An Impressive but Deficient New Attempt to Explain the Holocaust

Sept. 4 2015

In Black Earth, Timothy Snyder puts forth a new account of the Holocaust, from its ideological origins to its completion. David A. Bell writes in his review:

[Snyder] brings to the subject the same passion that infused [his previous book], Bloodlands, along with his impressive expertise in the history and languages of Eastern and Central Europe. The book effortlessly sifts through sources in Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and German. . . . Unfortunately, . . . [while] his account displays flashes of brilliant insight, the different sections fit together poorly, and too much has been left out for the rest to be convincing. . . .

Snyder begins with a rapid summary of Hitler’s worldview. Drawing from Mein Kampf, later writings, speeches, and the work of the Nazi “crown jurist” Carl Schmitt, Snyder claims, plausibly enough—although without actually demonstrating the point—that there was a fundamental, career-long consistency to Hitler’s thought. . . . According to Snyder, Hitler conflated science and politics, seeing the world in radically social-Darwinist terms as a death struggle between races for scarce resources, especially food. . . . It was the destiny of the stronger German race to subjugate, and ultimately exterminate, the weaker Slavs, and to expropriate their rich farmlands—the “black earth” of Snyder’s title. Standing in the way were the Jews, whom Hitler viewed as loathsome parasites who sought to subvert the natural victors through treachery.

Yet Snyder says little about why or how such a manifestly insane ideology could come to appeal to a modern, civilized nation, and still less about how it could help turn so many members of that nation into witting mass murderers. Was it just Hitler’s perverse political genius, his ability to turn what he gleaned from the cranks and fanatics he read into a compelling political message? Were there reasons more deeply rooted in German society, whether from far back in its history or from its recent experiences of defeat and depression? Snyder doesn’t say, and indeed does almost nothing to situate Hitler’s ideology within the broader histories of anti-Semitism or Western political thought.

Read more at National Interest

More about: Adolf Hitler, Anti-Semitism, Eastern Europe, History & Ideas, Holocaust

On Thanksgiving, Remember the Exodus from Egypt

Nov. 27 2020

When asked to design a Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed a depiction of Moses at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness after departing Egypt. These proposals, writes Ed Simon, tapped into a venerable American tradition:

The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World with the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture with their own narratives and experiences. . . .

For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. . . . American Puritans and pilgrims like John Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, . . . and many others placed the Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. . . . [Thus the] Exodus . . . has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories. . . .

We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Sea of Reeds. . . . We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogroms and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?

Read more at Tablet

More about: American founding, American Religion, Exodus, History & Ideas, Thanksgiving, Thomas Jefferson