Ecology, Habitat, Genocide: Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth
Historian Timothy Snyder is a polarizing figure of the new historiography on the Second World War and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. His latest book, Black Earth (2015), an evocative exploration of agency and personal trajectories during the successive Nazi and Communist dictatorships, has been widely read and reviewed. Yet its reception has been ambivalent. As in his previous work, Snyder investigates to what extent the two ideologies of Nazism and Communism, two different types of authoritarian regimes but equal perpetrators of mass political violence, can be compared. He has consequently been broadly associated with the so-called “double genocide” thesis in academic circles and also criticized for an overuse of the totalitarian paradigm. Yet with this, the incisive and new connections drawn between ecology, notions of habitat, and genocide in Black Earth have been largely ignored. This review briefly alerts the reader to these main points.
To a large extent, Timothy Snyder’s perspective is indebted to Hannah Arendt’s thesis of state modernization and the resulting decay of concepts of citizenship as outlined in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Yet as Snyder astutely points out with regard to the potential contemporary pitfall, ‘[w]hen the Holocaust is blamed on a modern state, the weakening of state authority appears salutary.’ [loc. 5953]. His focus on the state instead zooms in on what he identifies as the particularity of Hitler’s ideological thinking: the firm belief in the superiority of the German state was derived from notions of race rather than extreme nationalism. Hitler’s perspective on rule was founded on a permanent competition between races, an anarchy of sorts, in which states are transitory and the legislative framework can easily be bypassed. Adding to Hannah Arendt’s argumentation, Snyder proves that the existence or the dismantling of state structures had a crucial influence on the distribution of the number of victims across Europe: more people for instance survived in Belgium, Denmark and Vichy France in comparison to Arthur Seyss-Inquart’s regime in the Netherlands, where the structures of the monarchy disappeared together with the exile of the Dutch government and the royal family.
Black Earth’s Eastern European geography of terror is substantiated by a spatial approach to ideological thought. In the much debated concluding chapter of the book, ‘Our World’, Snyder conceptualizes the Nazi notion of Lebensraum (living space) as an anticipative thought predicated on an imaginary of institutional decline. The genocidal space is framed as resource, by drawing on a colonial vocabulary: ‘black earth’ was the expression used by Heinrich Himmler to describe the fertile soil of Ukraine, in 1935. Snyder thus shows that once the living environment is designated as ‘resource’ and ‘commodity’, it can easily become an argument for expulsion and genocide.
Beyond this, Snyder suggests that the pervasive need for security and demand for resources today can lead in the same direction. As we are increasingly prone to consider the future of resources: ‘it seems reasonable to worry that … seeing other people’s land as habitat, is latent.’ [loc. 5724] From this he derives the second point of his argumentation: science, in the thought of the Third Reich, had lost its character of horizon of expectation and came to support a nexus which is increasingly familiar today: habitat- ecology-market economy. Snyder’s ecological perspective proposes an alternative understanding of the ‘never again’ dictum. This conflation of science and politics complicates the simple notion of racism, anti-Jewish and anti-Slav resentment by shedding light on the underlying ideology. With a promise for a better life for German families and promoting the idea of scarcity, Nazism succeeded in creating demand and garnering support. As Snyder argues, the temptation to reduce Nazi ideology to racism and anti-semitism obliterates the collapse between science and politics which informed much of the genocidal rationale.
Snyder consequently draws attention to the way in which the notion of Lebensraum interacted with discourses of prosperity for the German nation. ‘Hitler conflated lifestyle with life (…) Once standard of living is confused with living, a rich society can make war upon those who are poorer in the name of survival.’ [loc. 5703] This is the point where the global and the national converge in Hitler’s thought. As he argues, the racial eugenics was actually based on a purposeful indistinction between the political and the biological, which makes every form of governance superfluous or dangerous. With such a conception of resource (which entails everything can and should be exploited for the welfare of the state) Snyder subtly posits a connection between the fanatical utilitarianism of such an ideology and contemporary consumer society.
In this way, Black Earth revisits racial ideology and instincts of purification as instances linking the radical nationalism of Imperial Germany to the National Socialism of the Third Reich. He thus joins historians such as Mark Mazower and Dirk Moses in moving the gaze to the intellectual and social continuity between European imperialism and the escalation of events during the Second World War. Beyond this, by drawing a parallel between political vocabularies of crisis then and now, he suggests the latter, used as currency, in fact overshadows its own possible alternatives. From this perspective, the ecological dimension charted in Black Earth makes use of Hannah Arendt’s social/political divide, in that a vocabulary based on resource reinforces the idea that production (and implicitly the market) is an organic, natural and apolitical component of social interactions. The merging of science and politics and the definition of the social space as habitat and location of resources flattens out both their denotation and the critical inquiry into their processes of exploitation.
This book thus usefully complements studies emphasizing the primacy of politics and anti-semitism in trying to make sense of complicity to Nazi violence. It reintroduces to the narrative the economic considerations that underwrote the utilitarianism of the genocidal spree. The ecological and resource-driven dimension of the ideological imaginary, Snyder suggests, created the framework in which genocide is no longer regarded as exceptional, but can, on the contrary, become a widely accepted situation and its justification no longer transgressive. Rather than interpreting Black Earth (and the Holocaust) as an effect of ecological panic, Snyder’s argument is rather that any genocide becomes banal and easily defensible when interaction (habitat) and exchange is no longer political or social, but is presented as being organic.
The version quoted here is the Kindle Edition: Timothy D. Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Vintage Digital (September 17, 2015), 480 pages, $10.74.