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Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and…

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015)

by Timothy Snyder

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3921539,291 (4.2)27
  1. 00
    On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (2wonderY)
    2wonderY: On Tyranny is a short synopsis of the much more extensive and scholarly conclusions recorded in Black Earth.
  2. 00
    Hitler's World View: A Blueprint for Power by Eberhard Jäckel (2wonderY)
    2wonderY: Both attempt to analyze and explicate Hitler's internal logic on the Jewish question.

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Timothy Snyder's book "Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning" attempts to place Hitler and Nazi Germany within a political and cultural context. Starting with Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and tracing how Hitler's opinions expressed there found fruition in the Nazi state, Snyder explains how Hitler's negative views of Jews became one of the main thrusts for his government in conquering neighboring countries and working with the Soviet Union, before finally invading Poland and threatening the Soviet state. The author carefully illustrates how people who once collaborated the Soviet government to kill or deport ethnic Poles and Ukrainians were easily swayed, both by personal and state rhetoric to turn their attentions to the Jews of Eastern Europe.

So often we hear, "How could this have happened?" when talking about the Holocaust. Snyder's book clearly lays out the Nazi strategy when it comes to dismantling countries and governments and how they were able to use the past misdeeds of a population to convince them that they were doing the right thing. Snyder describes how Hitler's methods could be used again during our time to lead to even greater death and so reminds us that those who do not understand and forget what has happened in the past are doomed to repeat it.

Julie K. / Marathon County Public Library
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( )
  mcpl.wausau | Sep 25, 2017 |
This is a book about the idea of the Holocaust more than its mechanics, though it emphasizes again and again that those who killed Jews also killed non-Jews and vice versa, and that the killers were never willing to kill Jews but not non-Jews, though they did sometimes save specific people. I was struck by the pre-war idea of “Madagascar” as a place for the Jews—to non-Jewish Poles it was a real place to which Jews could be expelled, while to Hitler it was “a bookmark in a burning book,”a symbol of the plan to eliminate Jews entirely. Although Snyder doesn’t explicitly engage with Arendt, he emphasizes that the Nazis found that the simplest way to deny the protection of the state to Jews was to destroy the state. Stateless Jews, by and large, did not survive the Holocaust; Jews who were part of functioning states, even states occupied by the Nazis, were much more likely to survive (even the Jews deported from France were mostly not French Jews but rather refugees from other states; German Jews were more likely to survive than Polish Jews, because the Nazis held that Poland was never a legitimate state). Snyder takes from this the lesson that citizenship—recognition as a person by the state—is an essential barrier against genocide, which ought to worry Americans in the present climate. ( )
  rivkat | May 18, 2017 |
Just not sure I'm smart enough to fully comprehend this book. But I'm so interested, so will try again later.
  GennaC | May 9, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As we watch Syria one wonders if we will ever learn. Black Earth is a heavy read with much research and many notes. Not for the average reader, academic libraries.
I have taken several months to read and found very interesting. Recommend for history sections in academic and research libraries. ( )
  oldbookswine | Dec 11, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
There has never been a society that did not at some point face dark times when it seemed that humanity itself was missing. Nazi Germany has become the icon of such dark stretches, overshadowing all others we define as evil. Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning by Timothy Synder looks past dogma and orthodoxy to try to explain the mechanics used in building a society that was willing to execute over six million human beings, and bring death and carnage to millions more.

The trifecta of racial prejudice, nationalism on steroids, along with the toxic mixture of anger and ego are repeatedly the three biggest winners in the all too frequent race to strip away human dignity. But how the race is won is often a very different skill set from why we run it in the first place. Synder does an excellent job at focusing on the strategy of the Third Reich without ignoring the motivation. Over and over again, the Nazis erased the state and the protection it provided. This is most easily seen in Poland where German officials pretended that Poland had never existed. It was simply being claimed by its rightful owner the way you would pick up a suit taken to the cleaners a few weeks earlier and forgotten. Since Poland had never existed, thousands of Poland’s ruling class could be tried and convicted for violating German law during the time they served as Polish officials.

