Read Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning Online

Authors: Timothy Snyder

Tags: #History, #Europe, #General, #Military, #World War II

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning


Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz

Wall Around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in the United States and Europe
(ed. with Peter Andreas)
The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999

Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine

The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Thinking the Twentieth Century
(with Tony Judt)

Stalin and Europe: Imitation and Domination, 1928–1953
(ed. with Ray Brandon)
Ukrainian History, Russian Policy, and European Futures
(in Russian and Ukrainian)
The Politics of Life and Death
(in Czech)

The Balkans As Europe: The Nineteenth Century
(ed. with Katherine Younger, forthcoming)

Copyright © 2015 by Timothy Snyder All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

Tim Duggan Books and the Crown colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file with the Library of Congress.

ISBN 9781101903452

eBook ISBN 9781101903469

Maps by Beehive Mapping Cover design by Darren Haggar

Cover art © Image Source/Corbis


For K. and T

Im Kampf zwischen Dir und der Welt,

sekundiere der Welt

In the struggle between you and the world take the side of the world.

, 1917

Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej

Jest człowiekiem

He is from my homeland.

A human being.

, 1943

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends

wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts

wir trinken und trinken

The black milk of daybreak we drink in the evening

in the afternoon in the morning in the night we drink and we drink

, 1944

Every man has a name given by the stars

given by his neighbors.

, 1974


n the fashionable sixth district of Vienna, the history of the Holocaust is in the pavement. In front of the buildings where Jews once lived and worked, ensconced in sidewalks that Jews once had to scrub with their bare hands, are small square memorials in brass bearing names, dates of deportation, and places of death.

In the mind of an adult, words and numbers connect present and past.

A child’s view is different. A child starts from the things.

A little boy who lives in the sixth district observes, day by day, as a crew of workers proceeds, building by building, up the opposite side of his street. He watches them dig up the sidewalk, just as they might in order to repair a pipe or lay some cable. Waiting for his bus to kindergarten one morning, he sees the men, directly across the street now, shovel and pack the steaming black asphalt. The memorial plaques are mysterious objects in gloved hands, reflecting a bit of pale sun.

“Was machen sie da, Papa?”
“What are they doing, Daddy?” The boy’s father is silent. He looks up the street for the bus. He hesitates, starts to answer:
“Sie bauen…”
“They are building…” He stops. This is not easy. Then the bus comes, blocking their view, opening with a wheeze of oil and air an automatic door to a normal day.

Seventy-five years earlier, in March 1938, on streets throughout Vienna, Jews were cleansing the word “Austria” from the pavement, unwriting a country that was ceasing to exist as Hitler and his armies arrived. Today, on those same pavements, the names of those very Jews reproach a restored Austria that, like Europe itself, remains unsure of its past.

Why were the Jews of Vienna persecuted just as Austria was removed from the map? Why were they then sent to be murdered in Belarus, a thousand kilometers away, when there was evident hatred of Jews in Austria itself? How could a people established in a city (a country, a continent) suddenly have its history come to a violent end? Why do strangers kill strangers? And why do neighbors kill neighbors?

In Vienna, as in the great cities of central and western Europe generally, Jews were a prominent part of urban life. In the lands to the north, south, and east of Vienna, in eastern Europe, Jews had lived continuously in towns and villages in large numbers for more than five centuries. And then, in less than five years, more than five million of them were murdered.

Our intuitions fail us. We rightly associate the Holocaust with Nazi ideology, but forget that many of the killers were not Nazis or even Germans. We think first of German Jews, although almost all of the Jews killed in the Holocaust lived beyond Germany. We think of concentration camps, though few of the murdered Jews ever saw one. We fault the state, though murder was possible only where state institutions were destroyed. We blame science, and so endorse an important element of Hitler’s worldview. We fault nations, indulging in simplifications used by the Nazis themselves.

We recall the victims, but are apt to confuse commemoration with understanding. The memorial in the sixth district of Vienna is called
Remember for the Future
. Should we be confident, now that a Holocaust is behind us, that a recognizable future awaits? We share a world with the forgotten perpetrators as well as with the memorialized victims. The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.

