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'Black Earth' Explores Dangers Of Misunderstanding The Holocaust


Historian Timothy Snyder can make you think differently about the Holocaust. Set aside your image of the concentration camp at Auschwitz as its most vivid symbol. By the time the killing of Jews got underway at Auschwitz, most of the deed was already done in Eastern Europe. And it was done just as likely in forests and on roadsides as in death camps. Snyder also tells us that the key to Nazi Germany's strategy that permitted the savage slaughter of millions was the destruction of neighboring states. He writes about this in his new book, "Black Earth." Timothy Snyder, welcome to the program.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Very glad to talk to you.

SIEGEL: You write in "Black Earth" - and I'm quoting now - Jews who were German citizens were more likely to survive than Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed.

SNYDER: Yeah. Our image is of a progressive destruction of Jews inside Germany. But in fact, Germany, like most states that weren't destroyed, was a relatively safer place for Jews than the places where German power actually destroyed other regimes. Once we see this basic contrast that Jews in stateless zones had about a 1-in-20 chance of surviving whereas Jews in states had about a 1-in-2 chance of surviving, we have to ask the question about the causes of the Holocaust a little differently.

SIEGEL: And Hitler's attitude toward Poland or toward Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine was quite different from his view of France or the Netherlands or Denmark.

SNYDER: That's an extremely important point. It turns out that in order to carry out something like a final solution, you have to first destroy state institutions. So the order is very important. When Germany invades Poland in 1939, it does so with the intention of wiping out not just the Polish state but the Polish political elite, that is, physically exterminate the people who could support a state.

When Germany invades a country like France, it does not have that intention. In 1940, it doesn't destroy the French elite. It doesn't destroy French institutions. And so then, by 1941, when the final solution begins, different things are simply possible in Poland than they are in France.

SIEGEL: In anticipating the elimination of Poland from the map and from the memory of the Poles, Hitler, you write, had in mind, at least in part, the example of the way things had been in the American West.

SNYDER: Yes. Hitler and men and women of his generation grew up in the late 19th century aware of what was happening in the United States, understanding it as an example of a successful land colonization, as a successful example of wiping out native peoples and transforming a whole region. So he saw the Americans as an inspiring example of what could be done.

SIEGEL: And he saw Jews as first identical with Bolshevism. And also, as you write, he saw Jews as being responsible for any idea that supplanted race as the organizing principle of a country.

SNYDER: So Hitler saw the Earth in these very simple zoological terms. He thought that races were different the way that species were different and that the only real moral value that could exist was loyalty to one's own race. So his attitudes towards Jews, although, of course, anti-Semitic, went beyond conventional anti-Semitism. His idea was that Jews were not a race. Jews were not really humans at all. What Jews did was introduce ideas of reciprocity, whether that be law, whether that be socialism, whether that be capitalism, whether that be the state, whether that be Christianity. Any idea that allows a person to recognize another person as human, Hitler argued, was Jewish. Therefore, Jews had to be removed from the planet so that the natural racial struggle could begin.

So Hitler's plan basically had two levels. The first level was the Jews have to be removed so that the strong race, the Germans, can triumph. And the second level was the Germans should invade Eastern Europe, and that is the geographical place where this triumph will actually take place. The way those two ideas come together is precisely this notion that Jews and Bolshevisk, Jews and communists, are the same people. If Jews are communists and communists are Jews, then an invasion of Eastern Europe can mean the destruction of Jews just as it means the destruction of the Soviet Union and therefore the opening of all of Eastern Europe to this new German program of colonization.

SIEGEL: The kind of statelessness that you write about - what prevailed in Poland and the Baltic republics and the western Soviet Union in the early 1940s - if we look around for something like that today, I think of Syria. I think of eastern Ukraine.

SNYDER: Yeah, and unfortunately, I do, too. And the way that I see the world today is driven by the way I think about the 1930s. Our classical way of thinking about the 1930s is that a totalitarian state got stronger and stronger and oppressed its own citizens more and more. That picture is very misleading. What actually happened is that a German state which was powerful to start out with was taken over by a very special kind of racial institution, the Nazi Party, and then set out to spread anarchy in Eastern Europe. And it was in that zone of anarchy that a Holocaust was possible.

And precisely, when one looks at the Middle East, one sees what happens when a state was destroyed. The Iraqi state in 2003 was, of course, a terrible regime. But one has to think carefully about destroying a regime because when one destroys a regime, one is opening up the possibility for all kinds of other things to happen.

Ukraine, in a way, is even more frightening because in Ukraine, you have a case where the Russian leadership quite consciously evokes the 1930s in a positive light. President Putin has rehabilitated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was the agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union which led to the destruction of Poland, the destruction of the Baltic states. He's rehabilitated the beginning of the Second World War as he talks about how Ukraine doesn't really exist, as he wages war against Ukraine. So it's very hard not, for me, at least, not to make that historical connection.

SIEGEL: The subtitle of your book, "Black Earth," is "The Holocaust As History And Warning." What's the warning?

SNYDER: My basic view is that since we have understood the Holocaust backwards, that we focus basically on the wrong things, that misunderstanding creates dangers. We haven't learned the two lessons that we need to learn. The first of them, which we've talked about, is about state destruction. We don't recognize that preserving state institutions is necessary to preserve human lives, which means that we should be focusing on strengthening institutions that strengthen states around the world.

The second lesson that we haven't learned has to do with science. When Hitler was coming to power in the 1930s, what he claimed was that Germany was facing some kind of ecological crisis in which the only solution was to conquer its neighbors. In fact, the ecological crisis he was talking about, the shortage of food, was going to be solved by technology. So he's faced with a choice between science and ideology, and he chooses ideology, the ideology of conquest.

One of the lessons of the Holocaust is that when you face choices between ideology and science, you should first see if science offers you solutions, and I mean this particularly in a time of climate change in which real shortages of food and real shortages of water are just around the corner.

SIEGEL: Professor Snyder, thanks for talking with us once again.

SNYDER: It's always a pleasure. Thanks.

SIEGEL: Historian Timothy Snyder's new book is called, "Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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