Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

Image of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Release Date: 
September 7, 2015
Tim Duggan Books
Reviewed by: 

Seventy-five years ago, humanity witnessed the most horrific crime in all of history. Tens of millions of innocent people were murdered in an effort to make Germany the leading world power. Among them were six million innocent Jewish men, women and children; the result of Hitler’s effort to cast blame upon a guiltless people. While the Holocaust reshaped our view of humanity, it remains poorly understood. This book illustrates the cold intentions of the murderers, the terrifying experiences of Hitler’s victims, and the rare joy of being saved by a righteous person or family.

Black Earth is a cutting-edge chronicle of the Holocaust. It is intense, poignant, and profoundly instructive. Snyder illustrates with discerning detail how Jews became victims of the most widespread and industrial genocide in history. While Nazi Germany planned and executed the Shoah, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout conquered nations (Einsatzgruppen) assisted Hitler in the murder of innocent Jewish men, women and children, their bodies buried in massive trenches throughout Eastern Europe. 

Snyder calls upon the vast repository of historiography and archival sources from Eastern Europe, adding to existing compelling research. This overlay of data creates a depth of comprehension not available in prior Holocaust publications.

Hitler’s view of the world is not as a collection of states, but of races. He declares that Jews have a disproportionate hold upon the earth’s natural resources, positing that Jews had an ability to prevent Aryan races from the land, assets, and property that they deserved. Hitler described the struggle to exterminate Jews as one of ecological and metaphysical objectives, as well as economic and political justice. His worldview required a new kind of war, one that would allow Germany to destroy other states as part of the effort to dismantle global Jewish influence and to exterminate Jews everywhere. In Hitler’s mind, this would restore balance to the world.

Snyder examines how Hitler convinced the German people that the Soviet Union was an “illegitimate Jewish regime,” controlling vast natural resources that the German people deserved. Hitler thus proclaimed his attack upon Russia was his sacred duty to destroy the “world Jewish conspiracy” allowing him to colonize Russia and eventually all of Europe.

Complex political relationships between nations and lack of access to concentration camps obscured the fact that Nazi Germany was uprooting, enslaving and murdering Jews wherever they gained control. Even when patriots like Jan Karski risked their lives to bring proof of this genocide to light with the Allies, nothing is done to stop the mass shootings and gassings of Jews. Those not murdered upon delivery to a Nazi camp are left to die from starvation, sickness, overwork, climate exposure, and the brutality of guards.

While the first half of this massive work is dedicated to explaining how and why Hitler exterminated six million Jews, the second half illustrates how a great many Jews resisted and fought against Nazi Germany and the Einsatzgruppen. Snyder examines the leaders of European Jewish resistance groups, especially in Poland. Many eventually become resistance leaders in Palestine, their efforts leading to the creation of the State of Israel.

This portion of the book also illustrates the many righteous gentiles who rescued, hid, fed, and sheltered Jews from the Gestapo, the SS, Einsatzgruppen, and local police. They did this at the risk of their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. Jews were hidden by very courageous individuals. In some cases they were rescued by local churches.

Black Earth is not just a tremendous scholarly examination of the Holocaust. It is a moving, extraordinary, evocative, and inspiring analysis of the intellectual origins of the Holocaust. Snyder’s comprehensive research notes alone constitute dozens of pages. He elucidates Hitler’s racial view of the world in an effort to warn us about our own perilous future. He proffers a warning that prejudice and racism can lead only to misery and death. He cautions us to rethink our own futures in contemplation of contemporary bigotry and intolerance. We cannot afford to continue our misunderstanding of the Holocaust or confine it to museums and monuments. The alternative is another genocide.

We might think that our world is better than that of 20th century Europe. But the causes of the Holocaust, including various forms of intolerance, exist today. If we do not meet this challenge with adroit confidence in each person’s right to life, liberty, and equality, then the horrors of the Shoah will return with a vengeance.