December 17, 2015


Timothy Schneider’s “Black Earth:  The Holocaust as History and Warning” follows his prize-winning book which covered much the same geographic and chronological ground:  “Bloodlands:  Europe between Hitler and Stalin.” 

Schneider’s thesis is that the Holocaust, at its worst, i.e., where the highest percentage of Jews were murdered, coincided with those geographical areas where the “state” had been demolished.  For Hitler, the destruction was intentional.  His purpose in moving into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and then the Soviet Union, was to obliterate these states; to act as if they never existed.  The Aryan race would move into these spaces, creating his new empire.

In annihilating the state, Nazis decapitated the leadership structure and elite from the top and the middle.  Because Jews, Schneider argues, constituted a large part of that leadership, they suffered  the greatest carnage.

Schneider doesn’t deny the anti-Semitism that permeated the areas which Germany, coming from the west, and the Soviet Union, coming from the east, pillaged.  I refer to Poland, Hungary, Austria, Romania and the Soviet Union. 

Schneider’s primary point is that it was the dissolution of the “state” which, despite the anti-Semitism had protected the Jews to a fair degree, that dramatically accelerated their decimation.  In fact, the percentage of Jews who were murdered was far higher in those countries where the state collapsed.  Poland is an example…compared, for example, to France and to Italy where, despite Nazi occupation, the state continued to have a sustaining framework.

Schneider develops his argument carefully, for example, comparing the relatively low rate of Jews being murdered in Sweden, where the government was intact, compared to Lithuania, where it was annihilated.

He further makes the point that the conditions which unleashed the greatest atrocities on the Jews were in areas which suffered two invasions; the first, the Soviet Union from the east, followed then by the Nazis from the west.

I believe this history has searing relevance to what we have seen occur over the past decade.  We are seeing that the failed state of Libya has unleashed tremendous internal carnage.  The failed state of Iraq, which our invasion precipitated, has resulted in far more deaths than occurred under the regime of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.   And what we’re seeing now in Syria follows the same pattern:  a failed state unleashing forces that have been held together, to some degree, by the rule of force and, yes, a dictatorial state government.

This perspective makes nonsense out of the advocacy to simply wipe out Assad and his government without having a transition government in place, as difficult as that will be to achieve.  It also shows that, with all its imperfections, the strong government that flowed in the Soviet Union and then Russia from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin; yes, with all the corruption involved, this represented a far better direction in terms of the well-being of the people than other alternatives that could have sent Russia into internecine chaos. 

If there is a risk in Timothy Schneider’s presentation, or at least an unspoken reality, it is the danger that exists in any nation, strong or failed, on the fueling of “we vs. them” attitudes toward people of different ethnicities and faiths that, in times of economic hardship and political uncertainty, when fear starts to brim for whatever reason, people will strike out against one another, sometimes in deadly fashion.  There is a risk in that right now in the U.S. in the irresponsible comments about Muslims being made by some of our political candidates, particularly Donald Trump.

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