There’s probably no other historical event that continues to influence contemporary discourse more than the Holocaust. It’s lasting relevancy can be discerned in the controversy that erupted over Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s recent comments on the matter, and how it relates to the current debate over gun control.
A sobering new book, “Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning,” sheds new light on how the genocide against Jews was allowed to occur and what lessons it teaches the modern world.
Written by noted academic Timothy Snyder, “Black Earth” builds off much of the dark ground that the historian explored in his previous book, “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”
Here the Yale University historian focuses specifically on the National Socialist quest for extermination, the ideology motivating it and how it was able to take place on the world’s most civilized continent.
In Snyder’s telling, Adolf Hitler imagined the history of mankind as one long, Darwinian racial struggle where the strong conquered and the weak perished.
“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,” the author writes. “For Hitler… nature was the singular, brutal, and overwhelming truth, and the whole history of attempting to think otherwise was an illusion.”
The Jewish people, in the warped eyes of the Nazis, were a non-race that could not participate in the competition for land and food. According to Hitler’s thinking, Jews wanted to rule the world by making everyone believe “unnatural,” universal ideas that took man away from the law of the jungle. This inclination is why Hitler believed they were the greatest threat to the survival of the Aryan race and needed to be excised from the Reich.
The genocidal prophet believed that Germans needed to expand their living space in order to achieve the highest quality of life and deserved to take it from the “subhumans” of Eastern Europe due to the supposed laws of nature. Hitler’s worldview mandated that only the strong earned the right to live and plundering the East expressed this mad vision.
Snyder puts forth an interesting thesis for how the Nazis were able to wantonly kill millions of people with relative ease. In the territory Germany conquered from Poland and the Soviet Union, a vast landmass came under their control where state institutions disappeared overnight and laws became obsolete. The historian argues that this anarchic situation offered Nazis free rein to turn their murderous dreams into reality.
Without any set laws or bureaucratic process for the National Socialists to deal with, the SS could deport whomever they pleased to concentration camps and wipe out entire villages without having to bother with the pretense of legality.
On the other hand, in Western European states where the Nazis occupied but left previous institutions and laws in place, their bloodthirst was hampered. Snyder illustrates this grim difference by comparing how the Jews of Denmark fared in comparison with Estonia. Denmark enjoyed a rather mild takeover which left their constitutional monarch in power and where the local Nazis had to go through state channels to get what they wanted. Ninety-nine percent of Denmark’s Jewish citizens escaped death due to the Danish government refusing to agree to deportation demands. The Scandinavian country even transported its threatened denizens to neutral Sweden right before the SS scoured the country.
In Estonia — taken from the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa — no real government survived during the occupation and the Nazis were able to kill without having to ask for permission. Ninety-nine percent of Estonia’s Jewish population perished in the Holocaust as a result of the lawless state Estonia became during World War II.
According to Snyder, retaining citizenship in a state still recognized by Germany could give an individual the chance to survive in a world dominated by lawlessness.
Besides these major points of the book, “Black Earth” also offers examples of Jews resisting Nazi aggression with guns which counteracts some of the things Ben Carson said on the matter. The most famous example of Jewish resistance was the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, where thousands of residents marked for deportation rose up and fought German control. It was ruthlessly put down, but it showed a clear example of armed resistance towards attempted extermination. (RELATED: Carson: ‘There’s A Reason’ The Nazis Disarmed Germany)
Snyder also documents several individuals who fought against the Nazis either as soldiers in their respective country’s army or as partisans taking on occupation. Some of the implications of Carson’s early October statements said that Jews as a whole were disarmed in Europe and had no way of resisting genocide. However, it was only German Jews who fell under the gun control legislation of 1938 and, as the author notes, 97 percent of the Holocaust’s victims were not citizens of Germany.
Many Jews did choose to fight with whatever weapon they could find. But they were facing the most imposing military machine of the time, and lived under a system that recognized no law except that of the jungle.
“Black Earth” is a very depressing, yet valuable book on an important topic that continues to shape our world today. If one wants to know why Hitler embarked on the Holocaust and how such inhumanity could take place, pick up Timothy Snyder’s latest work.