Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”

Black Earth
The Holocaust as History and Warning

By Timothy Snyder

Tim Duggan Books. 462 pp. $30

The title Timothy Snyder gives to the introduction of “Black Earth” is “Hitler’s World.” That’s his signal that the dictator’s ideology is essential for grasping the history of Nazi efforts to eliminate Jews from the planet. Although this may seem like common sense, many recent historians of the Holocaust have placed their emphasis on structural elements — economic, geopolitical, bureaucratic — reluctant to hinge so much on a single individual’s obsessive, paranoid ravings. In “Bloodlands” (2010), Snyder showed the ways in which Hitler and Stalin led regimes responsible for the conflagration that consumed 14 million people, and now in “Black Earth,” he zeroes in on the German dictator’s beliefs as the spark.

In “Black Earth,” we are reminded that for Hitler, Jews were the explanation for everything that went wrong. The health of the human race was dependent, he shrieked, on protecting it from Jewish pollution. There was talk among Nazis and others of isolating the malignancy — maybe shipping Jews to Madagascar would work. But Hitler decided that there was a greater purpose to the military conflict he had launched initially just for “room to live.” And that was the ultimate extermination of the Jews. His Final Solution.

‘Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning’ by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books)

The Führer’s worldview inspired Germans to become “entrepreneurs of violence”; he needed innovative techniques for mass murder to kill not only Jews but also the many other enemies blocking Germany’s historical destiny. By destroying a variety of European states, Germany created conditions of lawlessness that legitimized unthinkable atrocities. Ordinary men (mostly men) killed people — even little children — at close range and then returned to their regular routines. Some needed more alcohol to get by, but get by they did. They rounded up men, women and children, shot them in the head or the neck, piled up the corpses, covered them with dirt and then went home to their families.

“Black Earth” explains how this became possible — and it took much more than ideological fury. Destruction of political structures and social norms was necessary. Snyder does not focus on Auschwitz, though he does devote a gruesome chapter to how the death camp has come to stand for the Holocaust more generally. He wants readers to understand that millions were killed by tens of thousands of Germans and their collaborators before anyone was deported to a camp to be gassed. “Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed the killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them,” he writes. “German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews.”

Snyder insists that shooting people over pits was the first and most important of the Nazi techniques of mass killing. How was it possible that “people not that different from us murdered people not very different from us”? Some historians stress that anti-Semitism was the core motivating factor, noting age-old Jew hatred in the areas of Eastern Europe where most of the killings took place. Snyder argues vehemently against this, showing there is no correlation between supposed levels of anti-Semitism and the levels of killing during the war.

He finds instead that the intensity of killings correlates with the degree of political destruction a state suffers. The places where the survival rates of Jews were the lowest were those countries that had been first occupied by the Soviets and then reoccupied by the Nazis. This “double occupation” destroyed civil society and the rule of law, and in this emptiness the German forces created a “special kind of politics” through which individuals could show their allegiance to the new order by killing Jews. “Only through politics,” Snyder writes, “could people be brought to do what the Germans could not do on their own: physically eliminate large numbers of Jews in a very brief period of time.”

Again and again he shows that depriving Jews of citizenship, making them stateless, was key to their mass murder. In countries where some state power remained (like Denmark), survival rates for Jews were much higher than in countries (like Estonia) where the double occupation destroyed local laws. “Wherever the state had been destroyed,” Snyder writes, “almost all of the Jews were murdered.”

The strength of Snyder’s book lies in his elucidating the importance of politics and the state in understanding the Holocaust. He is less effective in evoking the experience of victims or the dynamics of rescue, collaboration and survival. Saul Friedlander’s “Nazi Germany and the Jews” remains the crucial book for integrating these dimensions into a historical understanding of the period.

While “Black Earth” opens with “Hitler’s World,” its conclusion is titled “Our World.” Alas, Snyder is on much surer ground when dealing with the past than with our present. It is an unfortunate distraction when he devotes a few sentences to contemporary China’s need for food, to climate change, to the American invasion of Iraq. And his hyperbolic assertion that “understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity” is, to put it gently, unearned.

He is right, however, to believe that his historical account has a vital contemporary lesson, the “warning” in the book’s subtitle. He notes the “common American error . . . to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority,” and he argues effectively against both the left- and right-wing versions of this error. The failure to recognize that it is the state and the rule of law that make modern life possible, he argues, creates conditions for new cycles of horrific violence. Of course, strong states can also initiate these cycles.

“Defending states and rights is impossible . . . if no one learns from the past or believes in the future,” Snyder concludes. It’s a testament to his intellectual and moral resources that he can so deeply contemplate this horrific past in ways that strengthen his commitment to building a future based on law, rights and citizenship.