The Holocaust between Scholar and Public Intellectual

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. By Timothy Snyder.

In his recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Corey Robin describes the position of the public intellectual as a dialectic: “On the one hand, he’s supposed to be called by some combination of the two vocations Max Weber set out in his lectures in Munich: that of the scholar and that of the statesman. Neither academic nor activist but both … On the other hand, the public intellectual is supposed to possess a distinct and self-conscious sense of style, calling attention to itself and to the stylist. More akin to a celebrity, this public intellectual bears little resemblance to Weber’s man of knowledge or man of action. He lacks the integrity and intensity of both. He makes us feel as if we are in the presence of an actor too attentive to his audience, a mind too mindful of its reception.”

Robin goes on to describe what the public intellectual hopes to achieve: to see their footprint in political consciousness. And especially if he is an academic, wants to avoid the dreaded fate most academics fear: being read only by their colleagues. But for the academic trying to parlay their intellectual stature into a wider profile, this comes at a cost: “Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be.” The public intellectual, in order to make an impact, cannot just enter a debate—they must start a debate. As Robin points out, quoting Dewey, “publics never simply exist; they are always created.” For the academic long trained in meticulous attention to detail and unflinching loyalty to empiricism, this can be a perilous undertaking.

Timothy Snyder’s latest book, Black Earth, is a salutary lesson in peril. It is a book which proudly, unapologetically, claims it will explain the Holocaust properly, as no other scholar has. Like any public intellectual, Snyder wants to create a new public—but also, and perhaps more satisfyingly, to seize a public from others who have been feeding an insatiable appetite for Holocaust-related material. In a way which can hardly be matched for mindfulness of reception, Snyder attempts a new interpretive framework for the Holocaust, which like all grand master narratives is meant to create a new paradigm which does not invite so much as demand attention. Like all such works in this genre, its arguments are multiple and intersecting. The lead arguments in this book are: that Hitler had an ideology which he took seriously, and that therefore we must take seriously; that this ideology is best understood as a sort of Malthusian ecological panic on a global scale, in which fear of environmental disaster led to genocide in the East of a mosaic of ethnicities, including but not limited to Jews; that in order to achieve this objective, Hitler required weakened or destroyed state power to commit his genocide, and that strong states were an impediment to his objectives; and that—and this recapitulates an argument from his prior book Bloodlands—the Soviet Union laid the groundwork for this genocide by creating a “stateless” zone in which Hitler could enact his megalomaniacal views. Snyder’s claim to originality rests both in the individual components of this narrative, and in their particular combination.

While a broader public might be convinced by this creative reimagining, observant scholars and students of the Holocaust will immediately question the success of the book on its own terms. Not just because the pieces of this master narrative are stitched together poorly, but because Snyder never provides his reader a thesis statement, or tells us what problem his book is meant to solve. Those arguments that are not already so well-accepted as to be commonplace (along the way, ignoring the works of others who have written on these topics before), are not demonstrated with proper empiricism or analysis.

Considering his stated goal of wanting to focus on the “real reasons” for the Holocaust, Snyder already puzzles his reader by focusing less on the top perpetrators, the decision-makers, than on a rather narrow set of collaborators who had previously been part of the Stalinist regime and now found themselves under the yoke of the Third Reich. Snyder’s choice of historical subject here, while putatively meant to address the question of the motivations of “ordinary killers” in the occupied East not concerned with the finer points of Weltanschauung, is in fact part of Snyder’s more expansive ambition of the last several years; to warn the world of the dimensions of contemporary Russian political brutality under Putin by creating a historical connection to Stalin. Promoted prominently in his many articles in the New York Review of Books, it is his cause célèbre and the source of his promotion from academician to public intellectual. As part of this larger ambition, Snyder spends a significant portion of Black Earth attempting to demonstrate that the most ardent perpetrators in Hitler’s Holocaust were in fact former Stalinists, henchmen of the Communists who happily and demonstratively put their murderous talents to use serving a new master.

Painting the Soviets/Russians as near co-authors of the Holocaust—something that Snyder had already done in his prior work, Bloodlands—means, not surprisingly, that Poland receives equally tendentious attention in the opposite direction. Particularly noteworthy is Snyder’s outsized examination of Polish efforts to expel Jews from their country in the 1930s. He suggests that this was born less of antisemitism than of a bona fide desire of Polish political leaders to find the Jews a new home. His proof of this is that Polish Zionist Jews, not least of them future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, joined gentile Polish politicians in this quest. Snyder thus minimizes the deep antisemitism that had penetrated Polish society and Polish elites, which pertained straight into the 1930s. Were the Nazis themselves, who made similar efforts to conduct a transfer agreement that would send German Jews to Palestine, and went so far as to send Adolf Eichmann to Jerusalem to conduct preliminary investigations, similarly committed to Zionism?

