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Was the Holocaust Made Possible by Demise of European States?

In his 2010 book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” historian Timothy Snyder examined the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of a single history. That book rethought some key assumptions of both Holocaust and Soviet history by noting similarities and interactions between the two regimes and the events that unfolded in the “bloodlands” (Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States) both before and during World War II. “Bloodlands” was widely praised but also criticized by some reviewers and historians who were disturbed by the moral equivalency between Hitler and Stalin that they felt Snyder’s integrative approach suggested.

In his latest book, “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” Snyder returns to the same time and place to present a detailed argument about what led to and enabled the Nazi perpetration of genocide against the Jews. What motivated Hitler’s exterminationist anti-Semitism and how did it become inextricably bound up with his pursuit of domination of Poland and Ukraine? Why was the Holocaust carried out in the “bloodlands” rather than elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe? Why were the destruction of states and the rendering of Jews as stateless key factors in the enabling of mass murder?

At the center of Hitler’s bleak worldview (which rejected the notion of good and evil in favor of endless bloody, racial struggle) was the belief that Germany was facing a scarcity of food and land caused by the Jews. Snyder draws an eerie parallel to our own time, when a looming ecological crisis is already causing the sort of global and local instability that could lead to new cataclysms, new wars, and new genocides.

Your approach to the Holocaust integrates a lot into one narrative: Hitler’s racial theories, his crusade against the Jews, his distrust of science, and his pursuit of Lebensraum, and also the Soviet occupation of Polish and Baltic lands in 1939 to 1941. This is unusual, because we’re used to reading about all these things as separate narratives.

I think it’s very important that any approach to the Holocaust be integrated, because any plausible history is going to have to show how different choices and different actions related one to the other, and I think for various reasons we haven’t gotten there yet with the Holocaust. It’s a matter of relating the intellectual history to the political to the military and of relating the German history to the Jewish to the Polish to the Soviet, and so on. I think we’re really just at the beginning of that. Hitler was someone who had a worldview, and he was also someone who had clear views about military tactics. I think it’s the worldview that’s most important here. His basic notion was that the planet that we live on is essentially a resource base — a limited resource base. The resource in question is land, which produces food. The nature of life is that we’re all divided into races and we’re struggling over these essentially limited and ever diminishing resources, and what should be happening is that the superior races should be starving the inferior ones. Where Jews come into this is as outsiders, a kind of non-race or a counter-race. They were special because they could introduce ideas which somehow contravene these basic laws of nature. Jews are the ones who can persuade people that there’s such a thing as Christian mercy or working-class solidarity or the rule of law — or any abstraction or universal principle that would restrain us from identifying only with members of our own “race” and would hinder us from the pursuit of bloody struggle day after day after day. In Hitler’s worldview, the planet has been spoiled. There should be a free struggle between races, and instead, everyone on the planet is under a kind of Jewish hegemony. When Hitler looks at the Soviet Union, he sees two things that come together. He sees fertile soil in Ukraine. He sees Ukraine as the territory that will allow Germany to renew itself, the German race to redeem itself, allow the German people to become self-sufficient. He also sees the Soviet power structure as essentially Jewish. It’s both of his preoccupations brought together at one political point, one geographical point. The war for food, the war for Lebensraum, is also the war against the Jews. This is where his idea of the world comes down to the level of strategic choices about what the war should be about.

Why do you think that it’s taking so long for us to integrate all these different strands when we look at the Holocaust?

I think there are at least three things at play. The first is that it always takes at least sixty years for a reasonable historical discussion to emerge — for the emotions to clear away, the partisan loyalties to weaken, and for the sources to become available — even if we were talking about something which was much less central to our own self-understanding than the Holocaust is. The second reason has to do with methodology. History is basically carried out nationally, and since that’s true there’s always going to be an overwhelming temptation to reduce a complicated phenomenon like the Holocaust to one national history or another, and that means either Jewish history, usually, or German history. Each of those approaches has obvious limits. The Holocaust was something which happened, of course, to Jews, but it’s not part of Jewish history in the sense that Jews didn’t make the important decisions. Of course, the Jewish point of view is not just a description of victimhood. Jews wrote down a lot of really interesting things, and those Jewish sources can help us think about causality. Nevertheless, Jewish history is only part of the picture. History is about power as well as experience. Likewise, German history is only part of the picture. Although the institutions of power that bring about the Holocaust are institutions that arise in Germany, nevertheless, the vast majority of Jewish victims lived beyond Germany and have nothing to do with that canonical history of Hitler rising to power, boycotts, Nuremberg laws, Kristallnacht — that whole set of events that we all know so well. Ninety-seven percent of the Jews who were going to die in the Holocaust simply did not experience that. German history leaves out the Jews — just like Jewish history leaves out the Germans. More than that, if we just do German history, then we don’t have Soviet history or Lithuanian history or Polish history or Czechoslovakian history.