An instructive account of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe must be planetary, because Hitler’s thought was ecological, treating Jews as a wound of nature. Such a history must be colonial, since Hitler wanted wars of extermination in neighboring lands where Jews lived. It must be international, for Germans and others murdered Jews not in Germany but in other countries. It must be chronological, in that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, only one part of the story, was followed by the conquest of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, advances that reformulated the Final Solution. It must be political, in a specific sense, since the German destruction of neighboring states created zones where, especially in the occupied Soviet Union, techniques of annihilation could be invented. It must be multifocal, providing perspectives beyond those of the Nazis themselves, using sources from all groups, from Jews and non-Jews, throughout the zone of killing. This is not only a matter of justice, but of understanding. Such a reckoning must also be human, chronicling the attempt to survive as well as the attempt to murder, describing Jews as they sought to live as well as those few non-Jews who sought to help them, accepting the innate and irreducible complexity of individuals and encounters.

A history of the Holocaust must be contemporary, permitting us to experience what remains from the epoch of Hitler in our minds and in our lives. Hitler’s worldview did not bring about the Holocaust by itself, but its hidden coherence generated new sorts of destructive politics, and new knowledge of the human capacity for mass murder. The precise combination of ideology and circumstance of the year 1941 will not appear again, but something like it might. Part of the effort to understand the past is thus the effort needed to understand ourselves. The Holocaust is not only history, but warning.

Hitler’s World

othing can be known about the future, thought Hitler, except the limits of our planet: “the surface area of a precisely measured space.” Ecology was scarcity, and existence meant a struggle for land. The immutable structure of life was the division of animals into species, condemned to “inner seclusion” and an endless fight to the death. Human races, Hitler was convinced, were like species. The highest races were still evolving from the lower, which meant that interbreeding was possible but sinful. Races should behave like species, like mating with like and seeking to kill unlike. This for Hitler was a law, the law of racial struggle, as certain as the law of gravity. The struggle could never end, and it had no certain outcome. A race could triumph and flourish and could also be starved and extinguished.

In Hitler’s world, the law of the jungle was the only law. People were to suppress any inclination to be merciful and be as rapacious as they could. Hitler thus broke with the traditions of political thought that presented human beings as distinct from nature in their capacity to imagine and create new forms of association. Beginning from that assumption, political thinkers tried to describe not only the possible but the most just forms of society. For Hitler, however, nature was the singular, brutal, and overwhelming truth, and the whole history of attempting to think otherwise was an illusion. Carl Schmitt, a leading Nazi legal theorist, explained that politics arose not from history or concepts but from our sense of enmity. Our racial enemies were chosen by nature, and our task was to struggle and kill and die.

Nature knows,” wrote Hitler, “no political boundaries. She places life forms on this globe and then sets them free in a play for power.” Since politics was nature, and nature was struggle, no political thought was possible. This conclusion was an extreme articulation of the nineteenth-century commonplace that human activities could be understood as biology. In the 1880s and 1890s, serious thinkers and popularizers influenced by Charles Darwin’s idea of natural selection proposed that the ancient questions of political thought had been resolved by this breakthrough in zoology. When Hitler was young, an interpretation of Darwin in which competition was identified as a social good influenced all major forms of politics. For Herbert Spencer, the British defender of capitalism, a market was like an ecosphere where the strongest and best survived. The utility brought by unhindered competition justified its immediate evils. The opponents of capitalism, the socialists of the Second International, also embraced biological analogies. They came to see the class struggle as “scientific,” and man as one animal among many, instead of a specially creative being with a specifically human essence. Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist theorist of the day, insisted pedantically that people were animals.

Yet these liberals and socialists were constrained, whether they realized it or not, by attachments to custom and institution; mental habits that grew from social experience hindered them from reaching the most radical of conclusions. They were ethically committed to goods such as economic growth or social justice, and found it appealing or convenient to imagine that natural competition would deliver these goods. Hitler entitled his book
Mein Kampf—My Struggle
. From those two words through two long volumes and two decades of political life, he was endlessly narcissistic, pitilessly consistent, and exuberantly nihilistic where others were not. The ceaseless strife of races was not an element of life, but its essence. To say so was not to build a theory but to observe the universe as it was. Struggle was life, not a means to some other end. It was not justified by the prosperity (capitalism) or justice (socialism) that it supposedly brought. Hitler’s point was not at all that the desirable end justified the bloody means. There was no end, only meanness. Race was real, whereas individuals and classes were fleeting and erroneous constructions. Struggle was not a metaphor or an analogy, but a tangible and total truth. The weak were to be dominated by the strong, since “the world is not there for the cowardly peoples.” And that was all that there was to be known and believed.

