Review- Snyder, “Black Earth”

Timothy Snyder, “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” (narrated by Mark Bramhall) (2016) – What a weird book! Snyder, who is at this point a full-on hashtag-resistance intellectual, was never a stranger to controversy or to portentiousness, and cuts a broader public figure than most historians. I remember being introduced as a historian in a wedding conversation with one of the literate burghers of my hometown, and the name and title the fellow dropped to make conversation with me was Tim Snyder’s “Bloodlands.” From the killing fields to Snyder’s (impressive, by any measure) archival depths to a comfortable suburban Massachusetts living room…

Anyway, “Black Earth” continues some of the conversation begun in “Bloodlands” (with all of its flaws) and takes it still further. We return to the zones of “double occupation” (that is, lands that both the Nazis and the Soviets occupied, sometimes trading back and forth multiple times), the site of most of the Holocaust and, Snyder avows, the geospatial inspiration and permission for it. At the center of “Black Earth” are Snyder’s sweeping claims about Nazism, the Holocaust, and the state. Forget about the image of the bureaucrat rubber-stamping the camps into being, Snyder tells us. Nazism is actually a negation of the state (here, he’s echoing Hannah Arendt, with her claims that Nazism represented an eclipse of nationalism). Hitler sought to destroy states, and succeeded in doing so in Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, and especially Poland (though not, notably enough, Germany), and was abetted by the Soviet Union in the zones of double occupation. These stateless zones then became sites where anything was possible, and that thing became the Holocaust. The state, far from the agent of genocide, is the only real protection against it, Snyder tells us.

The weak points here are many, and resemble those in “Bloodlands,” to an extent. First, Snyder’s characteristic exclusions when he’s trying to make a point: Yugoslavia, despite its massive death rate in the war, can’t be a “bloodland” because it wasn’t double-occupied; its contributions to the Holocaust get similarly short shrift in “Black Earth.” Needless to say, the many genocides perpetrated by states — like those undertaken by colonial regimes, such as the destruction of the Native Americans — aren’t mentioned. The Nazis did indeed destroy states in Eastern Europe. But the maintenance of a state is no guarantee for survival like he makes out, as the fate of the Dutch Jews or the targets of genocide by the Croatian Ustashe demonstrate. Snyder knows this but basically waves it off. The Ustashe were a state that wasn’t really a state, the Netherlands had a state but not really (but the French didn’t?), etc. etc.

This goes along with Snyder’s strange dismissal of the prevalence of prewar antisemitism and its importance to the Holocaust, placing everything on Nazism and especially the person and ideology of Hitler (Himmler comes in as second banana, and Carl Schmitt, who there’s no evidence ever wrote a thing Hitler read, comes up too). There’s some interesting stuff here on Hitler’s use and abuse of biological metaphors, his insistence on a life of struggle and violent competition (he was far from alone in this, as a perusal of Theodore Roosevelt’s writings will show), the way he depicted Jews as “super” natural, i.e. using ideas to circumvent the way of nature. But then, to use internet lingo, Snyder “capes” for interwar Poland, admitting it was antisemitic but showing how its antisemitism drove the Polish government to support the hardest core Zionists they could find, on the idea that that way they’d be rid of their Jews. The opposite of a Holocaust, you see! Or maybe you don’t, seeing as mass involuntary population transfers inevitably lead to mass death in any instance, even the Revisionist Zionist-Polish Nationalist (or contemporary Likudnik-Christian Zionist) fever dream. The stuff about the connection was pretty interesting to read, but does not bear anything like the analytical weight Snyder places on it.

Let’s meet Snyder half-way and say that state destruction did occur and was important, and antisemitism on its own doesn’t lead to genocide, but don’t buy state destruction or Hitler’s “biological anarchism”(!) as explanations. How then, a Snyder fan might ask (I wonder if that other Snyder, Zack, has read “Bloodlands” like the hometown burgher…), do I explain the different outcomes faced in different countries during the war? Well, the massive fucking land war might have something to do with it. The Nazis and the Soviets fighting for national survival in the biggest war the planet has ever known, and everywhere this happened, the Nazis introducing their war against Judeo-Bolshevism, until the latter essentially took over the war as the Nazis began to lose. This has the added benefit of including Yugoslavia, where the partisan fighting was especially fierce, and why in the western occupied areas anti-semitic genocidal violence picked up as the war got closer, as when the Italian Republic of Salo actually started taking Italy’s racial laws seriously. It’s a commonplace that the war and the genocide went together. That commonplace is good enough for me, but it doesn’t have the tendentious energy that Snyder wants to deliver.

One gets the impression from reading a lot of the reviews that not everyone read it all the way through, that they felt they got enough of the book by looking at the beginning chapters and the conclusion. They may even be right, in a lazy kind of way. The middle of the book is more or less a recitation of the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of Snyder’s preoccupations, familiar facts to anyone who knows the history with some added editorial baggage. But it made me wonder- could the whole thing have worked without the one state Hitler didn’t destroy or even really try to, the German state? Someone had to recruit and pay the Einsatzgruppe. Someone had to keep the home front going. And is it really the destruction of the state if you impose dictatorship on an area after wiping out its government? It’s the destruction of a nation-state, sure. But there does seem to be somebody with a monopoly on the means of the use of force. It doesn’t add up.

What it all doesn’t add up to is found in the conclusion, a true monument to a particular kind of conservative-liberal febrility that Snyder has continued to pursue in his work on contemporary political life. Like the rest of the book, the problem isn’t that Snyder lacks intellectual firepower- just that he has seemingly no conception of what a real target would be. So we’re treated to a discursus on the Green Revolution, which replaced Hitler’s preoccupation with the struggle for survival with plentiful cheap food (true), how food might be getting scarcer again (true-ish), and how China, Russia, and “the Middle East” could take up Hitler’s strategy of making scapegoats for ecological change and seek out new realms (Africa, for instance) for biopolitically-driven conquest. Quick, someone’s going to get genocidally, globally violent rather than face climate change, who is it? If you answer anyone other than America you’re a rube. That’s not to exclude others, but we’ve already done it by tearing apart the Middle East in part to secure an energy supply. How are you going to talk about water wars in the Middle East, as Snyder does, while neglecting Israel’s control over Palestine’s water? Talk about a stateless, vulnerable people! The real subject of climate-driven violence (one Arendt wouldn’t have neglected, say what you will about her) are the refugees it is generating, and we get very little from Snyder about that. But nope, Snyder only has eyes for states and ideologies.

We need to see the Holocaust as about ecologically-ideologically-driven state destruction, Snyder tells us, to avoid doing it again. The “left” and the right both blame the state from their various perches (“postmodernism” gets thrown around as a bad guy here) for misinterpreting the Holocaust and not getting the importance of states. We’re in grave danger, Snyder tells us, of failing to learn our lessons. I actually tend to think that’s true, even as I disagree with ehat exactly the lesson is. But again, not due to a left-right conspiracy to induce anarchy, but due to a much simpler explanation- distance in time from the events, and the Holocaust’s cooptation by Hollywood and American ideology into something bad people did because they were bad. That said, aren’t there a million other models for how states — or non-states — could engage in future atrocity? Don’t some of them seem closer than Snyder’s version of the Holocaust, or anyone else’s? I’m in favor of learning from the Holocaust. I’m also in favor of seeing it in the light of a long history of genocide and atrocity, especially against colonized and indigenous peoples, that seem to offer more immediate lessons than the very peculiar circumstances of 1930s-1940s Europe. **’

Review- Snyder, “Black Earth”

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