On Veterans Day it behooves us to take another look at Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. You will see how its discussion of the politics of history, how we remember and what we forget about the past, is timely for a world with immense ecological and refugee crises.
I can’t even begin to describe the shock I felt when I first ran into Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers. I was born in Poland and the shattering events of World War II were more real to me than anything that had happened in recent history. This might have something to do with what Eva Hofmann describes in After Such Knowledge as the law of traumatic memories skipping over a generation and first registering with the grandchildren of the survivors.
Public radio recently ran a story (I can’t track it down) about the aesthetization of the Holocaust. The debate centered around the question whether such a development signifies a numbing of memory, or whether it signifies memory filtering down into our historical marrow. The presenters seemed to think that distance from the Holocaust has numbed us to the gravity of the events.
Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth circles around the same questions. His insights are plenty disturbing for the present. The argument is built around the thesis that Antisemitism was not a sufficient cause of the Holocaust. Antisemitism had been around for centuries and did not result in anything resembling the scale of the Holocaust.
Snyder instead turns his attention to the almost apocalyptic obsessions of the early 20th century with “living space,” what you might know as Lebensraum, which translates in today’s terms into concerns with the finite resources of the environment. Snyder is convinced that Hitler was able to achieve these territorial goals, his grabs for finite resources, by destabilizing nation-states to the east of Germany. In other words, creating refugee crises was integral to his plans.
Against popular commonplaces–picked up even by America presidential candidates–about the need to decentralize governments in order to prevent totalitarianism, Snyder says the opposite tendency was behind Germany’s military successes. His forces destroyed governmental structures wherever they went in the East. That’s how, the Nazis were able to control and exterminate large populations. As the principle of subsidiarity might predict, stateless people lacked the higher-level structures to protect themselves against an organized onslaught by Hitler’s forces. Furthermore, Snyder argues that it was not unusual that heroic rescues of Jews were few and far between because individuals are powerless to resist the natural temptation to foster their own individual survival at the expense of persecuted minorities when there are no institutions to foster cohesion.
What I cannot do is substantiate all the claims of a an important 450 page book in one blog post, therefore I offer you Snyder’s inaugural Rene Girard lecture below:
In the lecture Snyder says, “What I am seeking to do here, to be clear, not to commemorate, not to remember, but to explain.” What he means is applying the past to enlighten the present.The following passages from Black Earth evoke how today’s world of ruthless competition, refugees, and ecological crisis is like Hitler’s world:
The planet is changing in ways that might make Hitlerian descriptions of life, space and time more plausible. The expected increase of average global temperatures by 4C this century would transform human life on much of the globe. Climate change is unpredictable, which exacerbates the problem. Present trends mislead, since feedback effects await. If ice sheets collapse, heat from the sun will be absorbed by seawater rather than reflected back into space. If the Siberian tundra melts, methane will rise from the earth, trapping heat in the atmosphere. If the Amazon basin is stripped of jungle, it will release a massive pulse of carbon dioxide. Global processes are always experienced locally, and local factors can either restrain or amplify them.
He continues with an implicit bridge with Girard’s theory of scapegoating that has uncomfortable parallels with the way present day refugees from Syria and Afghanistan are portrayed:
Perhaps the experience of unprecedented storms, relentless droughts and the associated wars and south-to-north migrations will jar expectations about the security of resources and make Hitlerian politics more resonant. As Hitler demonstrated, humans are able to portray a looming crisis in such a way as to justify drastic measures in the present. Under enough stress, or with enough skill, politicians can effect the conflations Hitler pioneered: between nature and politics, between ecosystem and household, between need and desire. A global problem that seems otherwise insoluble can be blamed upon a specific group of human beings.
Finally, Snyder directly addresses how our world is like Hitler’s “springtime”:
Hitler was a child of the first globalisation, which arose under imperial auspices at the end of the 19th century. We are the children of the second, that of the late 20th century. Globalisation is neither a problem nor a solution; it is a condition with a history. It brings a specific intellectual danger. Since the world is more complex than a country or a city, the temptation is to seek some master key to understanding everything. When a global order collapses, as was the experience of many Europeans in the second, third and fourth decades of the 20th century, a simplistic diagnosis such as Hitler’s can seem to clarify the global by referring to the ecological, the supernatural or the conspiratorial. When the normal rules seem to have been broken and expectations have been shattered, a suspicion can be burnished that someone (the Jews, for example) has somehow diverted nature from its proper course. A problem that is truly planetary in scale, such as climate change, obviously demands global solutions – and one apparent solution is to define a global enemy.
This is not comedy. It is a stern warning.
Syria is but one place where global powers are battling out proxy wars creating massive amounts of stateless people. The rest of Africa, with all of its untapped natural resources, will probably be the next battlefield as the EU, China, Russia, and the United States battle it out. The refugee crises these conflicts will produce might demand “solutions.”
It really doesn’t matter whether you think climate change is real. The choices of geopolitical actors are dictated by the assumption that it is real.
Are we courageous enough to do something about it now? Or, will we repeat history, just as our ancestors, who lived through World War II, repeated and amplified the horrors of colonial history?
We owe the responsibility of making the effort of looking at our world honestly to both the veterans and the refugees, or else . . .