Hitler’s worldview dismissed religious and secular traditions, and yet relied upon both. Though he was no original thinker, he supplied a certain resolution to a crisis of both thought and faith. Like many before him he sought to bring the two together. What he meant to engineer, however, was not an elevating synthesis that would rescue both soul and mind but a seductive collision that destroyed both. Hitler’s racial struggle was supposedly sanctioned by science, but he called its object “daily bread.” With these words, he was summoning one of the best-known Christian texts, while profoundly altering its meaning. “Give us this day,” ask those who recite the Lord’s Prayer, “our daily bread.” In the universe the prayer describes, there is a metaphysics, an order beyond this planet, notions of good that proceed from one sphere to another. Those saying the Lord’s Prayer ask that God “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” In Hitler’s “struggle for the riches of nature,” it was a sin not to seize everything possible, and a crime to allow others to survive. Mercy violated the order of things because it allowed the weak to propagate. Rejecting the biblical commandments, said Hitler, was what human beings must do. “If I can accept a divine commandment,” he wrote, “it’s this one: ‘Thou shalt preserve the species.’ ”

Hitler exploited images and tropes that were familiar to Christians: God, prayers, original sin, commandments, prophets, chosen people, messiahs—even the familiar Christian tripartite structure of time: first paradise, then exodus, and finally redemption. We live in filth, and we must strain to purify ourselves and the world so that we might return to paradise. To see paradise as the battle of the species rather than the concord of creation was to unite Christian longing with the apparent realism of biology. The war of all against all was not terrifying purposelessness, but instead the only purpose to be had in the universe. Nature’s bounty was for man, as in Genesis, but only for the men who follow nature’s law and fight for her. As in Genesis, so in
My Struggle
, nature was a resource for man: but not for all people, only for triumphant races. Eden was not a garden but a trench.

Knowledge of the body was not the problem, as in Genesis, but the solution. The triumphant should copulate: After murder, Hitler thought, the next human duty was sex and reproduction. In his scheme, the original sin that led to the fall of man was of the mind and soul, not of the body. For Hitler, our unhappy weakness was that we can think, realize that others belonging to other races can do the same, and thereby recognize them as fellow human beings. Humans left Hitler’s bloody paradise not because of carnal knowledge. Humans left paradise because of the knowledge of good and evil.

When paradise falls and humans are separated from nature, a character who is neither human nor natural, such as the serpent of Genesis, takes the blame. If humans were in fact nothing more than an element of nature, and nature was known by science to be a bloody struggle, something beyond nature must have corrupted the species. For Hitler the bringer of the knowledge of good and evil on the earth, the destroyer of Eden, was the Jew. It was the Jew who told humans that they were above other animals, and had the capacity to decide their future for themselves. It was the Jew who introduced the false distinction between politics and nature, between humanity and struggle. Hitler’s destiny, as he saw it, was to redeem the original sin of Jewish spirituality and restore the paradise of blood. Since homo sapiens can survive only by unrestrained racial killing, a Jewish triumph of reason over impulse would mean the end of the species. What a race needed, thought Hitler, was a “worldview” that permitted it to triumph, which meant, in the final analysis, “faith” in its own mindless mission.

Hitler’s presentation of the Jewish threat revealed his particular amalgamation of religious and zoological ideas. If the Jew triumphs, Hitler wrote, “then his crown of victory will be the funeral wreath of the human species.” On the one hand, Hitler’s image of a universe without human beings accepted science’s verdict of an ancient planet on which humanity had evolved. After the Jewish victory, he wrote, “earth will once again wing its way through the universe entirely without humans, as was the case millions of years ago.” At the same time, as he made clear in the very same passage of
My Struggle
, this ancient earth of races and extermination was the Creation of God. “Therefore I believe myself to be acting according to the wishes of the Creator. Insofar as I restrain the Jew, I am defending the work of the Lord.”

Hitler saw the species as divided into races, but denied that the Jews were one. Jews were not a lower or a higher race, but a nonrace, or a counterrace. Races followed nature and fought for land and food, whereas Jews followed the alien logic of “un-nature.” They resisted nature’s basic imperative by refusing to be satisfied by the conquest of a certain habitat, and they persuaded others to behave similarly. They insisted on dominating the entire planet and its peoples, and for this purpose invented general ideas that draw the races away from the natural struggle. The planet had nothing to offer except blood and soil, and yet Jews uncannily generated concepts that allowed the world to be seen less as an ecological trap and more as a human order. Ideas of political reciprocity, practices in which humans recognize other humans as such, came from Jews.

