Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

History & Prophecy
Tim Snyder, professor of history at Yale who specializes in modern East European history, has emerged as a leader in the resistance to the threat to democracy posed by the election of Trump. This book reveals why Snyder might have such committed and informed opinions about our current situation. The story of East Europe in the 1930s and 1940s is one of radical anti-Semitism (and the persecution and elimination of other groups) followed by state destruction by both Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes. The chaos that followed state destruction allowed the Holocaust to evolve into the mass murder that it became. The Holocaust is a familiar story, but it’s one that Snyder brings further insight to.

At the beginning of the book, Snyder addresses Hitler’s ideology. Hitler was an extreme and rabid anti-Semite, and he wanted “Lebensraum” (living room) for the German people. Snyder argues that Hitler’s concern with Lebensraum is not merely a matter of grabbing more land for Germany (although it certainly entailed that), but it also referenced a standard of living that looked to the U.S. for its inspiration. Hitler was infatuated with the problem of a Malthusian trap and the hunger and deprivation that Germany suffered in the First World War. To offset these fears, Hitler saw the Slavic and Jewish lands to the east as the equivalent of the American West, which was taken by force from what the white the white settlers considered as the ignorant and expendable natives. What Hitler intended and what his beliefs about Jews and Slavs would entail were not hidden.

Snyder also reports on how the Polish government tried to address the “Jewish problem” by helping to arm and train fighters to allow Jewish emigration to Palestine. But the Polish state was caught between the Stalinist Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and as a functioning state, it disappeared in the joint onslaught that immediately followed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that secretly divided Poland and the Baltic states between the USSR and Germany. The destruction of the Polish state also ended the most effective state advocacy for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.

One of Snyder’s most arresting insights comes from his description of how the destruction of states by one side and then the other (after Hitler invaded the USSR) facilitated and encouraged the Holocaust. Snyder notes that Jews in these twice-invaded lands perished at extremely high rates, while those who lived where states (which entail bureaucracies) remained intact survived at much higher rates, even in Germany. The double-destruction created a moral and practical anarchy that stripped individuals of legal rights and their basic humanity, and that allowed the criminality of the Nazi regime to act unchecked by any rival authority. Snyder shares some stories of survival and those heroic few who saved others, but the offset against the truly staggering death tolls doesn’t create a balance, just a crack of light shining through a crushing avalanche of human depravity.

Historian & prophet
Snyder’s account summarized above makes for fascinating reading. The history of ideology, diplomacy, and criminality by states (Nazi and Soviet) and individuals is deeply engaging and troubling enough. But it is in his concluding chapter that Snyder goes beyond the role of historian to that of a political and practical thinker. In his concluding chapter, Snyder contemplates how our times share characteristics with those of this truly awful period in human history. Snyder writes:

There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized. If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in the broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and open the way to an unprecedented crime. (320-321).

Snyder explains:
By presenting Jews as an ecological flaw responsible for the disharmony of the planet, Hitler channeled and personalized the inevitable tensions of globalization. The only sound ecology was to eliminate a political enemy; the only sound politics was to purify the earth.” (321). (This refers to Snyder’s initial consideration of Hitler’s ideology; the use of “ecology” is an anachronism but a quite appropriate one.) Snyder goes on to note that “the course of the war on the eastern front created two fundamental political opportunities. At first, the zoological portrayal of Slavs justified the elimination of their polities, creating the zones where the Holocaust could become possible. (323).
 . . . . 
Just as Hitler’s world view conflated science and politics, his program confused biology with desire. The concept of Lebensraum unified need with want, murder with convenience. It implied a plan to restore the planet by mass murder and a promise of a better life for German families. Since 1945, one of the two senses of Lebensraum have spread across most of the world; a living room, the dream of household comfort in a consumer society. The other sense of Lebensraum is habitat, the realm that must be controlled for physical survival, inhabited perhaps temporarily by people characterized as not quite fully human. In uniting these two passions in one word, Hitler conflated lifestyle with life. For the vision of a well-stocked cupboard people should endorse the bloody struggle for other peoples’ land.  Once standard of living is confused with living, a rich society can make war on those who are poorer in the name of survival. Tens of millions of people died in Hitler’s war not so that Germans could live, but so that Germans could pursue the American dream in a globalized world. (324).

Reflect on this as you consider world population growth, the rise of demand for food and other goods by China and India and other developing nations, and our (American) attachment to material prosperity. Consider also this:

Hitler the thinker was wrong that politics and science are the same thing. Hitler the politician was right that conflating them creates a rapturous sense of the catastrophic time and thus the potential for radical action. (325).
 
Does this sound like any contemporary politicians? I think that it reminds Snyder (and me) of some. 
The similarities between now and then (the 1930s and 1940s) arise foremost from globalization. Snyder writes: “Hitler was a child of the first globalization, which arose under the imperial auspices at the end of the nineteenth century. We are the children of the second, that of the late twentieth century. Globalization is neither a problem nor a solution; it is a condition with a history.” (326). It promotes thinking—for good or ill—on a planetary scale. And when a “global order collapses, as was the experience of many Europeans in the second, third, and fourth decades of the twentieth century, a simplistic diagnosis such as Hitler’s can seem to clarify the global by referring to the ecological, the supernatural, or the conspiratorial.” (327).
In the past 25 years of so, we’ve experienced new collapses of order, in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, for instance, where virulent, fearful ideologies team with economic and ecological precariousness to unleash new genocides. As pressures continue, especially in light of continued climate change and world population growth, we’ll continue to see these problems pop-up as they do in daily headlines. Hitler used bad science to foresee a bleak future, not appreciating the Green Revolution ahead, but we don’t’ know if we have further Green Revolutions available. And we have grave reasons to doubt that the fortuitous climate that civilizations have come to depend upon will continue in light of continued human activities that alter the climate.
A closing thought from Snyder:
States should invest in science so that the future can be calmly contemplated. The study of the past suggests why this would be a wise course. Time supports thought; thought supports time; structure supports plurality, and plurality, structure. This line of reasoning is less glamorous than waiting for general disaster and dreaming of personal redemption. Effective prevention of mass killings is incremental and its heroes are invisible. No conception of a durable state can complete with visions of totality. No green politics will ever be as exciting as red blood on black earth. But opposing evil requires inspiration by what is sound rather than by what is resonant. The pluralities of nature and polities, order and freedom, past and
future, are not as intoxicating as the totalitarian utopias of the last century. Every unity is beautiful as an image but circular as logic and tyrannical as politics. The answer to those who seek totality is not anarchy, which is not totality’s enemy but it handmaiden. The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions: an unending labor of differentiated creation. This is a matter of imagination, maturity, and survival. (342).

To which I say, “Amen,” let it be so.


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