Snyder adds to this tendentiousness by vastly underplaying Polish philosemitism where it could be found—among Communists—instead focusing on non-Communist Poles in, for instance, the Home Army. His overarching need to tar Communists with the brush of genocide also means that the contributions of the Red Army to the saving of Jewish populations in Europe—far greater than that of the American or British armies—goes badly overlooked. Such strenuous argumentative exertions demonstrate Snyder’s partisan need to blame the Soviets/Russians for as much killing as possible—and in the process breaks the first rule of historical research: to pay heed to evidence that goes against your thesis. Whether Snyder breaks the rule of the public intellectual, whose readers he hopes will already harbor or even be won over to similarly Russophobic views, is another question.

Snyder’s most plausible claim to originality in Black Earth—that Hitler was responding to an ecological crisis when he decided to kill the Jews—is marred by a lack of evidence. Nowhere in the book does Snyder demonstrate that Hitler was animated by what he perceived to be an environmental or conservationist panic. Snyder boldly claims that he is interested in how Hitler “viewed the planet,” not just Europe, and that this global view led Hitler to believe that a food crisis was imminent—a crisis which called for a genocidal reordering of the land available to him in order to ensure the survival of the Germanic people. It is the lack of evidence that makes this discussion of Hitler’s alleged concern with Malthusian shortage unconvincing—and makes the final chapter seem jarring in its consequent detachment from the rest of the book. But there’s a second way in which Snyder’s claim to originality falls short, by failing to acknowledge that this argument has already been made elsewhere. Especially in those sections of the book regarding Hitler’s obsession with food supply, Snyder’s arguments bear a remarkable resemblance to the analysis of Götz Aly, whose Malthusian theory of genocide in the East, already made decades ago, resembles Snyder’s for its hyper-functionalism. While climate change is absent from Aly’s analysis as a source of Nazi “anxiety,” it is clear that the resultant fear of food shortage is meant to be the primary mover of Nazi action. But much like a prior generation of ultra-functionalists who could not answer this question, Snyder fails to explain why the Nazis pursued the extermination of the Jew more totally and passionately than that of any other group in the new eastern empire. Were they eating more, consuming more, than other populations in the occupied East? Snyder cannot make such a claim.

It is within the larger framework of an ecological crisis that Hitler’s antisemitism—both in words and in action—is to be understood, Snyder contends. Whether or not this is Snyder’s intention, his functionalist approach minimizes the Nazis’ fantastical ideology in the equation and makes Hitler’s thinking not just explicable, but even rational and dispassionate. This of course cuts against Snyder’s simultaneous profession that Hitler’s antisemitic ideas should be taken seriously. And when he does explore ideology, he does so quite conventionally, limiting the investigation to a few voices, such as Hitler’s or Carl Schmitt’s, without any attention to the social or cultural resonances. In this way, Snyder allows himself to ignore the historical precedents not just of antisemitism in Germany, but for the other areas of conquered Europe where he finds his willing collaborators. Overlooked or underplayed are the thousands of stridently anti-Stalinist Ukrainian nationalists and other Slavic fascists who welcomed the arrival of the Nazis and sought to take part in the antisemitic atrocities made possible by Stalin’s early defeats in 1941.

Snyder simply fails to demonstrate, let alone convince, the reader that the genocide of the Jews—far more comprehensive and exhaustive than any genocide waged against Slavic peoples—was anywhere in Hitler’s thinking the means to a larger, functional goal. And certainly not that it fit in to a larger concern with climate change or the environment. Instead, he perversely reifies Hitler’s motivations by demonstrating that the Malthusian logic of an inevitable natural resource shortage, born of a climate crisis that he insists is the future global issue tout court, was also Hitler’s logic. An argument, in essence, that what preoccupied Hitler’s fevered imagination should preoccupy us as well. Striking turns of phrase, while they may have the power to convince the lay-reader, will not convince the scholar. Occasionally quoting the view that the Jews were an aberration against nature no more makes Hitler an eco-warrior than does quoting Hitler’s repeated rants against the danger of Jewish blood make him a serologist. Warning that wars of the future will be predicated on a future dearth of resources—and that genocide for the sake of national survival will ensue—is laudable.  This reviewer finds nothing aberrant in Snyder’s conclusion that a strong state needs to step in to help stop the global causes of climate change and the havoc it may yet wreak. But the way to demonstrate the necessity of such politics is not by creating a false historical narrative, in which a fanatical dictator is driven to genocide by a fear of environmental despoliation, when that was not his motive. Nor should the argument that weakened states were necessary to enact such fanaticism be posited—when in fact it was strong states, not least the Third Reich, which were necessary to the genocidal enterprise succeeding.

