Timothy Snyder: The Newton of the Holocaust?

The Yale historian’s much-lauded new book promises a revolutionary view of the Holocaust. But it misleads more than it enlightens.

From the cover of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder.

From the cover of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder.

Nov. 4 2015
About the author

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, WeimarA History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, was released in 2015 by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

No author of books on Eastern Europe during the period of World War II and the Holocaust has been more widely reviewed and discussed in recent years than Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale. In Bloodlands (2010), Snyder presented what might be termed a Polish-Ukrainian version of the Holocaust, highlighting the brutality of Nazi rule over the countries of Eastern Europe—the “bloodlands” between Germany and Soviet Russia—and the horrific toll in lives, especially Polish lives, taken by the two battling powers.

Now, in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Snyder deals mostly with the mass murder of Jews, ascribing greater responsibility than have other historians to the early work of the Nazi SS killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) operating in occupied Eastern Europe, but also memorializing those who helped to save Jewish lives in Poland after the 1939 invasion and partition of that country by the twin forces of Nazi Germany and the USSR. Indeed, the book, which is based to a considerable extent on the stories of individual survivors, centers like the previous one mainly on Poland, and to a lesser extent on the three Baltic states. There is little here on the fate of Jewish communities in other European countries, most of whom were transported to their deaths in Poland. Nor, despite its subtitle—“The Holocaust as History and Warning”—is Black Earth properly seen as another history of the Holocaust. It is instead a new interpretation, and one with some startling arguments to advance.


The reception given to both of Snyder’s books has generally been rapturous, if more so in the United States than in Europe, and more so in some circles than in others. They have been called epic, haunting, brilliant, profoundly original, groundbreaking, provocative, erudite, challenging, unforgettable—exhausting the thesaurus. Most of those cheering, however, are not historians who have specialized in the study of Nazism, Eastern Europe, or the Holocaust. Within that more select group, a number have entered serious reservations and criticisms of Snyder’s work, and some have voiced harsher and more heated judgments; a harvest can be found at the website Defending History.

Some of the negative comments on Snyder are highly emotional and even personal to a degree unusual in historical debate. He has been accused of prevarication, of consorting with shady characters in the present-day Baltic republics, of deliberately downplaying anti-Semitism and the unique character of the Final Solution, of anti-Russian and pro-Polish bias, and more. Skeptical reviewers in Europe have focused on his alleged espousal of the “double- genocide” theme—that is, equating the scale and seriousness of the atrocities committed respectively by Hitler and Stalin.

In addition to these criticisms, of which some are at least partially justified, even experts otherwise disposed to Snyder are understandably irked by his frequent statements, easily disproved, that much of his work is based on material hitherto unknown or neglected or inaccessible. When writing in this vein, he is capable of such breathless confidences as that most of the killing of Jews took place outside Germany and that many and possibly a majority of the killers were not themselves German: all basic facts, long and solidly established. More broadly, Snyder insists that the “conventional” understanding of the Holocaust has been so thoroughly misguided that only now, with the publication of Bloodlands and Black Earth, is it possible to see things as they really were and to rethink the subject afresh. Such asseverations cannot but create the impression that our author sees himself in the role of Isaac Newton as imagined by Alexander Pope:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night
God said: Let Newton be! and all was light.


What, then, are the findings that in Snyder’s view have made such a radical reexamination imperative? Historians have traditionally been concerned with the character of Nazism, its real aims and doctrines, and with Hitler’s mental makeup; few stones in this field remain unturned. Snyder, for his part, seems sincerely to believe that Hitler was neither a German nationalist nor even an anti-Semite in the traditional sense. So what was he?

Instead of explaining the dictator in terms of his ideological beliefs or the doctrines of the Nazi party, Snyder instead invokes considerations of agricultural science, the hybridization of grains, the storage and preservation of foods, and similar topics. When the German dictator came to power, Snyder writes, he was brought face to face with what he took to be a looming ecological crisis and the prospect of national starvation; here lies the key to his thinking and to his policies with regard to the nations of Eastern Europe with their fertile croplands and, in the end, to their millions of Jews.

A related discovery, to which Snyder returns time and again, concerns the crucial importance of so-called “stateless zones” in facilitating the Holocaust. One of Hitler’s main aims, he writes, was to destroy existing government institutions and bureaucracies in Eastern Europe as a necessary prelude to Germany’s successful takeover and, later, its implementation of the Final Solution. For this reason, the chances of Jewish survival were infinitely greater in countries where something like a state apparatus remained intact than in places where chaos prevailed. In particular, according to Snyder, the chances of survival for Jews in Germany were as high as one in two; in countries where the state apparatus had been destroyed, the chances of Jewish survival were only one in twenty.

What to say about all this?

