Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

"Black Earth" is Timothy Snyder's fascinating new book about WWII on the Eastern front, a follow-up on his earlier work, "Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin." For anyone with an interest in WWII or political economy, agricultural and food policies or racial politics, I heartily recommend these works. Bloodlands, in addition to the valuable and pioneering work on the policies of Hitler and the Nazi regime,  is especially powerful in exploring and documenting the brutality of the Stalinist regime during and in the years after WWII, when it acted in ways that were almost a mirror of Hitler's policies, with almost as brutal results.

Below is an excerpt from a recent interview with Snyder which is a taste of his work and the theoretical perspectives he develops. Because of their depth and wide-ranging relevance, I encourage reading the two reviews:

"What would you say were the basic principles of Hitler’s worldview, and what did that mean for how he viewed the idea of nation-states, or ethics, and other universalist principles we assume as given?

Timothy Snyder: So what Hitler does is he inverts; he reverses the whole way we think about ethics, and for that matter the whole way we think about science. What Hitler says is that abstract thought—whether it’s normative or whether it’s scientific—is inherently Jewish. There is in fact no way of thinking about the world, says Hitler, which allows us to see human beings as human beings. Any idea which allows us to see each other as human beings—whether it’s a social contract; whether it’s a legal contract; whether it’s working-class solidarity; whether it’s Christianity—all these ideas come from Jews. And so for people to be people, for people to return to their essence, for them to represent their race, as Hitler sees things, you have to strip away all those ideas. And the only way to strip away all those ideas is to eradicate the Jews. And if you eradicate the Jews, then the world snaps back into what Hitler sees as its primeval, correct state: Races struggles against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try and take land.

Delman: And that’s a good world to Hitler?

Snyder: Yeah, that’s the only good. It’s a very dark, empty universe. I mean, that’s how Hitler describes it to himself. There are really no values in the world except for the stark reality that we are born in order to take things from other people. And so Hitler sees the only good thing as removing the Jews who pervert, as he says it, human nature and physical nature.
Delman: And so that’s what you mean when you say that Hitler saw the Jews as an ecological or planetary threat—that they were truly existentially damaging the planet with their ideas and their attempts to invert the natural order. You said that they were “un-nature.”

Snyder: Yeah, so unnatur is actually a term that Hitler uses, and I think it’s a really telling term. I think it gets to the heart of the matter. When we think of anti-Semitism, we start from the ground up, right? We think about everyday prejudice. We think about discrimination. We think about the separation of Jews from other people.

What I’m trying to do is start from the top down, and say that the fundamental issue is not that Hitler was more of an anti-Semite than other people. It’s not a matter of just turning up the notches and getting up to a higher level of anti-Semitism. It’s a whole worldview, in the literal sense of the world. He sees the Jews as being the thing which destroys the world, which infects the world. He uses the term “pestilence” in this sense—the Jews have infected the world. They’ve made the world not just impure in some kind of metaphorical sense—he really means it. And so the only way to purify the world—to make things go back to the way they’re supposed to be, to have a natural ecology, to go back to this struggle between races, which Hitler thinks is natural—the only way to do that is to physically eliminate the Jews."

Here is another review which encapsulates Snyder's position; "He does not see the Holocaust as a “war against the Jews”—as the historian Lucy Dawidowicz called it—for which Hitler was prepared to sacrifice ordinary military strategy, but as an extreme example of Hitler’s wide-ranging racial obsessions":