Every time there’s a new upcoming book on the Holocaust one is compelled to ask what could be different about it. While no amount of literature on this unspeakable tragedy can suffice to truly allow us to comprehend it, it’s worth asking whether we can potentially learn new insights about it that could lead to understanding and wisdom. Fortunately historian Timothy Snyder’s book answers this question with a resounding yes. Snyder has produced an original and nuanced interpretation of the Holocaust that goes beyond almost every single simplistic and overarching belief that we may harbor about it. It is a valuable addition even to the vast literature on the topic.
The principal argument of Snyder’s book is that the Holocaust was made possible by the obliteration of the identity of the state in various countries. While it wouldn’t have been possible without Hitler’s murderous racial beliefs, it would have been far more difficult to implement had not the right political conditions existed in the various countries which the Nazis conquered. Where the state retained its prewar political, bureaucratic and legal machinery far fewer Jews were killed; where it did not Jews saw almost complete obliteration of their communities. And it is this emphasis on the state as the enabler or disabler of the Holocaust that leads Snyder to see both disturbing complicity and hope in human nature. This is because the state is yours; it is not foreign. Your own state abandoning you is far damning that any kind of foreign invasion.
The key role that the preservation or destruction of the state played in saving the lives of Jews is apparent in the fact that the vast majority of Jews – including German Jews - were killed by the Nazis in stateless zones. These zones were either actively created by them or already existed in Eastern European nations because of previous Soviet occupation. Where the Soviets had already caused destruction of the state the Nazis found a pliable population that was more willing to aid them in identifying, deporting and murdering Jews. This non-Jewish population was motivated in many cases by simple greed or a yearning to return to a more affluent way of life by encroaching on Jewish assets or Jewish property, and they could act out their unsavory desires precisely because no state existed to intervene. The removal of the Jews removed competition and made it convenient for them to climb a social and economic ladder that was previously inaccessible to them. Resentment against the Soviet Union further fueled their complicity. That’s the disturbing part – the fact that human nature can cause ordinary people to engage in misdeeds for very human and practical reasons.
One of the outstanding features of Snyder’s book is the set of comparisons that he uses to illustrate his principal hypothesis. For instance he compares Estonia to Denmark and makes a convincing case that it was only the latent anti-Semitism and the double occupation of the former by first the Soviets and then the Nazis leading to the destruction of the state that made it such fertile ground for the Holocaust. In contrast, Denmark’s occupation was relatively peaceful and the state stayed intact, leading to life for almost all Danish Jews. Similarly Snyder points out various forms that the state took or failed to take in countries like Latvia, Poland, Greece, Italy, Ukraine and Hungary and shows us that the destruction of Jewry in these countries was remarkably proportional to the degree to which the state and its various manifestations survived. Poland of course is the outstanding and the most horrific example of the Holocaust and this is exactly where there was a complete destruction of the state, first through the cleansing of the Polish intelligentsia by the Soviet NKVD and then through the Nazi occupation. It was Poland’s status as a truly stateless zone of occupation that allowed the Nazis to construct their infamous death camps there. It was in Poland that the large numbers of Jews from almost every other country were transported and murdered, precisely because this stateless environment could completely deprive them of citizenship, language, means and finally life.
This discussion of statelessness also allows Snyder to demolish the myth of Auschwitz as somehow being the exemplary symbol of the Holocaust. First of all, the Holocaust was really initiated by the SS Einsatzgruppen death squads who fanned out into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, killing millions by shooting them over pits. The case of the Einsatzgruppen also illustrates the power of the state; in places like France where the army (an instrument of the state) had a firm hold over the population, the death squads could do lesser damage than in areas where they were the first to enter. Auschwitz came later, but while the infamous camp was undeniably instrumental in the story of the Holocaust, as Snyder points out, the vast majority of Jews were actually killed outside Auschwitz in other stateless zones. As Snyder rightly asserts, the deification of Auschwitz as the overarching symbol of the Holocaust allows us to conveniently mark it apart as a special location where humanity somehow ceased to exist, making us forget the disturbing fact that the Holocaust was largely carried out outside that location by ordinary people who were more similar to us than we think.
It is this similarity to people who we would like to conveniently think were very different from us that leads Snyder to an epilogue in which he issues a warning: while the extermination of entire races may seem like a completely alien idea to us right now, the factors motivating Hitler and those who surrounded him – a craving for ‘Lebensraum’ or living space, a simple desire for agricultural and industrial resources, belief in the perceived superiority or inferiority of people, an unshakable conviction that the currents of history must flow a certain way – are still very much among us. The motivating factors of political differences, pseudoscientific reasoning, resource scarcity, and religious strife that existed in 1935 still saddle the world in 2015. While we may continue to find it very hard to comprehend the Holocaust, a recognition of its history and its legacy can certainly help us understand.
The last chapters of Snyder’s book are what allow us to see hope in the midst of despair. They speak of the thousands of individuals of all creeds, nationalities, economic classes and moral sensibilities who sheltered and rescued Jews from all over Europe. These people’s motivations were often as complex as human nature itself. Sometimes they were motivated by their religion, sometimes in spite of it. Sometimes simple greed played a role, and sometimes it seems to have been genuine altruism. Sometimes the driving force was childlessness (as when people adopted orphaned Jewish children), sometimes it was simple neighborliness. Sometimes the characteristics of the rescuers defied rationalization, as in the case of the German policeman who helped a Jewish family escape to America in 1938 and then later killed Jewish children in Ukraine in 1942. Interestingly the actions of these people also mirror the importance of the state; for instance it was diplomats who were successful in saving the largest numbers of Jews, often just as the countries in which they were operating were losing the last vestiges of state identity. In addition, and perhaps not surprisingly, there were stark differences in people’s behavior depending on whether they were operating under conditions of lawfulness or lawlessness.
The neat classification of rescuers into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is as problematic as any other binary analysis of human nature, but what’s crystal clear is that people saved other people even if their actions defied reason. That’s the one take-home message from the book that should stay with us. Even in the middle of a world gone mad there existed pockets of sanity and humanity that defied comprehension. And while the ordinary facets of human nature and the state which Snyder documents hopefully allow us to understand and remember, it is the sometimes incomprehensible but very real actions of the righteous few that allow us to hope. Sometimes kindness and courage cannot be explained; they simply are. By Ashutosh S. Jogalekar