Never Forget: the Holocaust as History and Warning

by Mark Mazower – September 11, 2015

The Financial Times

“I need to write this bitterness out of myself,” Joseph Goebbels confessed in 1923 as he began his diary. And how he tried, and kept on trying, long after unemployment was a distant memory and he had become one of the Führer’s most trusted associates. The diaries amount to 32 volumes. Nor was this just Goebbels’s problem: the regime’s logorrhoea began at the top. Pity Hitler’s adjutants who had to sit through those interminable after-dinner ramblings, and pity the poor historian who has to wade through not only these dutifully transcribed testimonies to the inner workings of the Nazi mind, but the commentary of several generations of scholars as well. There have been thousands of books published on the Holocaust since the millennium, and some 500 and counting in this year alone, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Timothy Snyder believes that this torrent of material has bolstered misconceptions and myths. We are in danger of forgetting, he suggests, that large numbers of the victims died outside the camps, and that Germans were not the only perpetrators. He thinks that we also need to be reminded that the genocide was not the fault of nations, of states or of science. But his real concern is the future. Over-familiar with the story, we distance it from our own lives, forgetting that “its precedent is eternal”. This is the message of Black Earth, a philosophical history that burrows past individual events to get at underlying truths and ends up convincing neither as history nor as exhortation.

Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, presents Nazism as a form of Malthusian anxiety about overpopulation and food scarcity that should sound a familiar note on our ever more crowded planet. His Hitler is an ecological racist of impeccable logical consistency, with a worldview in which the biological eradication of Jews is implicit from the start. Snyder uses the term globalisation a lot when talking about the mid-20th century, as if to point to the contemporary urgency of his story. And at the book’s end he sketches a series of dire scenarios in which genocide erupts in the Middle East or Africa as water and other resources dry up and future political elites deflect popular anxieties on to convenient scapegoats.

Snyder’s previous work reminded us that the Nazi genocide took place chiefly in the territories between Germany and the Soviet Union. This book says why: these were lands whose inhabitants had been stripped of the protection of the state. That was certainly a result of Nazi occupation policy: the rise of the SS, in particular, stemmed from its ability to offer Hitler more effectively than any of the existing government ministries a means of rewriting the rulebook on occupation, and the territories between the eastern borders of the Reich and the eastern front were its laboratory. But it is too simple to say that people were better off where the state existed than where it did not. It all depended obviously on what that state chose to do and to whom. States, and not only the Third Reich, were often selective: in 1941 the wartime Romanian state killed many Jews in chaotic pogroms that horrified the Germans, only to refuse after the summer of 1942 to deport other Jews to the camps. The state was the same; but the circumstances of the war had changed.

After the lofty altitudes of Snyder’s thought, it is almost a relief to come down to earth in Peter Longerich’s detailed biography of Joseph Goebbels. Not that its subject was ever down-to-earth himself. A penniless dreamer with a useless doctorate in German Romantic literature, living at home with his parents when he began his diaries, within a decade he had risen to become the propaganda minister of the Third Reich.Snyder downplays the war’s vicissitudes. And his language is often just plain odd: was Nazi Germany a “recolonial” state, Poland a “decolonial” one and the Soviet Union “self-colonial”? This is prose straining for effect. The three countries form, as those familiar with his work will expect, the core triad of this account. By contrast, there is relatively little about anyone else. Snyder is a fine, if partial, historian of Poland and has contributed important work on the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands in particular. But Black Earth offers too many warnings and not enough history.

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