Should we also add another factor, which is that some of the sources — Soviet sources, in particular — weren’t really available until a couple of decades ago?

There’s a wealth of Jewish material in Eastern Europe that bears on the Holocaust. Archives from Tallinn to Kiev are full of material which is relevant. But you could say that scholars have had twenty-five years to use these materials, and strikingly few of them have done so. I would say that’s really been the great failure in the field.

It’s a key part of your thesis that the Nazi destruction of states in Eastern Europe (and in many cases their prior demolishment by the Soviets) created conditions that made it the place most feasible to carry out the mass extermination of Jews. You assert that it wouldn’t have been possible to carry out murder on such a mass scale in Western Europe or even Germany itself.

We have to resist at least three basic short-circuits that we use when we think about the Holocaust. One is to say, “Well, there was anti-Semitism, therefore there was the Holocaust.” Clearly that’s a short-circuit, because there was anti-Semitism for hundreds of years, and the fate of the Jews in individual countries doesn’t seem to be at all related to the level of anti-Semitism insofar as that can be measured before the war. Greece and the Netherlands are the two countries in prewar Europe where political anti-Semitism is not a problem in the 1930s, and both of them have among the highest death rates of Jews. In each case it’s about seventy-five percent. The second short-circuit we make is to say the Jews died in Germany because of the process of discrimination, expropriation, and concentration, which are the steps that are in different ways emphasized by Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt. That’s just not how it happened. Most of the Jews in Germany survived, the vast majority of Jews who die are not from Germany, and concentration was not actually part of the pathway towards the murder of Jews.

For the most part, those who were murdered had to be shipped out in order to be dispatched to their deaths, correct? For instance, the Jews of Germany were not murdered en masse in their native land.

Exactly. They were sent to places beyond Germany which Germany had already made stateless. The third short-circuit is the idea of Auschwitz, where we picture people like us being put on trains in places like Amsterdam and being sent to Auschwitz and kind of disappearing. There’s a sort of literary or filmic way of thinking about it —that people disappear. Then Auschwitz becomes a black hole, a kind of non-place where people just disappear. To get to Auschwitz a whole lot of other things had to happen for Auschwitz to be plausible or thinkable. I’m trying to slow down and spread out and make an argument that involves the destruction of states. One can make the argument in all kinds of different ways. One of them is to actually look at Germany in the 1930s and to say that, no matter how much Germany discriminated against Jews, German leaders actually found no way to physically exterminate them in Germany. After Kristallnacht, the entire Nazi leadership understood that actually killing Jews on the streets in Germany was not possible. The reason it wasn’t possible was because Germany was a state — a strange state, but a state. The second way to put the argument is to examine percentages. It’s very clear that in the zones that Germany made stateless, Jews had about a 1 in 20 chance of surviving, whereas in places where there was statehood—even the most warped, authoritarian, antisemitic form of regime — Jews had a 1 in 2 chance of surviving, roughly speaking. That’s a very significant difference. Jews in Eastern Europe were killed in part because the structures that kept them alive were taken away from them. A third way of making the argument is to go country by country and ask how the institutions of sovereignty, even if partial, even if perverted, even if discriminatory, slowed down or hindered the process of killing Jews. Then, the final way to make the argument is to go forward in time, step by step, and see how the Germans learned from the Anschluss in Austria, how they learned from the destruction of Czechoslovakia, from the invasion of Poland, and from the invasion of the Soviet Union, so that each step towards the removal of states also was part of a process of learning about how Jews could be eliminated on the spot by killing them.

One thing that I felt that some of the reviewers of your book got a little muddled about is the difference between state power and state institutions.

