Daily Book Review: 'Black Earth'

Monday, September 28, 2015 - 12:41pm

There is no doubt that the Holocaust was one of the bloodiest events in the history of the Western world. But in “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” Yale Prof. Timothy Snyder argues that to relegate the Holocaust to the context of our history classes is to do ourselves a great disservice, and a potentially dangerous one. He argues, using sources from a variety of languages, that we need to delve deeper into the causes of the Holocaust, especially Hitler’s worldview and the role that ecological panic and the destruction of statehood played.

“Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” 

Timothy Snyder

Tim Duggan Books

Sept. 8, 2015


Snyder begins in Hitler’s mind. He fleshes out Hitler’s beliefs in detail, going far beyond the idea that Hitler hated Jews to claim that Hitler didn’t consider Jewish people, along with Soviets and Ukrainians, part of the human race. He explains that Hitler’s preoccupation was about the survival of Germans and the cleansing of the land by the extermination of Jews, as he conflated politics and the natural order. This comes back again in his conclusion — Snyder points out that we as a current society have already begun to adopt the catastrophism so prevalent in Hitler’s mind. He reminds us of the need for a separation between science and politics.

Snyder's explanation of Hitler’s beliefs and perspective are riveting, but he also tends to focus on details, like the roles of Polish politics and Palestine, that, while interesting, don’t feel immediately necessary to understanding the Holocaust. It’s at parts like these where Snyder gets caught up in political theory details that aren’t necessary for the average reader; much more relevant are the parts in which he deconstructs popular Holocaust rhetoric and debunks myths about Nazis and concentration camps. In one of the most fascinating chapters, he unpacks the significance of Auschwitz, what it really was and what it has become in our current discourse. But while thorough knowledge of European history and the World Wars is presumed in most of this book, and though the heavy academic rhetoric can be dense, it’s almost always clear.

As with any true story, the personal accounts leap out from the page, striking the sympathetic chords in our hearts. We’re familiar with not only the horror stories that have come from the weary mouths of survivors, but also stories of improbable, miraculous life in the face of almost certain death, and stories of those few who braced their backs against the tide and reached out their hands to help.

But Snyder warns we must not let ourselves fall into this pattern of those emotions were used to feeling. We can’t just bear witness to these stories and let ourselves get caught up in the pathos. We have to understand them in their complexity.

Snyder reminds us that for a long time, the study of history was dry; it was about facts and figures and the heroes who won the wars. Then there was a cultural shift, and we started caring more about the three-dimensional stories — about the people who had been relegated to the footnotes, if mentioned at all. But caring about the experiences, though important, can’t take the place of understanding.

The idea that something like the Holocaust could happen again is terrifying and feels impossible, but Snyder argues it wasn’t just a phenomenon. It wasn’t only a hideous combination of time and space and a madman who wielded hypnotizing rhetoric. It really could happen again — especially if we fail to recognize the warning signs.