Five years ago, Timothy Snyder published Bloodlands, a book situating the Holocaust in the context of the waves of mass killings that swept Central and Eastern Europe between the beginning of the 1930s and the end of World War II.
This violence took place in what Snyder terms “the Bloodlands”— a vast space spanning from Odessa to Leningrad and including Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic countries, Eastern Prussia, and the western areas of Russia.
According to Snyder’s estimates, at least fourteen million civilians were killed in these territories between 1930 and 1945, almost half of whom died because of the famine provoked first by Stalin’s and then by Hitler’s policies. All kinds of horrors, from cannibalism to the gas chambers, took place there.
The violence happened in three waves. The first started in Ukraine, where the collectivization of the country’s agriculture produced 3.3 million victims, and concluded with the Great Terror, during which the Soviet NKVD executed almost four hundred thousand people. The second wave followed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and had its epicenter in Poland, which was systematically destroyed by both German and Soviet occupiers.
The third wave, by far the most lethal, began in the summer of 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The extermination policies of this wave— from the Holocaust to the planned starvation of the Slavic population — belong almost exclusively to National Socialism.
According to Snyder, Operation Barbarossa — which led to the German occupation of Ukraine and a costly war of attrition that devastated both sides — revealed fatal miscalculations by both Hitler and Stalin. Stalin knew his alliance with the German dictator was temporary, but he didn’t expect aggression so soon.
He even disregarded the numerous warnings he received during the spring, attributing them to British propaganda. But Hitler was prisoner to his own ideology, as well — his vision of the Slavs as an “inferior race” led him to think it possible to destroy his vast enemy in just three months.
In Snyder’s telling, the failure of the first German offensive determined the final outcome of the entire conflict. In launching the Blitzkrieg, the Nazis had four fundamental goals — the fast annihilation of the Soviet Union; a planned famine that would have affected thirty million people during the winter of 1941; a vast program of German colonization in the western territories of the defeated Soviet Union, especially fertile Ukraine; and the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” that is the mass transfer of the European Jews to the farthest areas of the occupied territories, where they would be progressively eliminated.
But the failure of this Blitzkrieg pushed Hitler to change his priorities — the “Final Solution,” initially planned for the end of the war, suddenly became an immediate goal, insofar as it was the only one that could be carried out in the short term. Since they could not be evacuated, the Jews were killed, whereas the occupied countries were systematically destroyed. As Snyder argues, “The killing was less a sign of than a substitute for triumph.”
Auschwitz, the crossroads of the Polish railroad network, should have been the focal point for German colonization of the “lebensraum” — the “living space” that was to be the site of German settler-colonialism in Europe. Instead, it became the terminal for deported Jews and the principal site of their extermination.
However, the great majority of the Holocaust’s victims were killed east of Auschwitz, which Snyder relocates in the broader context of the “bloodlands” — the realm where the extermination camps merged with the war against the partisans, the starvation of the Slavs, and the slow annihilation of 2.6 million Soviet prisoners of war.
Bloodlands isn’t a history of the Holocaust, but it contributes to our understanding of the Holocaust by placing it into a broader context — the lethal conflict between National Socialism and Stalinism. Its vision of the Holocaust as a product of the German defeat was not completely new — Arno J. Mayer had convincingly presented it twenty years earlier — but it introduced new elements that strengthened this hypothesis.
Black Earth, Snyder’s new book, is at the same time much more ambitious and much more problematic.
The Two Schools
Whereas Bloodlands sheds light on a crucial dimension of World War II — mass killings in East-Central Europe — Snyder’s new book reduces the Holocaust to an exclusively Eastern European story, ignoring vital pieces of its history.
Snyder’s analyses of the Nazi policies in Western and Southern Europe are superficial. He barely mentions the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Greece — his analytical model is built only for Poland and Ukraine.
This narrow focus contributes to significant misrepresentations. For instance, in Black Earth Catholicism never means the Vatican — a much-studied topic hardly mentioned in the book — but almost exclusively the Polish priests and believers. And Snyder simply ignores individual rescuers and resistance movements in other countries, focusing exclusively on Poland and Ukraine.
For several decades, the historiography of the Holocaust has been divided between two main currents. Saul Friedländer distinguishes these as intentionalism and functionalism — intentionalism mostly focuses on the Holocaust’s ideological dimension, functionalism on its unexpected character in practice, which resulted from a whole series of pragmatic choices made in specific circumstances.
For intentionalist historians, World War II simply created the opportunity for a long-delayed genocidal project as old as antisemitism itself. But for functionalist historians, hatred against the Jews is an insufficient explanation of an extermination project that was pragmatically invented in the middle of war.
