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Timothy Snyder: In “Black Earth” the Yale historian sets out to explain why the Holocaust happened and comes up with problematic answers (photo: Ine Gundersveen)

To state that Timothy Snyder’s heavily trailed book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Bodley Head, £25) is bad history does not begin to express its shortcomings. It is a muddled hotchpotch of political prejudices masquerading as academic analysis. The volume needs to be understood against the background of the Yale history professor’s activities as a prime agitator in the new Cold War against Vladimir Putin’s Russia and on behalf of an increasingly powerful European Union. It also reflects the anti-Israel stance of his intellectual milieu. Indeed, the justification for paying attention to the book at all is the prominent role in current European politics being played by some of the ideas he and others are advocating.

Black Earth is the sequel to Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which was translated into 35 languages between 2010 and 2014. In Bloodlands, Snyder drew attention to the prevalence of mass murders of civilians by Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler in Eastern Europe from 1933 to 1945. It was in this territory that most Jewish victims were killed.

In Black Earth, the author now sets out to help us understand why the Holocaust happened, “a subject that is crying out for explanation”, he said in his 2013 Girard lecture at Stanford University.

His thesis is simple and, for those unfamiliar with recent German-language publications, surprising. Summarily rejecting what he has called the “standard” reasons, he argues that the Holocaust had two causes: Hitler’s “ecological panic” (the fear that German housewives would not have enough food to feed their families in comfort) and the breakdown of sovereign states in Eastern Europe. He asserts that “[t]he German murder of five and a half million Jews, more than three million Soviet prisoners of war, and about a million civilians in so-called anti-partisan operations all took place in stateless zones”.

This interpretation leads Snyder to issue his main “warning” for the future. We are in an age of global warming. The resulting desertification of some areas and the flooding of others lead to a risk of failed states. The result may well be another catastrophic struggle to control bread-producing lands such as the fertile expanses of Ukraine. It is in this context that Snyder has been engaged in such active pro-Ukrainian advocacy while it has been under attack from Russia.

Apart from Snyder’s disputable views about present-day European politics, something considered later in this essay, his historical approach is open to criticism on a series of grounds.

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September 1st, 2016
2:09 PM
Snyder's work never ceases to amaze me -- in its inventiveness and its basic incorrectness.

November 12th, 2015
12:11 PM
"European member countries seeking vengeance for their sufferings as Soviet satellites" - I'm Polish. As I understand Poland made Russia to annect Crimea, destroy the Malasian jet plane, inflate food prices in Russia, keep the destroied Polish government plane in Smolensk and other matherial ecidences during 5 years.

September 9th, 2015
8:09 AM
The Putin regime launched the New Cold War, it has invaded chunks of Georgia and Ukraine, it has murdered opponents in cold blood, it has lied about the deaths it caused in a civilian airliner, and it has entirely subverted what was briefly a chance for Russian democracy.

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