Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

This is how I understood the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe. Adolf Hitler was a megalomaniac who blamed Jewish people for the failures in his life. Through sheer force of will and charisma and no small measure of brutality he managed to convince enough Germans to make him their F├╝hrer and to follow him to a glorious future for the German Volk (people). Part of his cracked plan was the occupation of lands east of Germany. He plunged Germany and the world into the hell that was WWII and was principally culpable for the Holocaust. This in outline is how I understood the Nazis, WWII (in Europe) and the Holocaust.

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder did a lot to educate me on just how the mass murder of thousands upon thousands of innocent people was made possible.

The insights in Black Earth are truly thought provoking. Mass murder (that is the murder of entire populations) is only possible where there is no state, no law, no rights and no citizenship. When countries die a space is opened for atrocities of the most heinous kind. Take the following quote as illustrative of this irrational thinking:
German international lawyers contended that Poland was not a state, but merely a place without a legitimate sovereign over which the Germans found themselves masters. Polish law was declared null and void—indeed, never to have existed (105).
The Nazis and the "legal" apparatus that supported their twisted views became experts at destabilizing and then eliminating country after country. Here is another example, part of the numerous bits of evidence that Snyder offers the reader for consideration. Examine the numbers of Danish Jews killed verses the numbers of Jews holding, say, Estonian passports. Estonia was first destabilized and ruined by the Soviets before being overrun and crushed by the German Wehrmacht. For a brief few years there was no Estonia, meaning no governmental institutions to underpin anything remotely like the exercise of legitimate power. Denmark, which was weakly occupied by German forces in April 1940, saw many more Jews in their population survive the war than in places like Estonia, Latvia and Poland. Why? Because when the call came from the Nazis to exterminate the Jews Danish authorities resisted. The Danes understood that yielding citizens who followed the tenets of Judaism to Germany would compromise Danish sovereignty (216). The Danish-Jews survived not because the Danish government felt huge love for the Jewish religion or kosher cuisine. The mystery as to how Jews living so close to the heart of darkness survived is solved when you realize that for all of the Nazis’ hold on Denmark, Denmark remained a country with a functioning legal system, a bureaucracy and internationally recognized rights for its citizens. Estonia: no citizenship, peoples subject to untold atrocities. Denmark: functioning legal system, peoples left alone.

This observation, namely that you need to get rid of the legal apparatus that protects people’s rights if you are going to murder them “with a clear conscience,” may seem obvious but what makes the arguments so compelling is the clear and erudite presentation of these facts and the ways the author ties them, in his concluding comments, to what is happening in our world today. Where nations are destabilized you have chaos and death. At the time of my writing this review I can think of at least four countries that are so destabilized that to call them countries is to be generous with the description: Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Syria. The parallels between those events that destabilised Eastern Europe (and so brought about the conditions for large scale crime) during WWII and what we are witnessing in the Middle East today is startling. Black Earth reads like a warning for our times. When we see destabilizing forces like the depletion of natural resources, climate change, and civil war tearing apart state identities, we witness the end of legal rights because it is the end of meaningful citizenship. The loss of rights and freedoms is the breeding ground for the sorts of human crimes of which the holocaust is a most conspicuous example. Deranged, Islamic-totalitarian forces like IS (with its current stronghold in Syria) can only operate where nation state’s institutions and the rule of law no longer function.

If you would like to read an intelligent book on the underlying causes of the Holocaust, read this one. If you have read many books on the Holocaust and think nothing new can be said, read this one.

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