Originally published in the March 2016 issue of First Things.
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
by Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, 2015, 462 page, $30
Faced with the challenge of finding something new to say about the Holocaust, a lesser author will offer a picture of Nazism that resembles his present-day political opponents. In a strange reversal, Timothy Snyder opens Black Earth by presenting a Nazism that resembles his own side. He claims that the only way to understand the Holocaust is to grasp that “Hitler’s thought was ecological,” his dominant theme not race but the “planetary ecosystem.” A bizarre argument, all the more so because Snyder is a green himself—the second half of the book’s subtitle, the Holocaust “as warning,” refers to his thesis that we can avert the next genocide by taking drastic action on climate change. Having made Hitler out to be a radical environmentalist, Snyder then has to pirouette like a dervish to explain that climate skeptics are Hitler’s real modern-day heirs. Fortunately for Snyder, he never succeeds in painting Hitler green in the first place.
It is not the Fuhrer’s well-known love of animals that Snyder is referring to when he calls Hitler’s thought ecological. The green kernel he detects at the heart of Hitler’s worldview is more abstract: The earth’s resources are limited, and man must struggle to survive within those limits like any other animal. This starting point made Hitler’s worldview dangerously unfettered in some ways and dangerously narrow in others. Unfettered, because nature red in tooth and claw has no place for moral scruples. Narrow, because it prevented Hitler from seeing that mankind can rise above the Darwinian struggle over limited resources through cooperation, through scientific innovation, or even by deciding that competition for resources is not all there is to life. “Denying the science that promised alternatives to war” is the pessimistic flaw that Hitler and climate skeptics allegedly have in common—and “war” is not too strong a word for what Snyder thinks will happen if we don’t put more money into solar panels. Instead of German imperialism in Eastern Europe, the flashpoint will be famine in the Middle East or Chinese land hunger in Africa.
As Snyder develops his portrait of an ecological Hitlerism, first for historical and then for polemical use, he runs into two problems. The first is that his portrait bears no resemblance to today’s climate skeptics. Quite the opposite. The only limit on our resources is human ingenuity? Preach it, cries Matt Ridley from the back! The apocalyptic mode of debate makes people overrate their problems and demonize their opponents? Tell Bjorn Lomborg something he doesn’t know. Mankind is more than just another animal? “Ecological panic” (one of Black Earth’s catchphrases) is a recipe for political blunders on a massive scale? Which side does Snyder think he’s addressing?
The second problem is that his portrait looks nothing like Hitler, either. Naturally the concept of Lebensraum plays a starring role in Snyder’s argument that Hitler was obsessed with natural resources. In particular, he contrasts Lebensraum with what “Hitler himself knew … was a political alternative in the 1930s: that the German state abandon colonization and support agricultural technology.”
Hitler understood that agricultural science posed a specific threat to the logic of his system. If humans could intervene in nature to create more food without taking more land, his whole system collapsed. He therefore denied the importance of what was happening before his eyes, the science of what was later called the “Green Revolution”: the hybridization of grains, the distribution of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the expansion of irrigation. Even “in the best case,” he insisted, hunger must outstrip crop improvements. There was “a limit” to all scientific improvements. Indeed, all of “the scientific methods of land management” had already been tried and had failed.
One hesitates ever to say that Hitler has been selectively quoted, a phrase from which the whiff of exculpation cannot be fumigated, but it is telling that Snyder quotes phrases rather than whole sentences. Chasing down his citations to their source finds Hitler professing the greatest respect for agriculture science. (“The history of human agriculture is one of continual progress . . . from the ancient hoe to the modern steam plow, from barn manure to today’s artificial fertilizers.”) He does not say agricultural science had “failed,” as Snyder alleges, only that there were limits to what it could be expected to achieve for Germany at that time—a reasonable position considering that German agriculture’s productivity per hectare was already 50 percent above the world average and double what prevailed among its eastern neighbors.
Agricultural science could not achieve the miracle of allowing Germany to feed itself from its own territory—this was indeed Hitler’s belief, and also the belief of the Allied occupation authorities, Henry Morgenthau excepted. But that did not prevent the “Official Party Statement on Its Attitude toward the Farmers and Agriculture,” which appeared over Hitler’s signature in the Völkischer Beobachter in 1930, from promising state subsidies for soil enrichment, pest control, fertilizers, and chemical soil testing. “A considerable increase in agricultural productivity,” it declared, “is perfectly possible to achieve.”
Far from holding agronomy in contempt, Hitler made the Agriculture Ministry the first economic ministry in his cabinet to be headed by a card-carrying Nazi—Richard Walther Darré, who wrote his doctoral thesis on pig breeding. The notorious Generalplan Ost, the eastern colonization plan that constituted the Reich’s earliest and most explicit blueprint for genocide, was drafted by an agronomist, Konrad Meyer, whose doctoral thesis was on wheat genetics. The highest ranking SS officer at Auschwitz after Rudolf Hoess was Joachim Caesar, head of the camp’s 3,800-hectare agricultural research unit. The Reich Research Council under Hitler gave more money to agronomy than to any other biological science.