The case I’m trying to make in the book is that German state power matters, but in a particular way. The German state was a special kind of state which was tasked with destroying other states. The Wehrmacht, for example, is a perfectly conventional political structure. It’s an army. An army exists to defeat other armies. But the SS is not a conventional political structure. It’s a racial organization which is actually independent of the state, and its task is to destroy other states. Undoubtedly, German state power is involved, but what’s special is the racial institution, which is there to make the world a more racial world by eliminating other people’s political institutions. In the book, I try to show that this matters — it matters for Jews that Polish citizenship, for example, no longer exists for them. It matters that there’s no civil code, that there are no property rights; it matters that institutions which had been tied to a central state, like the Kehillah [Jewish community council] or Polish Order Police, were separated from a central state that no longer exists.

It seems to me that you aren’t trying, in a kind of metaphysical way, to answer why the Holocaust took place. As a historian you’re examining how it came about and you look at the Holocaust from much the same perspective as social psychologists do, by stressing institutional and situational factors. But social psychologists have come under attack for seeming to exonerate perpetrators, for seeming to absolve them of personal responsibility for their actions.

I think my argument actually rescues us from that problem, but let me start in a different way. I begin my book with an account of Hitler’s worldview. What he says is that there is no good in the world. There’s no possibility of good: every account that one could generate about good — whether theological or ethical — is false and Jewish, and is not the real world. What Hitler has done in this argument is actually evil, because evil consists in denying the possibility of good. I also bridge back towards this metaphysics of good and evil in the chapters on rescue. I look at a range of people, beginning with those who have more institutional bases of support, and move on to those who have fewer resources of this type—who have fewer what we might call sociologically rational motivations, and are more and more acting just out of what’s called virtue, or what the survivors call, usually, menshlikhkayt, humanity. What I want to show is that Hitler was wrong; that is, that even if you do succeed in creating a world without institutions, there are some people who will behave in an upright fashion. But I’m also admitting that once one gets to the ones I call the righteous few, the historian’s toolbox is not really applicable anymore. We can explain a lot by looking at processes of institution-building and destruction, but we reach a point where we can’t actually explain, we can only observe and describe. That’s in a way where the book ends, with these righteous few, these people who act from something that is not sociologically rational. I ended the book there because that’s where history stops, and where metaphysics begins: on the other side, where we encounter the question of what good might be.

I think that was indeed one of the takeaways I had from your book, is that as exemplary as the actions of rescuers were, in the end their individual actions were not enough to prevent genocide. As we face, for instance, climate change and the possibility of other cataclysms, the individual actions of a few private citizens aren’t going to save the day. Saying “hey, I recycle” isn’t going to be enough.

Yes. What strikes me in the popular culture about the Holocaust, whether in memoirs or in movies, is that there is a kind of messianic tilt to it. There’s an almost Christian interpretation, which is that something catastrophic happens, but in the end there’s a good person — who in some way redeems us all. I find that strange, but I also find it dangerous, first because by the time you’re in a situation where rescue is the operative category, it’s always too late, because the people who were saving other people in barns or in basements, although they’re doing good, they are not changing the overall character of the situation. The second reason I find it so frightening is that it deprives us of the possibility of preparing, because if you think that the right way of being is to wait for the catastrophe and then to be that decent person, most likely you’re not going to be that decent person. Your identity commitments and ethics will change as the circumstances change. That’s what history says. Beyond that, if we think that that’s the story, that there’s a catastrophe and then there is somebody coming in on a white horse, that means that we don’t act to prevent a catastrophe. Of course we should try to behave decently, of course we should celebrate the rescuers, of course we should teach young people to go against the grain. But what we should at least additionally be trying to do is to understand the circumstances in which our identity commitments and ethics will break down and try to avoid those circumstances. We should be building up structures that will make it more likely that we or future generations will be able to behave with moral decency. If we only think that the Holocaust is about bad ideology, it’s fairly easy to say, “Okay, I’m not a Nazi.” What’s harder to do is to take into account state destruction, as we’ve been talking about, or ecological panic, and say, “Fine, I understand that the state deserves some support,” or, “Fine, I’m going to think about how to make the world a place where there is less tension over resources and therefore where the bad ideologies will have less traction in the future.” If you think of the Holocaust as an interaction of those three things, it means that the ethical commitments you will have arising from the Holocaust will become a little bit different.

Roberta Newman is the Director of Digital Initiatives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and is the Illustrations Editor/Director of Archival Research for The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. She is the co-recipient of a 2015 National Jewish Book Award for her book, “Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals in Russia and America.”


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