Hitler’s basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strain towards it was precisely what was hateful. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s most important deputy, did not follow every twist of Hitler’s thinking, but he grasped the conclusions: Ethics as such was the error; the only morality was fidelity to race. Participation in mass murder, Himmler maintained, was a good act, since it brought to the race an internal harmony as well as unity with nature. The difficulty of seeing, for example, thousands of Jewish corpses marked the transcendence of conventional morality. The temporary strains of murder were a worthy sacrifice to the future of the race.

Any nonracist attitude was Jewish, thought Hitler, and any universal idea a mechanism of Jewish dominion. Both capitalism and communism were Jewish. Their apparent embrace of struggle was simply cover for the Jewish desire for world domination. Any abstract idea of the state was also Jewish. “There is no such thing,” wrote Hitler, “as the state as an end in itself.” As he clarified, “the highest goal of human beings” was not “the preservation of any given state or government, but the preservation of their kind.” The frontiers of existing states would be washed away by the forces of nature in the course of racial struggle: “One must not be diverted from the borders of Eternal Right by the existence of political borders.”

If states were not impressive human achievements but fragile barriers to be overcome by nature, it followed that law was particular rather than general, an artifact of racial superiority rather than an avenue of equality. Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and during the Second World War the governor-general of occupied Poland, maintained that the law was built “on the survival elements of our German people.” Legal traditions based on anything beyond race were “bloodless abstractions.” Law had no purpose beyond the codification of a
’s momentary intuitions about the good of his race. The German concept of a
, a state that operated under the rule of law, was without substance. As Carl Schmitt explained, law served the race, and the state served the race, and so race was the only pertinent concept. The idea of a state held to external legal standards was a sham designed to suppress the strong.

Insofar as universal ideas penetrated non-Jewish minds, claimed Hitler, they weakened racial communities to the profit of Jews. The content of various political ideas was beside the point, since all were merely traps for fools. There were no Jewish liberals and no Jewish nationalists, no Jewish messiahs and no Jewish Bolsheviks: “Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew.” Hitler saw Jesus as an enemy of Jews whose teachings had been perverted by Paul to become one more false Jewish universalism, that of mercy to the weak. From Saint Paul to Leon Trotsky, maintained Hitler, there were only Jews who adopted various guises to seduce the naive. Ideas had no historical origins and no connection to the succession of events or to the creativity of individuals. They were simply tactical creations of the Jews, and in this sense they were all the same.

Indeed, for Hitler there was no human history as such. “All world-historical events,” he claimed, “are nothing more than the expression of the self-preservation drive of the races, for better or for worse.” What must be registered from the past was the ceaseless attempt of Jews to warp the structure of nature. This would continue so long as Jews inhabited the earth. “It is Jewry,” wrote Hitler, “that always destroys this order.” The strong should starve the weak, but Jews could arrange matters so that the weak starve the strong. This was not an injustice in the normal sense, but a violation of the logic of being. In a universe warped by Jewish ideas, struggle could yield unthinkable outcomes: not the survival of the fittest, but the starvation of the fittest.

From this it followed that Germans would always be victims so long as Jews existed. As the highest race, Germans deserved the most and had the most to lose. The unnatural power of Jews “murders the future.”

Though Hitler strove to define a world without history, his ideas were altered by his own experiences. The First World War, the bloodiest in history, fought on a continent that thought itself civilized, undid the broad confidence among many Europeans that strife was all to the good. Some Europeans of the Far Right or the Far Left, however, drew the opposite lesson. The bloodshed, for them, had not been extensive enough, and the sacrifice incomplete. For the Bolsheviks of the Russian Empire, disciplined and voluntarist Marxists, the war and the revolutionary energies it brought were the occasion to begin the socialist reconstruction of the world. For Hitler, as for many other Germans, the war ended before it was truly decided, the racial superiors taken from the battlefield before they had earned their due. Of course, the sentiment that Germany should win was widespread, and not only among militarists or extremists. Thomas Mann, the greatest of the German writers and later an opponent of Hitler, spoke of Germany’s “rights to domination, to participate in the administration of the planet.” Edith Stein, a brilliant German philosopher who developed a theory of empathy, considered “it out of the question that we will now be defeated.” After Hitler came to power she was hunted down in her convent and murdered as a Jew.

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