The belief in the need for German expansion—Lebensraum—did indeed exist and had an impact on Nazi policy, as seen in Hitler’s invasion and seizure of the breadbasket regions of Eastern Europe. But as far as the Holocaust is concerned, it was hardly a decisive factor. Besides, if Hitler really did experience “ecological panic” (Snyder’s term), he would not have kept it a secret. It would have prominently figured in his Table Talk, in the writings of those closest to him (see Joseph Goebbels’ multi-volume diaries), in orders passed on to his ministers, and so on. It does not. By the same token, the central role in Germany’s economy would have been played by Walther Darré and Herbert Backe, the two key operatives in the regime’s agricultural policies, and not, as was really the case, by the banker Hjalmar Schacht in the 1930s and by Albert Speer in the 1940s.

The theory that the Holocaust was decisively motivated by German domestic needs does appear in the writings of a few “unorthodox” researchers. But those writings mainly date back a quarter-century or so, when environmental concerns figured less prominently on the agenda of intellectual and academic politics; instead of ecological panic, they tend to ascribe Hitler’s decision to plunder the Jews on the need to finance his “social state,” that is, the various social services that added much to the popularity of the regime. In any event, I suspect it is to this general source that one should look for Snyder’s misplaced inspiration.

As for the instrumental utility of “stateless zones” in Nazi plans for political control and mass murder, this was evident enough in some places (like Poland and the Czech protectorate), but not in all (Slovakia, among others). And as for the odds-on advantage of living in Germany as opposed to a “stateless zone” in Eastern Europe, even those only vaguely familiar with the European situation in the 1930s and 40s know otherwise. In 1938, Snyder writes portentously, “some Nazis discovered that the most effective way to separate Jews from the protection of the state was to destroy the state”—as if the German state had protected the German Jews in 1937. Once the war broke out, the situation of German Jews was virtually hopeless, and only a few hundred survived underground. In the stateless zones, by contrast, there were many opportunities to hide, to assume new (non-Jewish) identities, and even to escape to neutral countries.

There is a great deal more in this very crowded volume, including its bizarre and much commented-upon concluding chapter with the “warning” promised in the book’s subtitle. Here are the supposed lessons for today that lie hidden within the calamitous and genocidal events of yesterday—lessons about all the terrible and mistaken ways that people react in the face of impending dangers, real and perceived. And here the narrative shifts from the barbarism of the Nazis to global warming, from Auschwitz to Rwanda, from the gas chambers in Eastern Europe to greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere, from the Holocaust, which took place, to all kinds of ecological horrors that may or may not take place. I need not dilate further.


In general, despite the range of his research and his touted command of many languages, Snyder is more reliable when writing about Eastern Europe (though not necessarily about Russia) than about Germany and the West. Little slips give much away. Thus, discussing Rosa Luxemburg, the famous Marxist revolutionary and propagandist of the early 20th century, he refers to the “immensely influential” German journal Die Neue Zeit. In fact, Die Neue Zeit was a close runner-up for the period’s most boring publication; one doubts Snyder ever had an opportunity to consult it. And was it ever influential at all, let alone “immensely influential”? Hardly.

Or take the treatment of Carl Schmitt, Germany’s best known political philosopher of the 20th century, frequently quoted by Snyder as the man who gave Hitler many of his anti-state ideas: “Throughout Hitler’s career, Schmitt had provided elegant theoretical support for the Führer’s actions.” Here, too, reality is otherwise. Schmitt was indeed a member of the Nazi party—which, however, he joined only after Hitler came to power—and he wanted to be the new rulers’ supreme legal authority. But beginning in 1936 he ran into serious trouble, was charged with many ideological sins, and had to resign from all but two of his official positions.

Then there is the matter of the book’s approach and its tone. I’ve already referred to Snyder’s oft-proclaimed confidence in his originality and Newton-like authority. Another nettlesome quality is his tendency to senationalize minor or inconsequential details and magnify them out of all proportion to their historical significance.

One example: the Jewish personality most frequently and copiously quoted in Black Earth is not the eminent British Zionist Chaim Weizmann (who rates a single mention) or David Ben-Gurion (none at all); neither is it a communal leader in prewar Poland, a commander of the Jewish underground, a prominent East European Zionist, Bundist, or Jewish Communist, or one of the heads of the ghettoes appointed by the Germans. Instead, Snyder’s top Jewish witness is a young man in his late twenties named Avraham Stern (codename “Yair”), the head of the Zionist right-wing paramilitary group in Palestine known as Leḥi or the Stern Gang, which split off from the Irgun in 1940.

