious about supplies, that could brings us closer to the world of the 1930s.

GAZETTE: Finally, how will your book contribute to our understanding of the Holocaust?

SNYDER: I hope to make a contribution toward understanding the Holocaust with arguments drawn from political theory or larger claims about politics and societies as well as from the recollections, which are more numerous and more available than people think, of Jews themselves. I am trying to distinguish this history from our particular national conversations or our particular political needs for one kind of memory or another kind of memory. More broadly, my hope is that people take from this book the realization that if history never ends our only chance is to learn from it. My book might not seem terribly optimistic but there’s an element of epistemic optimism. We can learn from this. We have to. There are clear and articulate things that we can say about the sources of the Holocaust, which might help understand the present. As we walk through the almost indecipherable chaos of the everyday, there are actually some clues we can draw from this historical event of the recent past.