Review: Black Earth

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

Tim Duggan Books, 2015.  Hardcover, 480 pages.Cover Black Earth

This analysis of the Holocaust takes a different than normal approach.  Instead of looking at Hitler’s ideology and how the Germans carried out the Holocaust (see example in my post “Ordinary Citizens’ Role in the Holocaust“), Black Earth shows how a unique set of conditions combined with Soviet influences led to the horror we now know as the Holocaust.

Snyder first discusses Hitler’s ideology in brief and the early alliance Germany held with the Soviet Union. As part of this alliance, the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany jointly invaded and divided Poland in 1939.  According to Snyder, it was first the Russians who carried out mass killings, often against those opposed to Communism, including the Jews.  The latter was thanks to the popular belief that Jews were Capitalist leaders and thus the prime enemy of Communism.  The Soviets also killed any who opposed them, those in government positions, and Poland and the Baltic States‘ intelligentsia (Germany granted the three Baltic nations to Russia as part of the alliance).

Next, when Germany turned the tide and broke its Soviet alliance with the Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, things changed.  Prior to this, Germany hoped to send the Jews away from Europe, specifically to Madagascar.  Now the Germans began to kill the Jews in vast numbers following the Soviet method (specifically, mass shootings).  To explain this, Snyder focuses on statelessness.  In the East, Germany stripped the people of citizenship and used this to aid the killing process.  The idea was that the Jews now had no state protection and this made them easier to “dispose” of.  The fear factor further aided the Nazi cause, as those who helped the Jews were also severely punished.  Snyder then provided detailed examples on a country by country basis to prove his thesis.  To further his point and to provide a contrast, Snyder also explained the situation of Jews in the West, many of whom still were consider citizens of their nation.  Snyder also demonstrated that it was only once Germany was losing and the Madagascar idea proved impossible to carry out that the death camps came into formation and began murdering the Jewish people in significantly greater numbers.

The last few chapters focused on ways the Jewish people resisted the Germans.  These pages provided many examples of Jews in hiding, those that hid Jews, and those that helped Jews obtain citizenship papers or visas.  Unfortunately, none of these examples were in-depth; they were all snapshots that could have, with more research, led to a second book.

Overall, I found Black Earth to be a very dense book to read.  The first 2/3 of the narrative (the end notes and bibliography were a quarter of the book), were detailed to the point of feeling like an academic treatise.  This contrasted sharply with the lack of depth when the resistance efforts were covered.  Still, I do feel Snyder may have a valid point, especially since it is well-known that under Stalin there were more Russian deaths than the Holocaust nearly three times over.  And this is not the first book on the Holocaust I have read that acknowledges that the mass killings of Jews did not begin in earnest until 1942 when Germany realized it likely would not win the war.  In fact, the Wannsee Conference that led to the Final Solution did not occur until January, 1942.  It is the first, though, to discuss the atrocities the Russians did in the lands it briefly occupied while allied with Germany and I can see where Hitler’s troops took lessons from the Soviets in how to conduct mass murder since the Germans initially followed a Soviet example (again, see the linked earlier post I wrote).  Black Earth is also the first book that I have read to examine how the creation of statelessness for groups of people affected the outcome of the Holocaust and with that Snyder does have another potentially valid point.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Do you think you will read this analysis of the Holocaust?  If you already have (this book has been out a couple of months now), how do think this compares to other works on the Holocaust?  Whether you have or have not read the book, based on this short review, do you think Snyder’s thesis may be valid?


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