Most ambitiously, Snyder attempts to tie in his historical-ecological thesis with an alarmist final chapter, “History as a warning.” This is his coup de grace in situating his work vis-à-vis all other Holocaust scholars who, he avers, do not understand the Holocaust properly. Once more, the Snyder who wants to be germane to the present, and even the future, is on display. On one level, his ambition of tethering the Holocaust—the ultimate metaphor of human evil—to the emerging global environmental crisis is a savvy way of impacting the views of a generalist audience who may not view the crisis of global warming with sufficient urgency. It is not convincing historically—Hitler and the rest of the Nazi leadership elite were simply not interested in climate change—but it does possibly veer Synder’s audience one step closer to taking climate change seriously. In this sense, his role as a public intellectual in Black Earth may yet prove successful.

But where Black Earth might achieve the objective of the public intellectual, it does not achieve the objective of the scholar. It reverse engineers a presentist concern about the need for a strong state to take a hand in reversing climate change before it reaches genocidal consequences, by constructing a false history of the Holocaust as driven by Hitler’s concern for climate change and exploitation of weak states. It also reverse engineers a concern with the revival of Stalinist aggrandizement under Putin, by constructing a false history of the Holocaust in which Stalinists play the central role in the killing fields while Eastern European antisemitism is hardly in evidence. Snyder’s apparently irresistible temptation to conclude with a warning about Putin is particularly exasperating. His previous work included unapologetic explorations of fascist sympathizers to Nazism in occupied Ukraine. But since his foray into the realm of the public intellectual—with its accompanying Weberian imperative of the statesman—Snyder has allied himself with the forces that are pitted against Putin, which has meant turning a blind eye to the many iterations of fascism now working for a renewed Ukrainian independence—including, but not limited to, the notorious Azov Battalion. With his oft-stated insistence, in a variety of venues as well as at the end of Black Earth, that Putin is trying to refashion himself as a new Stalin and reclaim the glory of Soviet power, Snyder fails to extend the historical comparison: that the people doing battle against Russian aggression in Ukraine include “native” fascists who proudly look back on Ukraine’s antisemitic past to find their inspiration. While Snyder and his confrères in the political arena do all they can to convince us Putin poses a threat to democracy and harbors apparently “global” ambitions, they have said precious little when it comes to the kind of allies we seem to be choosing in Ukraine. The return of “better brown than red”?

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About Richard Steigmann-Gall

Richard Steigmann-Gall is Associate Professor of History at Kent State University, where he also served as Director of the Jewish Studies Program from 2004 to 2010. He has published widely on Nazism and antisemitism. His book, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, came out in 2003 through Cambridge University Press.

4 thoughts on “The Holocaust between Scholar and Public Intellectual

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  • Iwo Labuda

    “Overlooked or underplayed are the thousands of stridently anti-Stalinist Ukrainian nationalists and other Slavic fascists who welcomed the arrival of the Nazis and sought to take part in the antisemitic atrocities made possible by Stalin’s early defeats in 1941.”
    A puzzling statement. Did Richard Steigmann-Gall really read the book that he is reviewing? At any rate, another reading would be recommended.

    • Hugh Sharpe

      I just finished reading this book and can verify that it goes into great detail about the collaboration between Ukrainian, Belorussian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian nationalist groups and state officials who were willing and able to help their new German overlords kill off the Jews in their areas.

      Snyder makes a cogent and cohesive argument explaining the reasons why these peoples did this- a combination of deep-seated anti-Semitism (based not on the pseudo-biological model that Hitler and his ilk claimed but on the religious/cultural reasons that a lot of Catholic and Orthodox churches had espoused to their flocks for centuries beforehand), a desire by those who had worked with the Soviet regime between November 1939 and June 1941 in deporting, killing, and otherwise expropriating their fellow countrymen to cleanse the record of their recent past by directing their energy to a new and easily identifiable common enemy to further deport, kill and expropriate, and the simple impulse of greed that instigated this new round of property and wealth transfer. None of this was overlooked and the various conflicts between all the players on the scene at the time was covered in rather convincing detail.

      The main point I derived from this excellent book was that the Holocaust happened first, most easily, and most severely in exactly the places where governmental structures collapsed- where the so-called ‘political resource’ of an embittered population could be directed by the Germans toward their principle target- the Jews.

      Not coincidentally, those places happened to be where the Soviets had come in and, for a span of 18 months, destroyed the political leadership that had been in place beforehand- whether that was in eastern Poland, western Ukraine, and the three aforementioned Baltic states that were apportioned to Stalin in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

      Snyder explicates on the various factions who were attempting to position themselves for political advantage under the Nazi regime- nationalists and Baltic fascists being chief among these.

      To pretend that the previous Soviet occupation of these lands didn’t factor into this terrible outcome and to paint Stalin as a liberator from the fascist yoke plays entirely into the USSR’s post-1945 retelling of events. It is precisely in these places where the communist regime had just finished deporting huge numbers of citizens that made them ripe for the hell that would follow behind the Wehrmacht as Barbarossa was unleashed.


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