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Vol. 14, No. 5, 2015
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timothy snyder's

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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:



Much controversy has developed over the recent publication of Timothy Snyder’s book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. In the book Snyder spends most of his time carefully parsing Hitler’s takeovers in Eastern Europe, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states. In his view, the statelessness that resulted after these conquests and the invasion of Russia exacerbated enmity towards Jews that had already existed in these areas. The statelessness sparked massive murders of Slavs, Balts and Jews and it is this widespread violence which constitutes the true parameters of the Holocaust. Thus focusing on the industrialized gassings in Auschwitz and Treblinka provides a distorted picture of the tragedy.

Snyder lays blame on Stalin and destructive Soviet policy in Eastern Europe (particularly Ukraine) during the 1930’s . Here the anti-semitism of local populations provided a setting which later facilitated Hitler’s murderous actions. Snyder employs careful scholarly methods as he painstakingly illustrates the pockets and traditions of long-standing anti-semitism in these areas. But as he strives to create this wider context for the Holocaust he sidesteps, as many others have, the issues associated with the origin and essence of Hitler’s maniacal effort at systematic genocide. He references many other instances of genocide (he notes the horrors in Rwanda) and correctly predicts that unstable social and political conditions will continue to cause such terror in the future. Wars will be fought and bitterness can tragically motivate genocidal action -- the examples throughout history are numerous. But by including Hitler’s Germany in this larger historical context Snyder loosens the cords of its responsibility for the unmatched industrialized madness achieved during the period of 1941-45.

Snyder rapidly traces Hitler’s thought process from his youth when extremists made irrational jumps from Darwin’s natural selection theory to the notion that humans were animals. He states that this was “commonplace” among nineteenth century thinkers. Who were these “thinkers?” Snyder mentions Karl Kautsky and Carl Schmitt. The former was a Marxist advocate and the latter a Nazi legal propagandist; neither has achieved any importance and this mechanistic interpretation of Darwin was hardly an intellectual tradition of note. Yet Snyder, in noting Hitler’s adherence to the “animal” position throughout his ravings in Mein Kampf, equates his thought process to that of an important theorist. And because Hitler advocated addressing the food shortage consequences of a struggle between races Snyder maintains that the Fuhrer actually had a “coherent world view.”

With classic argumentum ad verecundiam illogic, Hitler leaps to the notion that the dismissal of his people-are-animals theory by the Jews is “a sign of Jewish corruption.” Their emphasis on human rationalism and humanitarianism "was hateful" and any contravention of his “animal” theory by (Jewish) ethicists must be met by violent opposition.

Hitler writes that "Nature knows no political boundaries. She places life forms on this globe and then sets them free in a play for power." Humans are merely another species of animal and here race is the only reality. The greatest race, i.e. the Aryan race, has to dominate and eliminate the weaker races in order to survive and must be ruthless in its methods. Mercy and humanitarianism must be avoided . . . He might be talking about an ant colony.

This writing in Mein Kampf is not the writing of another of the post-Darwinian theorists of the late nineteenth century. HitIer is basically mouthing the words of fanatical post-Darwinians whose theories he has heard in the streets of Linz and whose content appeals to his damaged mind. His words are the ranting of a psychotic school boy whose desires have not been met and who rationalizes that his Jewish classmates are responsible for his vocational frustrations. If he were alive now he would go to a gun shop, purchase the deadliest automatic weapon he could find, slaughter as many of his classmates as he could and then commit suicide.

The ability to write a book (in this case Mein Kampf) and speak publicly with emotional rhetorical appeal does not qualify the individual as an important theorist participating in a significant socio-political revolution. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee the individual’s mental balance. That Hitler had serious problems here is something that no one would argue.

The issue then lies with Snyder’s approach. His insistence in complexifying the holocaust context rather than dealing with Hitler’s psychopathy and the incredible power he wielded over Germany is disturbing.

On this pivotal issue reviewers have quickly weighed in. Historian David A. Bell states: "Snyder says little about why or how [Hitler’s] manifestly insane ideology could come to appeal to a modern, civilized nation, and still less about how it could help turn so many members of that nation into witting mass murderers."

On the issue of “complexification” Allen says "Snyder’s concern for distinguishing between the Nazi genocide and the behavior of non-communist Poles and Ukrainians towards the Jews -- including violence and murder -- pushes him to the limits of his evidence and beyond." His complexification approach is insidious. He winds up “giving so little sustained attention to what many observers have seen as the greatest of all horrors of the holocaust, namely, the creation of industrial-scale, impersonal murder in the gas chambers. To turn imprisonment and mass murder, in effect, into a business in which the killers sought, as far as possible, to profit from the victims.”

Snyder’s explanation is "torn between too many agendas, rushes too quickly over too much complex material, and fails almost entirely to explain how one man’s immoral decisions could be translated into the actions of a powerful modern state."

Snyder’s complexification approach is certainly not a novel one among historians. It was Aristotle who initially took issue that history, by simply adhering to its essence of compiling facts, failed to account for the total reality of an event. "Historicizing anything risks diminishing it," writes Adam Gopnik. Other critics have railed that by associating Hitler’s industrial killings with crimes of Poles and Ukrainians Snyder has diluted the essence of the Holocaust. He has relied on the age old academic narrowness of historical argument to simply explain it away.



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