Snyder’s book belongs to the second historiographical tendency, even if it tries to overcome this outdated quarrel by extracting the Holocaust from the narrow framework of Holocaust Studies. But in many respects, Black Earth takes a step in the wrong direction, moving away from the achievements of Holocaust historiography.
Snyder’s perspective is neither German nor Jewish — it’s Polish. He doesn’t explain the Holocaust exclusively through the eyes of the perpetrators, nor does he retrace the steps of this process through the eyes of the victims — two complementary approaches that have been adopted successfully by historians like Raul Hilberg and Saul Friendländer. Instead, he adopts a territorial perspective — Poland serves as both his vantage point and the object of his study.
He chooses to observe the extermination of the Jews from one space where it took place — which was neither the site where it was conceived nor the country where all the victims came from. In this reconstruction, the Holocaust becomes a global historical event insofar as it radiates from Poland throughout the entirety of Europe. But in Black Earth, this approach becomes a broken mirror that deforms the historical perspective.
The main objective of Black Earth is to explain the Holocaust as a consequence of stateless territories.
Snyder quotes Hannah Arendt, who in The Origins of Totalitarianism devoted many pages to analyzing the emergence of a mass of stateless people — first at the end of the Great War with the fall of multinational empires, then with the advent of National Socialism and the promulgation of antisemitic laws in many European countries, which transformed the Jews into pariahs.
According to Arendt, the existence of a mass of stateless people, deprived of citizenship and rejected by all the Western powers, was a fundamental precondition for the Holocaust. But Snyder’s notion of statelessness does not refer primarily to people, notably the Jews, but rather to territories. In his view, the Nazis could exterminate the Jews because they acted in territories where any state structure had been previously destroyed.
The countries that had been occupied by the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941, Snyder argues, couldn’t put up any resistance to the Nazi violence. Their state apparatus didn’t exist anymore, all state structures had collapsed, and no obstacle remained between the perpetrators and their victims.
This leads Snyder to conclude that only “citizenship, bureaucracy, and foreign policy hindered the Nazi drive to have all European Jews murdered.” The distinct examples of Estonian and Danish Jews — belonging respectively to a destroyed and to a preserved state — “confirm the connection between sovereignty and survival.”
If the Nazis destroyed the Jews through multiple bureaucratic means — from the Wehrmacht and the police battalions to the Einsatzgruppen and the extermination camps — then their actions were all the more effective since any national bureaucracy had been removed.
But where the German administration coexisted or overlapped with a national state system still in operation, the wave of annihilation was delayed, contained, limited, diminished, and sometimes impeded.
Most Jews were killed in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic Countries, where national states had collapsed before 1941. There, the Nazis were completely free to reorganize the territories and to kill without limits.
Both the Netherlands and Greece were very close to this Eastern model of statelessness. In Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and even more in Western Europe, in Denmark, France or Italy — including Germany, Snyder suggests — the permanence of state institutions, like administrative bureaucracies and systems of laws, objectively obstructed the Holocaust.
This explanation is valuable to a certain extent. But it tends to legitimate the apologetic vision of collaborationism — casting it as a form of self-defense and self-preservation, rather than a form of complicity with the Nazi rule.
In many cases, the survival of the preexisting bureaucracies and state structures offered additional means to the occupier. It is true that Vichy distinguished between French and foreign Jews, and tried to protect the French-born, but all Jews were listed by national authorities, arrested by local policemen, and interned in transitory camps created by a French administration.
In Italy, police forces of the Salò Republic actively collaborated with the Nazi occupiers in arresting and deporting the Jews — although their work was sometimes obstructed by the inefficiency of state structures, the Italian state in this case facilitated the work of extermination.
Snyder’s arguments simply reinforce a fact recognized by all Holocaust scholars: Nazi rule was much more brutal, violent, and destructive in the countries annexed by the Third Reich than in those ruled by autonomous, authoritarian regimes involved in collaboration.
And this difference was not a consequence of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact — which created stateless territories — but rather a political choice, linked to the colonial project of conquering the German “living space” and destroying the Soviet Union, a state the Nazis identified with the Jews.
Extending the notion of statelessness — a concept Arendt used to describe people — to territories adds little to our understanding of the Holocaust or Hitler’s colonial project.
Black Earth may be an interesting interpretation of the Holocaust from the Polish perspective, but the ambition of its author is much bigger — Snyder claims to unveil the universal meaning of this historical event. Unfortunately, the book does not fulfill such an ambition.