Stern, who was shot and killed by a British policeman in Tel Aviv in February 1942, is a tragic figure: a poet, a man of great bravery, and unfortunately, when it came to political judgment, something of a hopeless naif if not a fool. Before the war, he and his followers were involved in talks with Polish officials aimed at expediting the emigration of Jews from Poland to either Palestine or Madagascar. Later on, emissaries of his little group were sent to Beirut to talk to German diplomats there, evidently in the quixotic hope of establishing a common front against the British, then the Mandatory power in Palestine. All of these initiatives went nowhere.

Since nothing Stern did or failed to do was of genuine consequence, why has he been singled out for such extended treatment in Black Earth? What point is Snyder striving toward? That not all Jews were political geniuses? This is not exactly news. Was our author ignorant of the fact that Stern’s poignant story has already been thoroughly covered by historians of the period? Was he personally just so captivated as to conclude it therefore warranted greater publicity? Or was it the opportunity to bring into the picture Menachem Begin, a successor head of Irgun/Leḥi and a former member of the Polish anti-Nazi fighting force known as Anders Army, that he found irresistible? Whatever the motive, his elaborate treatment of this one figure is characteristic of an approach that tends repeatedly to favor the striking or outré at the expense of the relevant and important.

Finally, weaving in and out of the narrative are short and presumably snappy statements of a type that Snyder is exceedingly fond of: apothegms that are intended to convey summary pearls of wisdom, that are indeed sometimes clever, but that all too often are either platitudinous or meaningless—or worse. Two unfortunate examples: “Both the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust were human beings” (at once maudlin and trite); “Jews were killed because they were rendered stateless” (false, as we have seen). In the concluding chapter on the coming global environmental disaster, such ex-cathedra pronouncements rain down hard and fast: “Hitler was a child of the first globalization”; “people have no choice but to think on a planetary scale, as Hitler and Carl Schmitt never tired of emphasizing”; “a psychic resolve for a relief from a sense of crisis [can overwhelm] the practical resolve to think about the future.” And so forth and so on.


A reasonable case can be made in favor of historical revisionism. Debate continues on a variety of issues and developments in modern history, for instance with regard to the main responsibility for the outbreak of World War I. Every few years, a new publication will appear that can offer an interesting reinterpretation even though few new facts of any importance have emerged or are likely to emerge.

In the field of Holocaust studies, a longstanding debate of this kind has pitted “intentionalists” against “functionalists.” The former believe that it was Hitler’s single-minded aim from the beginning to rid Europe of the Jews. The functionalists—the camp into which, roughly speaking, Snyder falls—are convinced that the aim was less clear-cut and the decision process more complicated, more chaotic, and more driven by unfolding events.

One point of dispute relevant to this debate and to Snyder’s work concerns the date of Hitler’s decision to destroy European Jewry physically. Christian Gerlach, a German historian teaching in Switzerland, is the most recent to argue that the decisive date fell in December 1941 (by which time, however, about a million Jews had already been murdered). Others, most prominently Christopher Browning, believe that the decision goes back to an earlier date that same year, perhaps as early as July.

This is not a purely pedantic exercise. Establishing the date beyond a reasonable doubt—it seems clear, after decades of digging, that no written order exists—would help to explain whether the decision was made because the war in the East was not going well for Germany (as seemed to be the case by December 1941) or, to the contrary, because a German victory appeared close at hand (as was the case in the initial weeks after the June 1941 invasion of Russia in Operation Barbarossa) and the Nazis were riding a wave of triumphalism.

Gerlach’s English-language magnum opus, The Extermination of the European Jews, will be published next year, and it, too, is already being hailed as a major revision in our understanding of the Holocaust. But Gerlach, like Snyder, has his detractors, some of whom have severely criticized his past work on the conservative opposition to Hitler. What also makes Gerlach’s date a little suspect is that, according to him, Hitler announced the decision on December 12 at a meeting of 50 Nazi leaders. If true, this would mark the first time in history that a secret shared by 50 people was solemnly kept for the ensuing 74 years.


It is not easy to do justice to Snyder. When he is not operating under the compulsion to play the role of a Newton, or to present versions of history radically different from those of his predecessors, or to indulge his mania for exaggeration and sensationalism, or to waste his own and his readers’ time encapsulating serious and complicated topics in shorthand, he deserves attention, respect, and some of the epithets bestowed on him by his admirers. On certain topics and on certain issues, especially concerning Eastern Europe, his work can be valuable and even innovative. If I have dwelled more on his shortcomings and misjudgments than on his merits, it is because seldom if ever can I remember having encountered so maddening a combination of right and wrong, imagination and fantasy, good sense and absurdity located together in such close vicinity.

In the end, one can say this: Snyder’s obfuscating and half-baked “discoveries” about the Holocaust do further harm to a field of study already disfigured by the work of emissaries of one school or another, not to mention outright deniers. His book will not be the last such venture in misguided interpretation—the varieties are unlimited—but it will lengthen the time needed to repair the damage.

More about: Eastern Europe, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Timothy Snyder