BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I was going to open by saying what a tragedy it is that we still need books about the Holocaust. The quintessential crime against humanity, we are supposed to be past it now. But genocidal war fueled by the Big Lie has made something of a comeback with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “Sane,” “rational” people with an “elected” government are waging a brutal, murderous war to destroy, not just a country, but a nation, in Europe. Here we are again.
Still, we must deal narrowly with the events of today, right? How much can a liberal democrat like myself gain by reading a new history of the Holocaust? All it can serve to do, seemingly, is to highlight again what has been clearly and repeatedly established as humanity’s worst, most monstrous failure. Isn’t rehashing irremediable atrocities a kind of political pornography? And so Lublin, Treblinka and Auschwitz cannot really tell us much about Bucha, Mariupol, and Kramatorsk.
But maybe the recurring justification for revisiting the Holocaust lies in the audience, not the subject matter. I come from a country, America, where the people think they are naturally too virtuous to commit genocide, and I live in a country, Germany, where atonement for Nazi crimes has become so routine and ubiquitous that it can feel like a hollow ritual.
I am, it turns out, precisely the kind of person for whom Timothy Snyder wrote his 2015 book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. As someone who thinks we understand Nazism and its crimes, I tend to believe that unformed sorrow and a stark pledge of never again is all we can offer the wounded human race after the Holocaust. It was all so much pure evil. But Snyder insists we still get the political facts of the Holocaust wrong, and thus we risk repeating it.
The actuating force of the Holocaust was not pure, unmotivated evil, according to Snyder. It was the intersection of humiliated nationalism, economic crisis, and conspiratorial racism. At the crossroads where these elements come together, Snyder argues, “few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized.”
Before I offer my views on how history is repeating itself today, let me lay out Snyder’s main thesis and arguments. The effectiveness of Hitler’s genocide, Snyder writes, can be measured geographically, on the map of Europe. Although westerners typically call to mind the Third Reich’s deportation of Jews from Western Europe, it was in the East where the mass killing was most effective. More than 90 percent of the Jews in Poland, the Baltic countries and Nazi-occupied parts of the USSR were murdered; whereas half or more of the Jews in western Europe survived. Ironically (if the word can be used), Germany’s Jews had one of the highest rates of survival.
The East became Ground Zero for Nazi genocide, Snyder argues, because of how thoroughly Germany destroyed the state institutions there. When government authority was destroyed by the Wehrmacht‘s Blitzkrieg, so was the link to the rule of law. Even Hitler’s re-introduction of the law of the jungle, though, was only an enabling condition for the Holocaust. Had the situation been so simple as Einsatzgruppen rampaging without any laws to constrain them, Snyder argues, far fewer Jews would have died. The Nazis acting alone simply didn’t have the capacity to kill by the millions. What they needed, Snyder argues, was a large cohort of highly motivated local collaborators.
And they got them. This is the heart of Snyder’s argument: the unique tragedy of Eastern Europe during World War Two was the fact of double occupation–military conquest first by the Nazis then by the Red Army. To signal loyalty to each occupying power in turn, or often just to survive, thousands of eastern and central Europeans actively contributed, albeit in different ways, to the wholesale killing of Jews. When the Soviets occupied eastern Poland in 1939, they divested Jews of their property and businesses because they were anathema to communism. Non-Jewish Poles moved in and occupied their stolen property. When the Nazis invaded, they coopted the new Polish property owners into a scheme to kill the former owners, “racializing” what had been a purely political oppression by the Soviets.
In some areas Jews formed partisan groups that proved successful at killing Nazi occupiers. When the Red Army began liberating areas in 1943 that had been defended by partisans, Stalin ordered the partisans killed so they couldn’t claim credit for helping win the war. These patterns repeated themselves in dozens of variations across the East, and the Jews got it coming and going, by the Nazis and the Red Army.
The historian’s first task, of course, is to present the facts faithfully. Snyder obviously would not have written Black Earth had he not believed he was unearthing some new, objective evidence about what the Holocaust really was. But it is the moral of his book–the warning–that gives it urgency. If we persist in seeing the Holocaust as an instance of utterly unintelligible evil, he writes, we could blind ourselves to its central mystery–how ordinary people carried it out. How we might carry it out again.
“I am a normal man with normal needs,” says Paul Doll, an imaginary SS death camp commandant in Martin Amis’s 2015 novel The Zone of Interest; “I am completely normal. That is what nobody seems to understand.” The novel’s action is set in 1942 and 1943, as it is becoming evident that Germany is losing the war. But even as the Wehrmacht‘s military conquests slow and then go into reverse after Stalingrad, the genocide in the death camps picks up pace. Doll has to clear newly arriving trains every day. “We cannot cope with the numbers,” he complains. It dawns on Doll that the death camps have become Hitler’s main effort. The war for Lebensraum is being lost. So the genocide must be sped up. Amis’s unflinching theme in The Zone of Interest is the examination of each character as someone who is, or once was, normal but is now under the reality-bending circumstances of Hitler’s doomed killing frenzy.
“Under National Socialism,” reflects Amis’s protagonist, “you looked into the mirror and saw yourself. You found yourself out. . . . We all discovered, or helplessly revealed, who we were. Who somebody really was. That was the zone of interest.” And in a way, this is the zone of interest for Snyder as well, to insist on seeing the actors in the Holocaust, major and minor, as normal people. They believed a Big Lie when it was credible, in the 1930s, and then became part of the Big Lie’s monstrous bloody reality even after it passed beyond belief in the 1940s.
In Ukraine we are witnessing a hinge moment in history, where just such a transition is happening in real time. Vladimir Putin’s idea of Russia as victimized, surrounded, and unfairly constrained has been fermenting into a mass Russian movement for decades, and it is now exploding into a justification for genocidal murder. Just as Hitler drew an organic link (where there was none) between a real strategic adversary–Soviet Communism–and a helpless, demonizable people–the Jews–Putin has pulled off the same diabolical maneuver. Germany was by natural rights a strong, forthright nation, Hitler said, deserving of whatever wealth, land, and power it could grab. That’s just Realpolitik in its purest form. But the Jews devised a global conspiracy of liberalism that kept Germany in check. It wasn’t fundamentally the Jews who were an obstacle to Germany’s greatness; it was the alliance they created. The alliance was too big to conquer, so Hitler went after its putative source, in Jewishness.
While some of the details differ, this view of geopolitics is far too close to Putin’s to be ignored. The Ukrainians must be subdued, he says, not because they themselves are a threat to Russia’s greatness; they are nothing but homosexuals, leftover Nazis, and drug addicts. But because these weaklings have tricked NATO and the EU into constraining Russia, they have committed a fatal sin against Russian greatness. Tragically, I think it is plausible that Putin will turn to mass killing as the only achievable war aim that is left to him once it becomes clear that he, like Hitler, is losing the war.