How anarchy was responsible for Auschwitz

In Black Earth, Timothy Snyder’s new insights into the Holocaust make us look afresh at one of the most documented periods of history

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning Timothy Snyder

The Bodley Head,, pp.428, £25, ISBN: 9781847923493

In September 1939 Britain went to war against Germany, ostensibly in defence of Poland. One big secret that the British government didn’t know at the time — and not until much later — was that while the Anglo-Polish alliance treaty was being negotiated during the previous months, the Poles had been actively training and arming terrorists to kill British troops in the Middle East.

I don’t normally believe in convoluted conspiracy theories, but this one happens to be true. In the 1930s the anti-Semitic government in Warsaw wanted rid of 3.5 million Polish Jews. Initially they tried to pack them off to Madagascar. But then the Poles hit on the idea of helping Jews create their own state in British-occupied Palestine. The problem was that Britain would not allow large-scale Jewish immigration into Palestine, where the Irgun terrorist group was beginning a bloody campaign for independence in a Jewish homeland. The Irgun’s principal backer was Poland, whose military trained scores of guerrillas, gave them generous supplies of arms and smuggled them into Palestine. So Jew-hating Poles helped Jews to murder British soldiers and civilians, supposedly their allies.

Timothy Snyder’s brilliant Black Earth is full of vividly told vignettes, new insights and a few good scoops. The bare bones of his story about the Irgun, for example, was known in a vague sort of way, but he found the evidence in Polish archives and skilfully weaves it into a broad canvas, confronting the reader with a series of new moral questions about issues that have been debated over the past 70 years.

Black Earth is not a straightforward narrative, though there are plenty of horrifying facts and figures and grisly stories of mass murder for those who want them. Geographically it covers the same territory as Snyder’s superb previous book, Bloodlands, about the areas of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union where most of the killing in the second world war took place — Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic Republics and western Russia.

These were lands occupied twice, or sometimes three times, in five years by the Germans or the Soviets. Here, as Snyder powerfully argues, in the absence of any state or rule of law, conditions existed in which the Holocaust could happen: ‘one could do what one wanted with stateless people.’ A constant theme throughout Black Earth is that organised bureaucracy did not murder the Jews. It was the destruction of states — anarchy — that did: a profound and clever insight that historians of both the left and right would disagree with, but which seems entirely convincing.

Denmark and France were both occupied by Germany, but retained (up to a point) a state structure, laws, a civil society. Almost no Danish Jews were killed and the Vichy government handed over to the Nazis those Jews whom Germans regarded as ‘stateless’ people from regions in Eastern Europe. Very few French Jews were killed, but millions of Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian Jews were slaughtered in the lawless lands of the east.

Auschwitz is the enduring symbol of the Holocaust; yet more than a million Jews had been murdered before any of the death camps were established — most of them shot in vast pits or ravines by SS Einsatzgruppen, special forces sent ahead of the German army to ‘purify’ the Slavic lands.

The SS could not have operated without the help of the Balts, Ukrainians and Poles who had been invaded by the USSR and loathed Stalin even more than Hitler. Snyder is at his best explaining the complex, grotesque way this worked, and how potent in eastern Europe the Nazi-inspired ‘Judeo-Bolshevik’ myth was: that all Jews were communists and all communists were Jews. Take Ukraine, where much of the population had, willingly or not, collaborated with the Soviets. When the Germans came along and declared that the Jews were responsible for communism and must be punished, vast numbers agreed and took part in murdering them. ‘In this way the bulk of the Soviet population was released from its past, since everyone… had been associated with the regime,’ says Snyder. ‘Local people were doing their part in a bloody revision of history.’ This experience has powerful resonance in eastern Europe today.

Snyder is an exceptionally gifted historian and is always worth reading when he sticks to history. But he rather loses his way here in the last few pages when he tries to ‘update’ the Holocaust with references to contemporary environmental issues. I agree with him about the dangers of climate change, but to compare global-warming ‘deniers’ with Hitler, who famously doubted the value of science, is too far-fetched. Are potential water wars in the Middle East, and China’s search for food markets, all Holocausts in the making?

But for the most part this is a masterful work. In such a crowded field, with hundreds of books about the Nazis and their crimes published every year, it is a challenge to say anything new or original about the Holocaust. It is enough just to accept that it is important for each generation to interpret it in a different way, on the principle of ‘We must never forget’. Very occasionally someone as imaginative as Snyder comes along to debunk clichéd myths and present powerful new arguments that make us think afresh.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £22.50 Tel: 08430 600033. Victor Sebestyen’s 1946: Making the Modern World, about the aftermath of the second world war, was published last year.

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Show comments
  • Gilbert White

    Really thought provoking keep them coming.

  • omgamuslim

    When the reviewer repeats the standard zionist line that the Jewish terrorists were waging a “bloody campaign for independence in a Jewish homeland” he propagates another clichéd myth of the sort that holocausts are made of. To talk of independence in this context is to use the term as an Orwellian phrase. European Jews were refugees in Palestine and what the zionists were doing was to engage, in cahoots with the Brits, in a bloody venture in order to extinguish the possibility of the Palestinians achieving their independence.

    • Mow_the_Grass

      No such thing as a Palestinian in ’48 unless you referring to those Jews and assorted jordanian/Egyptian/syrian etc arabs that were wondering around the area known as Palestine – whilst we talking ‘cliched myths’
      The word ‘Palestinian’ was invented by arafat circa ’67.
      The ‘Palestinians’ have a homeland – its called Jordan – or they can choose any one of the 22 other arab/muslim states in the ME.
      Spoilt for choice.