Aspirations of the greater good were used to justify some of the less savory aspects of Germany’s conquests. It would take natural resources and raw materials to bring the fatherland back to health after World War I. A strong Germany would bring equilibrium to the world that had been lost at the Treaty of Versailles, and return Germany to her rightful place on the world stage. The wholesale slaughter of women, children, and the elderly is much easier when those being executed are sent away to be killed. Nothing dampens a good genocide like growing attached to those who are about to die. The job is much easier when you think of them as beasts rather than human.

At times Snyder tediously belabors his point. His narrative seems detached from the emotion that one usually associates with the Holocaust. The another aspect that made Black History a labor to read was in no way Timothy Snyder’s fault, but rather the presidential election that has taken place these last months. To recognize some of these same methods, obviously minus the death and violence, was frightening. Common to both the left and the right is the apparent lack of respect for the electorate, never-ending hypocrisy, and the willingness to allow the ends to justify the means. ( )
1 vote lanewillson | Dec 7, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
A Crime Without A Name.

Historian after historian has used Georges Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, to demonstrate how works about the past remain relevant in the present as well as the future. Black Earth by Timothy Snyder is an unusual historic work were the above quote is particularly apt because Ms. Snyder purposefully examines the conditions that enabled the Holocaust and extrapolates how they could once again take place. Mr. Snyder does a solid job of setting the social and political landscape of that era, giving us a meaningful look at the personalities and policies that preceded World War II, but the book really comes to life as Hitler and Stalin begin to re-shape the history of Europe by destroying its States as well as its people.

There have been innumerable works written about the Holocaust, but Mr. Snyder manages to find a fresh and innovative twist on a well known and very dark story. He studies Hitler’s philosophy in some depth, starting with the premise life is nothing more than a jungle where the strong not only kill the weak, but must kill the weak, and concluding with the idea that Jews must be eliminated because they conceived the ideas and ideals that stand between The Master Race and its destiny to flourish through violence and murder. Using numerous sources from Eastern Europe the author traces how the political and social conditions on the 1920’s and 30’s engendered the climate that allowed the roots of the Holocaust to flourish. Perhaps Mr. Snyder’s most original concept is in re-imagining the context that enabled for millions of Jews to be systematically murdered. Many historians point out how bureaucratic the nature of the tragedy was, but in Black Earth Mr. Snyder shows that the lack of bureaucracy was the Holocaust's chief characteristic. The slaughter started in the places where war destroyed the institutions that characterize Statehood, and remained the worst in places where the Soviets and the Germans together created a no-man’s land of lawlessness where killing became both an ideological end as well as an act unto itself. No matter how evil the ideology of the Nazi’s may have been the web of connections that make up everyday life managed to lessen the number of Jews that were murdered in cities and towns, unlike the tracts of land where the savagery of war engendered a state of barbarism. Mr. Snyder makes his point quite eloquently, comparing the number of death that took place in Poland, the USSR and its satellite territories, with how many took place in France, Denmark and even Germany. Mr.Snyder tells this tale with great sympathy and a comprehensive grasp of the stories behind the cold, hard data, as reasoned a work as this is, it never cedes it’s humanity.

Black Earth is a powerful book fraught with meaning that stands on it’s own merits, but with the current unrest in the Middle East, and the situation in Syria devolving into a humanitarian crisis this books takes on even more relevance, and I encourage you to read it. It is not a comfortable or easy book, but one of profound importance.

Review by: Mark Palm
Full Reviews Available at: http://www.thebookendfamily.weebly.co...
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In the struggle between you and the world take the side of the world ---- Franz Kafka, 1917
He is from my homeland. A Human Being. ------- Antoni Slonimski, 1943
The black milk of daybreak we drink in the evening in the afternoon in the morning in the night we drink and we drink ----- Paul Celan, 1944
Every man has a name given by the stars given by his neighbors. ---- Zelda Mishkovasky, 1974
For K. and T.
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In the fashionable sixth district of Vienna, the history of the Holocaust is in the pavement.
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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
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"It comforts us to believe that the Holocaust was a unique event. But as Timothy Snyder shows, we have missed basic lessons of the history of the Holocaust, and some of our beliefs are frighteningly close to the ecological panic that Hitler expressed in the 1920s. As ideological and environmental challenges to the world order mount, our societies might be more vulnerable than we would like to think." --publisher's description… (more)

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