I belabour the point about agriculture because Snyder makes it the central pillar of his claim that Hitler had an “unusual opposition to scientific solutions,” which he blames for almost singlehandedly spurring the Drang nach Osten: “Hitler denied that science could solve the basic problem of nutrition, but assumed that technology could win territory. It seemed to follow that waiting for research was pointless and that immediate military action was necessary.” But Hitler’s failure to anticipate Norman Borlaug does not make him anti-science any more than Snyder is anti-science for admitting that “the Green Revolution … might be reaching its limits.” Once the notion of Hitler as a science-denier collapses, so does any tendentious comparison between Nazism and the “deniers” of today. It is disappointing to see a good historian so far outrun his sources in pursuit of a provocative thesis—or a partisan political point.
* * * * *
Was the Holocaust a product of too much government or too little? In a sense, it was both. It is hardly an accident that this incomparable atrocity was committed almost entirely by people in uniforms. On the other hand, as Snyder shows, countries where state structures were destroyed (like Poland and the Ukraine) were far more dangerous places for Jews than countries that retained their own functioning governments, even when those governments came completely under Nazi control as in France and Denmark. Bureaucracy can be deadly, but not as deadly as anarchy.
Yet Snyder attempts to argue that genocide in general is caused not by states but by their absence. His present-day political commitments lie behind this overreach, too, though at least this time Snyder has his guns trained on the other side. “A common American error is to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority,” he writes. “The genealogy of this confusion leads us back to the Germany and the Austria of the 1930s.” (Only as far back as that?) “When the Holocaust is blamed on the modern state, the weakening of state authority appears salutary.”
Attributing genocide to small government backs Snyder into some strange corners:
What about the states that carried out mass murder of their own citizens? The three most horrifying twentieth-century cases—the People’s Republic of China, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Cambodia under Pol Pot—were all party-states, where both ideology and practice demanded that the state institutions be secondary to party institutions, and where the legitimacy of the state was completely undercut by the ideological appeal made by party leaders to the future of the collectivity.
When you find yourself arguing that the problem with Communism was not enough government, it is time to check your math. Snyder has confused law, which Nazis and Communists both despised, and the state, which they liked very much. The crucial ingredient that the mass murders of the twentieth century had in common was an excessive concentration of power, and the state almost always, almost by definition, is where power of that magnitude is found.
But according to Snyder, Hitler was not interested in power. He was only interested in “an endless race war.” He was no fascist, he was “not even a German nationalist,” but a “zoological anarchist.” Victory meant nothing to him compared to the struggle. “To Hitler, his fellow Germans were of interest only insofar as they could be rallied to join a mindless war for future racial prosperity.” The very idea of a Nazi state was a contradiction in terms, since “the Nazi party was founded on the assumption of endless racial conflict, whereas any traditional state asserts the right to control and limit violence.”
There are indeed aspects of Hitler’s thought that suggest a Nietzschean love of conflict for its own sake—his two-in-a-box management style, for example, which involved giving two subordinates the same task and letting them fight it out. But other aspects suggest just the opposite, like his hatred of both duelling (“It proves nothing . . . what matters is not to have right on your side, but to aim better than your opponent”) and hunting (“Is it indispensable, for relaxation, to kill hares and pheasants? . . . It’s lucky we don’t understand the language of hares. They might talk about you something like this: ‘He couldn’t run at all, the fat hog!’”). It is also worth noting that, based on his stray comments about capitalism, Snyder seems to be the sort of leftist who detects an indecent love of brutal competition in anyone to the right of John Kenneth Galbraith.
As for the idea that Hitler was not a German nationalist, it is certainly possible to argue that the man who impoverished his country, destroyed its cities, killed 40 percent of its men born between 1920 and 1925, and made its name synonymous with unfathomable evil did not love Germany well. But as a schoolboy, Hitler tweaked his Austrian teachers by waving pencils in the colors of greater Germany. As a soldier in the trenches, he wrote poetry about his love for the Fatherland. Nationalism never superseded his pathological Jew-hatred, but it did precede it, and he clung to it nearly as tenaciously. To say that Hitler was not a German nationalist is absurd.
Snyder’s mentor, Tony Judt, scored a surprise late-in-life bestseller with Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 and continued to be a gold mine for his publisher for years after his tragic death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010. The success of Snyder’s previous book, Bloodlands, made him a contender to replace Judt as the history profession’s most lucrative public intellectual. His publishers have just announced a re-release of Snyder’s first book, the ridiculously parochially titled Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (1872–1905), which suggests they have picked their horse. There ought to be more American historians who write regularly for the New York Review of Books, and Snyder may well prove to be a good fit for that role. Nevertheless, in his ongoing evolution from biographer of obscure Polish Marxists to the Tony Judt of his generation, Black Earth must be regarded as a step backward.