  • Bonkim

    It is the old story of Catholic Europe persecuting/eliminating Jews. ISIS head choppers are a tame lot by comparison.

    • MikeF

      Nazism, like Communism, was a debased form of Enlightenment rationalism – it was nothing whatever to do with Catholicism. Don’t try to use the mass murder of much of Europe’s Jewish population as a prop for your own prejudices.

      • Jonathan

        what about those fine upstanding pillar of the community spannish priests giving hitler salutes to franco the spanish fascist (and staunch papist)

        • TrulyDisqusted

          The Holy Roman Catholic Church often made deals in difficult circumstances because, the Catholic Church held great authority over the local community and because it was important that the Church, i.e. the institution survived.

          And possibly because men are mortal and imperfect and afraid. The higher up the ladder you climb, the less pious and more politically savvy you are likely to be, but it was ultimately so that no matter what, the Holy Roman Catholic Church survived.

    • Hamburger

      Your prejudices are not in line with that the Lutheran church here colluded more with the Nazis as the Catholic church.

  • GB

    What these ‘clichéd myths’ are? That Germans were murdering Jews? And what is that original about the Holocaust? A supposition that the concentration camps were created by some kind of a political void in Central and Eastern Europe? And the powerful new arguments? It didn’t happen in Western Europe; most Jews lost their lives on the territories of Poland, Ukraine or Belarus.
    Well, if instead of some mystical, but imaginative geist, which was caused by political and administrative void (weren’t these territories occupied by Germans with proper German administration at work), and which in turn enabled the holocaust to take place in Central and Eastern Europe, we would take into account Nazi ideology and notice that Jewish population of Poland alone was larger than Jewish population of entire Western Europe (circa 3mln in Poland vs circa 1.5mln in the latter, let’s add to it: Russia circa 2.5mln Jews, Czechoslovakia – 350.000, Hungary 450.000, Romania 1mln), we could come to conclusion that, if Nazis wanted to destroy the entire population of European Jews, just from logistical point of view the
    death camps should be placed in Central or Eastern Europe. I know it’s not that
    imaginative, the argument looks quite plain and perhaps it’s now a kind of a cliché
    and perhaps what’s the worst it still keeps Germans accountable for what they

  • Damaris Tighe

    Holland, unlike Denmark & France, lost one of the highest proportions of Jews in Europe to mass murder. Was this because like Eastern Europe it lost ‘state structure, laws & a civil society’? Or was it because, unlike Denmark, Holland had no self-respect or decency?

    Look at Holland since WW2. It was Dutch troops who supinely allowed Srebenica. In the late 20th century Dutch soldiers with their long hair & lax attitude indicated a lack of self-respect. Prolific graffiti appeared in Holland several years before it became a curse across Europe – again indicating emotional incontinence & lack of respect.

    I suspect a link between Dutch ‘progressivism’ & self-indulgence & its terrible track record in WW2.

  • willshome

    Snyder’s book is obviously of great interest – though it seems the reviewer think this shifts much of the blame for the Holocaust off Germany. It doesn’t. And can you stop using anarchy when what you really mean is chaos?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    When you arrive in prison or the army, you are given a uniform, a shower and a haircut. The same for new arrivals in Auachwitz. Explains the piles of shoes and human hair. The tattoo was an extra refinement, but ask yourselves, why tattoo inmates when you plan to immediately kill them? The Nazis were desperate for slave labour to support their war effort, so why murder potential workers?
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • TrulyDisqusted

      Because many arriving at the camps were too young (under 15) or too old (over 40) to be economically viable as workers. If you couldnt earn your keep or they didn’t need to refresh the workforce, they killed you on arrival.

      It was only those selected to live as slave Labour who were admitted to the camps who were tattooed, the old, the young and the sick were taken directly to their executions be that by gas or a bullet.

      • Labour Mole Catcher

        But according to the Chairman of the David Irving Fan Club (TM) (Tokyo and Japan Branch), there were no food shortages in Nazi-occupied areas, and the Japanese managed to export Japanese instant noodles, sachets of MSG and even powdered fish-meatballs to the Third Reich through “Russia” on the “Trans-Siberian Express Railroad”!

  • Labour Mole Catcher

    The “Nazis” were not Fascists—the “National Socialists” were Hitlerite Communists.

  • TrulyDisqusted

    I’ve also watched and read a lot about the Holocaust in particular the operation of camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sorbibor – the death camps.

    I’ve always been disturbed by those survivors who were involved specifically in processing those condemned to the gas through the shower facilities/gas chambers. I’ve heard them tell how they kept up the deception to the end by herding the condemned into the showers undressing stations where they reminded all to tie their shoes together, move all the way to the back of the showers and to breathe deeply to benefit from the disinfecting properties of the showers. They always claimed that they acted humanely because when there is no hope, the illusion of hope is kindest.

    Alas, everything I’ve learned about the Nazis tells me that those who “worked” for them, even under duress usually only survived if they were as cold and as efficient and as violent as the Nazis themselves.

    So, what I’m asking is where is the line drawn between someone being a Victim and cold blooded killer?

    Why is a Jew directly involved in the killing process of hundreds of thousands of other Jews a victim when a German soldier working at Auschwitz in the accounts office is considered a war criminal?

    Neither started the war. Neither chose to be sent to Auschwitz, both were just following orders and hoping to survive. Both were victims of their time, yet whilst the official victim gives interviews for historians and documentary makers, the other was jailed this year, 70 years after the end of WWII by Germany for war crimes.

    Is this Justice?

    • Hamburger

      The short answer is no. However, as most of those involved escaped any judicial censure I am not sure what your point is.