Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

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Tim Duggan Books, 2015 - History - 462 pages
A brilliant, haunting, and profoundly original portrait of the defining tragedy of our time.

In this epic history of extermination and survival, Timothy Snyder presents a new explanation of the great atrocity of the twentieth century, and reveals the risks that we face in the twenty-first. Based on new sources from eastern Europe and forgotten testimonies from Jewish survivors, Black Earth recounts the mass murder of the Jews as an event that is still close to us, more comprehensible than we would like to think, and thus all the more terrifying.

The Holocaust began in a dark but accessible place, in Hitler's mind, with the thought that the elimination of Jews would restore balance to the planet and allow Germans to win the resources they desperately needed. Such a worldview could be realized only if Germany destroyed other states, so Hitler's aim was a colonial war in Europe itself. In the zones of statelessness, almost all Jews died. A few people, the righteous few, aided them, without support from institutions. Much of the new research in this book is devoted to understanding these extraordinary individuals. The almost insurmountable difficulties they faced only confirm the dangers of state destruction and ecological panic. These men and women should be emulated, but in similar circumstances few of us would do so.

By overlooking the lessons of the Holocaust, Snyder concludes, we have misunderstood modernity and endangered the future. The early twenty-first century is coming to resemble the early twentieth, as growing preoccupations with food and water accompany ideological challenges to global order. Our world is closer to Hitler's than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was -- and ourselves as we are.

Groundbreaking, authoritative, and utterly absorbing, Black Earth reveals a Holocaust that is not only history but warning.

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User Review  - vlodko62 -

Yet another masterwork from historian Timothy Snyder, this one on perhaps the central evil of the Twentieth Century, the Holocaust. Together with Bloodlands, this tells the story of one of the darkest ... Read full review

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User Review  - rivkat - LibraryThing

This is a book about the idea of the Holocaust more than its mechanics, though it emphasizes again and again that those who killed Jews also killed non-Jews and vice versa, and that the killers were ... Read full review


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Living Space

Although Hitler''s premise was that humans were simply animals, his very human intuition allowed him to transform his zoological theory into a kind of political worldview. The racial struggle for survival was also a German campaign for dignity, and the restraints were not only biological but British. Hitler understood that Germans were not, in their daily life, beasts who scratched food from the ground. As he developed his thought in his Second Book, composed in 1928, he made clear that securing a regular food supply was not simply a matter of physical sustenance, but also a requirement for a sense of control. The problem with the British naval blockade during the First World War had not simply been the diseases and death it brought, especially at the end of the conflict and in the months between armistice and final settlement. The blockade had forced middle-class Germans to break the law in order to acquire the food that they needed or felt that they needed, leaving them personally insecure and distrustful of authority.

The world political economy of the 1920s and 1930s was, as Hitler understood, structured by British naval power. British advocacy of free trade, he believed, was political cover for British domination of the world. It made sense for the British to parlay the fiction that free exchange meant access to food for everyone, because such a belief would discourage others from trying to compete with the British navy. In fact, only the British could defend their own supply lines in the event of a crisis, and could by the same token prevent food from reaching others. Thus the British blockaded their enemies during war--an obvious violation of their own ideology of free trade. This capacity to assure and deny food, Hitler understood, was a form of power. Hitler called the absence of food security for everyone except the British the "peaceful economic war."

Hitler understood that Germany did not feed itself from its own territory in the 1920s and 1930s, and knew perfectly well that Germans would not actually have starved if they had tried. Germany could have generated the calories to feed its population from German soil, but only by sacrificing some of its industry, exports, and foreign currency. A prosperous Germany required trade with the British world, but this trade pattern could be supplemented, thought Hitler, by the conquest of a land empire that would even the scales between London and Berlin. If it conquered a vast land empire, Germany could preserve its industrial excellence while shifting its dependence for food from the British-controlled sea lanes to its own imperial hinterland. If Germany controlled enough territory, Germans could have the kinds and the amounts of food that they desired, with no cost to German industry. A sufficiently large German empire could become self-sufficient, an "autarkic economy." Hitler romanticized the German peasant, not as a peaceful tiller of the soil, but as the heroic tamer of distant lands.

The British were to be respected as racial kindred and builders of a great empire. The idea was to slip through their network of their power without forcing them to respond. Taking land from others would not, or so Hitler imagined, threaten the great maritime empire. Over the long term, he expected peace with Great Britain "on the basis of the division of the world." He expected that Germany could become a world power while avoiding an "Armageddon with England." This was, for him, a reassuring thought.

