Book review: ‘Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning’
World War II and the Holocaust have long been the subjects of study and analysis, to such an extent that some people think they know everything there is to know about that not-so-distant time. Though the number of survivors is dwindling daily, the volume of accumulated accounts of horrific experiences has increased as those who lived through that time have added their stories to the growing troves of documented history from that impactful era.
Analyzing the testimonies and utilizing overlooked archives has allowed esteemed Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder to assemble a comprehensive examination of neglected facts and accounts from the Holocaust. In his new book, “Black Earth; The Holocaust as History and Warning,” Snyder approaches his analysis of the Holocaust from all sides, beginning with Hitler and the world into which he emerged well before World War II.
For Hitler, Snyder says that nature and genetics served as the dominant law and “race was real, whereas individuals and classes were fleeting and erroneous constructions.” Just as the serpent was blamed for the fall of mankind in Eden, Hitler chose the Jews as the ultimate disruptors of the order of the universe, which, in his mind, rightfully belonged to those who could prove their dominance and superiority. According to Hitler, “mercy violated the order of things because it allowed the weak to propagate.”
Thus, a divergence from traditional religious teachings was crucial, according to Hitler, so he worked to commandeer the familiarities of Christianity to better suit his vision and message. He labeled the Jews “a pestilence, a spiritual pestilence, worse than the Black Death.” But in this case, Snyder writes, Hitler believed the virus was one of ideas, and a total extermination of those who carried those ideas was the only way to rid Europe of the sickness. That notion became his “struggle,” his “Kampf,” and following World War I, Hitler was convinced the world would be receptive to his plans.
Bent and Twisted Plans
Hitler envisioned for Germany what the United States had achieved; “Lebensraum,” or “living space,” was something he saw that America had acquired, through force of arms — vast expanses of good soil for agriculture and living.
The wealth and seemingly limitless comforts of Americans became an enviable goal for Hitler. In essence, Snyder describes Hitler’s lust to fight as a means — not so Germany could simply survive — but “so that Germany could strive for a standard of living second to none.” Germany, in other words, deserved its own Manifest Destiny, according to Hitler.
The fact that there were people with deep histories and cultures already living throughout European lands that Hitler saw as his due was irrelevant. By his rationale, it had not mattered in the U.S., where race had been at the fore of its domination of the continent, thus it could be again.
Snyder’s book is dense and academic and he dissects many of Hitler’s own writings, as well as those of others deeply entrenched in the Nazi Party and who were influenced by Hitler’s guidance. He raises some unconventional and challenging points as he follows the course of Germany’s progress toward and into World War II, namely that Hitler exploited the conditions in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union with Stalin, to promote his ultimate plans for the Jews.
Snyder says, “We rightly associate the Holocaust with Nazi ideology, but forget that many of the killers were not Nazis or even Germans.” Snyder describes how, as Hitler became more politically savvy, he began to craft his message to be more palatable, even though his radical intentions remained. He bent and twisted his plans for the Jews as he moved East, first into Poland and then onward, luring in local officials with hypnotic effect, turning many of them into minions who bought his carefully built propaganda that the presence of Jews was a Bolshevik plot that needed to be dismantled.
History as a Teacher
Snyder spends the majority of the book firmly planted in the past, supporting his analysis with maps, public-records and first-hand accounts of those who lived through it all.
Latent throughout, though, and brought to the fore for the final chapters of the book, is the theme of history as teacher. He raises the value of studying, in minute detail, the machinations of the Holocaust, for it is vital to examine its causes so as not to repeat.
“Should we be confident, now that a Holocaust is behind us, that a recognizable future awaits? We share a world with the forgotten perpetrators as well as with the memorialized victims. The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded.”
Hitler came to power “supported by conservatives and nationalists who believed they could control him. This was an error.” Hitler spent the first six years of power working to redraft the political system that he always intended to dismantle. His methodical patience led to the takeover of policing by the SS, a process so insidious that some barely recognized what was taking place.
Snyder raises the issues of climate change, dwindling water supplies, population and the refugee crisis as key issues that can be exploited for nefarious means by crafty individuals.
“Once standard of living is confused with living, a rich society can make war upon those who are poorer in the name of survival.” Thus, a mature and measured contemplation and study of history are crucial, as the “awareness of history permits recognition of ideological traps.”
An abundance of imagination as well as a healthy hope for the future are both important, as they allow for thoughtful actions to be taken in the present moment to prevent a repetition of the likes of the Holocaust in the future.
Karina Wetherbee has been a photographer for more than 30 years, taking her across the world on assignment. In addition to her work as a photographer, she published her first book in 2004, a memoir about her father’s childhood during World War II. She also writes book reviews for the Summit Daily and Vail Daily. Visit http://www.KarinaWetherbee.com for more information.
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