Newspaper article International New York Times

Hitler's Ecological Fantasies

Newspaper article International New York Times

Hitler's Ecological Fantasies

Article excerpt

Timothy Snyder argues for a new interpretation of the Holocaust that looks at concerns over food and other resources.

Black Earth. The Holocaust as History and Warning. By Timothy Snyder. 462 pages. Tim Duggan Books. $30.

More than 70 years after the Holocaust, there is no sign of research on it abating. Instead, over the past few decades, historians have been extending their inquiries. Investigators who once understood the wartime massacres as a unique historical episode that mainly concerned Germans and Jews and was driven principally by ideology have increasingly produced comparative studies of regions and states, turning their attention to other victims and to what East European archives are able to tell us about the dynamics of persecution and mass murder; economic issues; and the motivations of perpetrators, bystanders, women, religious and political leaders, neutrals, rescuers and others. So voluminous is this scholarly outpouring that few are able to keep up with it, although some historians continue to grapple with the subject as a whole. Notwithstanding all this effort, Timothy Snyder, a Yale University specialist in Eastern Europe, contends in "Black Earth" that our understanding of the Holocaust has failed us. We have misunderstood its lessons.

To his credit, Mr. Snyder reaches more widely than most and deploys formidable linguistic skills. His previous work has received considerable acclaim. Since the publication of "Bloodlands" in 2010, which concentrated on the mass killings of Stalin and Hitler in regions where they both clashed and coexisted, Mr. Snyder has emerged as an admired, if disputed, analyst of the sanguinary borderlands between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, the scene of one of history's great calamities -- about 14 million killed in the 1930s and 1940s. Mr. Snyder concentrated on the Soviets' deliberate famine in the Ukrainian countryside and the Nazis' slaughter of European Jews.

His approach has drawn criticism, particularly from those who believe that he neglected the singularity of the Holocaust and missed, in his pairing of Hitler and Stalin, the particularities of each ruler and each regime. In this new survey, Mr. Snyder pursues many of the theses of "Bloodlands," while giving respectful attention to the Holocaust. But he goes further.

Mr. Snyder boldly asserts an unconventional interpretation of Holocaust history, connecting it to the Nazis' deluded way of contending with an ecological crisis affecting the entire planet. Yet while this argument is central to his account, it is one of the book's least fully explored themes. Its various strands come together only in a concluding chapter that unconvincingly ties mass killing to challenges of food scarcity and dwindling resources.

We may think we know about the Holocaust, Mr. Snyder seems to be telling his readers. But he then goes on to contend that "we" get it wrong: We fail to understand Hitler's ecological viewpoint, we neglect the participation of non-Germans in the killing, we distort the meaning of the concentration camps, we misread the role of states in which massacres occurred, we are wrong about the place of science, among other mistakes. To rectify this mountain of errors, he prescribes some antidotes: a global perspective, an appreciation of Hitler's colonial policy toward other countries and a "multifocal" approach, "providing perspectives beyond those of the Nazis themselves." Tilting at some rather elderly windmills, Mr. Snyder insists we see that "Hitler's worldview did not bring about the Holocaust by itself" and that the subject must be viewed internationally, "for Germans and others murdered Jews not in Germany but in other countries."

Even minimally informed readers are likely to find at least some of Mr. Snyder's so-called failures inapplicable and at least some of his remedies familiar.And few are very likely to be surprised when, as if this were a new revelation, he announces that "the Holocaust is not only history, but warning. …

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