It was also reassuring that such an alteration of the world order, such a reglobalization, had been achieved before, in recent memory. For generations of German imperialists, and for Hitler himself, the exemplary land empire was the United States of America.

America taught Hitler that need blurred into desire, and desire arose from comparison. People were not just animals seeking nourishment, nor even just members of societies yearning for security in an unpredictable British global economy. Families observed other families: around the corner, but also, thanks to modern media, around the world. Ideas of how life should be lived escaped measures such as survival, security, and even comfort as standards of living become comparative, and as comparisons become international. "Through modern technology and the communication it enables," wrote Hitler, "international relations between peoples have become so effortless and intimate that Europeans--often without realizing it--take the circumstances of American life as the benchmark for their own lives."

Globalization led Hitler to the American dream. Behind every imaginary German racial warrior stood an imaginary German woman who wanted ever more. In American idiom, this notion that the standard of living was relative, based upon the perceived success of others, was called "keeping up with the Joneses." In his more strident moments, Hitler urged Germans to be more like ants and finches, thinking only of survival and reproduction. Yet his own scarcely hidden fear was a very human one, perhaps even a very male one: the German housewife. It was she who raised the bar of the natural struggle ever higher. Before the First World War, when Hitler was a young man, German colonial rhetoric had played on the double meaning of the word Wirtschaft: both a household and an economy. German women had been instructed to equate comfort and empire. And since comfort was always relative, this struggle could never cease. If the German housewife''s point of reference was Mrs. Jones rather than Frau Jonas, then Germans needed an empire comparable to the American one. German men would have to struggle and die at some distant frontier, redeeming their race and the planet, while women supported their men, embodying the merciless logic of endless desire for ever more prosperous homes.

The inevitable presence of America in German minds was the final reason why, for Hitler, science could not solve the problem of sustenance. Even if inventions did improve agricultural productivity, Germany could not keep pace with America on the strength of this alone. Technology could be taken for granted on both sides; the quantity of arable land was the variable. Germany therefore needed as much land as the Americans and as much technology. Hitler proclaimed that permanent struggle for land was nature''s wish, but he also understood that a human desire for increasing relative comfort could also generate perpetual motion.

If German prosperity would always be relative, then final success could never be achieved. "The prospects for the German people are bleak," wrote an aggrieved Hitler. That complaint was followed by this clarification: "Neither the current living space nor that achieved through a restoration of the borders of 1914 permits us to lead a life comparable to that of the American people." At the least, the struggle would continue as long as the United States existed, and that would be a long time. Hitler saw America as the coming world power, and the core American population ("the racially pure and uncorrupted German") as a "world class people" that was "younger and healthier than the Germans" who had remained in Europe.

While Hitler was writing My Struggle, he learned of the word Lebensraum (living space) and turned it to his own purposes. In his writings and speeches it expressed the whole range of meaning that he attached to the natural struggle, from an unceasing racial fight for physical survival all the way to an endless war for the subjective sense of having the highest standard of living in the world. The term Lebensraum came into the German language as the equivalent of the French word biotope, or "habitat." In a social rather than biological context it can mean something else: household comfort, something close to "living room." The containment of these two meanings in a single word furthered Hitler''s circular idea: Nature was nothing more than society, society nothing more than nature. Thus there was no difference between an animal struggle for physical existence and the preference of families for nicer lives. Each was about Lebensraum.

The twentieth century was to bring endless war for relative comfort. Robert Ley, one of Hitler''s early Nazi comrades, defined Lebensraum as "more culture, more beauty--these the race must have, or it will perish." Hitler''s propagandist Joseph Goebbels defined the purpose of a war of extermination as "a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a big dinner." Tens of millions of people would have to starve, but not so that Germans could survive in the physical sense of the word. Tens of millions of people would have to starve so that Germans could strive for a standard of living was second to none.

"One thing the Americans have and which we lack," complained Hitler, "is the sense of vast open spaces." He was repeating what German colonialists had said for decades. By the time Germany had unified in 1871, the world had already been colonized by other European powers. Germany''s defeat in the First World War cost it the few overseas possessions it had gained. So where, in the twentieth century, were the lands open for German conquest? Where was Germany''s frontier, its Manifest Destiny?

All that remained was the home continent. "For Germany," wrote Hitler, "the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself." To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European "spaces" were, in fact, "open." Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonization of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of thes

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