When Snyder ventures out of Central Europe his assessments become superficial and inaccurate, and sometimes frankly bizarre. His incursions into ideological history are almost always problematic — his repeated definition of Hitler as a “biological anarchist” does not help us to understand the German dictator’s worldview; it simply unveils Snyder’s approximate vision of anarchism.
According to Snyder, Hitler was a “biological anarchist” whose main source of inspiration was Carl Schmitt, a theoretician of the constitutional state and a political philosopher that the German dictator probably never read. But all of Schmitt’s conservative thought — except a few essays written between 1933 and 1936 — was based on the idea of state, not of race, and his antisemitism was religious, not racial.
Schmitt was not properly an inspiration to the Nazis; rather, he tried to legitimize their politics after the fact. And Snyder is wrong to say that National Socialism invented the concept of “living space,” which in fact has a large genealogy in German nationalism and geographical thought — its first theoretician was Friedrich Ratzel in 1901, a name that does not appear in Black Earth’s index.
Snyder also misunderstands the Frankfurt School. According to Black Earth, Horkheimer and Adorno — the authors of the celebrated Dialectic of Enlightenment — were incurable obscurantists opposed to progress, unable to realize that Hitler was not a defender, but rather an enemy of Enlightenment thinking.
But this kind of political sloppiness is characteristic of Snyder’s book, in which he also argues that anti-globalization activists and Wall Street sharks are essentially interchangeable — “In the twenty-first century, anarchical protest movements join in a friendly tussle with global oligarchy, in which neither side can be hurt since both see the real enemy as the state.”
The Clash of Civilizations
In the conclusion of his astonishing book, Snyder abandons history and enters the realm of prophecy: “Understanding the Holocaust,” he explains, “is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity.”
Hitler, Snyder says, was more than a “biological anarchist,” he also was an ecological strategist, and his project of building an “Aryan” empire was rooted into a pitiless calculation of the available natural resources in continental Europe.
Germans could not establish their millennial rule without taking possession of corn, oil, and other resources of Eastern Europe. This is true — the conquest of “living space” had also “ecological” concerns, insofar as its racial domination implied a complete control of demography, economy, territories, and their natural resources.
These concerns, Snyder explains, were eclipsed in the postwar years by the “Green Revolution” that allowed Germany to become a prosperous nation without conquering the Soviet Union (and in spite of losing much of their old territories). But the lessons of the “first globalization” (whose “child,” according to Snyder, was Hitler) once again become relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the control of natural resources will decide the future of our planet.
This struggle may become as violent and pitiless as the zoological battle for racial selection conceived by Hitler almost one century ago, Snyder concludes, and we should not dismiss the possibility that this struggle will become the basis of new wars and genocides. This is why the lessons of the Holocaust are so important — “The struggle against the Jews was ecological,” Snyder writes, insofar as “it concerned not a specific racial enemy or territory but the conditions of life on earth.”
Assuming such premises, one might see the first signs of this catastrophic scenario in the Western wars against Iraq and Libya, through which the great powers tried to control fundamental sites of oil production. But the Cassandra’s warning Snyder launches simply reiterates the commonplaces of neoconservatism — the future will be a clash of civilizations and the West has to get ready for a new Crusade.
According to Snyder:
Africa demonstrates the risk of local shortages, China suggests the problems of global power and national anxiety, and Russia shows how practices of the 1930s can come to seem like positive examples. Thanks in large measure to Moscow, state destruction and the construction of planetary enemies have returned to vogue in Europe. In the Middle East, states tend to be weak, and Islamic fundamentalists have long presented Jews, Americans, and Europeans as planetary enemies.
Russia, whose leader has taken “the head of populist, fascist, and neo-Nazi forces in Europe,” has invented a new scapegoat, the homosexuals, but the Jews themselves could become the victims of a second Holocaust, Snyder argues.
Finally, Snyder brings his misguided political argument to a close by transforming his territorial history of statelessness into a spirited defense of Israel.
“Zionists of all orientations were correct to believe that statehood was crucial to future national existence,” Snyder writes — but he fails to mention that this conclusion would seem to legitimate a demand for Palestinian statehood.
For Snyder, this observation rather proves that Israelis are right to control water supplies in the West Bank, and Palestinians echo Nazis in their complaints: “Muslims might blame Jews for both local problems and the general ecological crisis; that was, after all, Hitler’s approach.”
In Black Earth’s conclusion, Snyder turns into an admirer — equal parts naïve and dogmatic — of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Benjamin Netanyahu — Israeli leaders he considers to be noble descendants of their ancestors, the heroic Polish nationalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The author of Bloodlands may have made important contributions to Holocaust historiography. But five years later, the prophet of Black Earth preaches Zionist and neoconservative platitudes, and obscures more history than he uncovers.