Snyder’s big idea about genocide: state smashing

Tim Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning is an exceptional and innovative history of the Holocaust, and of the mass killings that occurred during the Second World War in the territories he refers to as the Bloodlands.

There are tormenting questions raised by the facts of the Holocaust and the deliberate killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children. Some of these questions are obvious, but Snyder argues that we haven’t asked the most important questions yet. We have not yet understood the Holocaust in the ways we need to if we are to honor the victims and prepare humanity for a future in which genocide does not recur.

The most difficult question is that of historical causation: what factors caused the massive genocide that occurred in 1941 and following years? The conventional answers to this question revolve around familiar factors: the aftermath of the First World War, the extensive realities of anti-Semitism, Hitler’s single-minded ideology, and the successful efforts by Germany to build a military and police apparatus that was very efficient in waging war and massacring vast civilian populations. But Snyder doesn’t believe that these conventional ideas are correct. They are all relevant factors in the rise and power of the Nazi regime, but they do not by themselves suffice to explain the ability of the regime to kill millions of innocent people in a matter of months.

The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens. This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it. The enormous majority of the victims of the Holocaust were not German citizens; Jews who were German citizens were much more likely to survive than Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed. 337

Rather, Snyder argues that the most fundamental factor that facilitated the Holocaust was the “state smashing” that occurred through Nazi military aggression and Soviet occupation of many of the countries of Central Europe. Snyder refers to the “double occupation” that was part of the period of the 1930s and 1940s: occupation by the Soviet Union of the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, half of Poland, and much of the remainder of central Europe; and then the conquest of these same territories by German military and police forces, beginning in 1939 in the rapid conquest of Poland and in 1941 in the rapid military conquest of much of the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, extending to the outskirts of Moscow.

Snyder puts forward a powerful thesis: the Holocaust and the annihilation of six million Jews resulted most importantly from the destruction of state institutions in the countries that were occupied by USSR and Nazi Germany. It was the destruction of state institutions, systems of law, and rules of citizenship that led to the mortal peril of Jews in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of the Soviet Union itself. Hitler’s war on the Jews was the ideological driver of his policies. But his ability to carry out his plans of mass murder depended on the smashing of the states of the countries it attacked, defeated, and occupied. And in this destruction the Soviet Union and the NKVD had played a crucial role during the 1930s.

Why were state institutions so important? Not because they consistently came to the support of persecuted minorities. They were important rather because states establish systems of law, rights, and citizenship. And states establish institutions, bureaucracies, and judicial systems that preserve those rights of citizenship. States provided a basis for oppressed groups to defend themselves within the institutions and bureaucracies of the state. The experience of the attempt in Germany in the 1930s to remove citizenship rights from its own small Jewish population — less than 1% of the population — was illustrative: it took years to succeed. Statelessness was a crucial feature of the deadly vulnerability of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

The state stood at the middle of the story of those who wished to kill Jews, and of those who wished to save them. Its mutation within Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and then its destruction in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in 1938 and 1939 transformed Jews from citizens into objects of exploitation. The double assault upon state institutions in the Baltic states and eastern Poland, at first by the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941, created the special field of experimentation where ideas of a Final Solution became the practice of mass murder. 320

Why did both Germany and the USSR undertake such deliberate efforts to destroy the states of the territories they occupied, and the political elites who had played roles in those states? Both Nazi and Soviet states sought to create absolute political dominion in the territories they controlled. This meant killing the “political elites” in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, … This motivation explains the Soviet atrocity of the massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish military officers at Katyn Forest in 1940; they sought to decapitate any possible Polish political alternative to Soviet rule in the portion of Poland they had occupied (Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth). And it meant destroying the civic and political institutions of these states. Both Nazi and Soviet murder machines were entirely ruthless in killing potential sources of political opposition. Mass killings of civil servants, mayors, governors, judges, and politically engaged citizens occurred, first by the Soviets and the NKVD and then by the Nazi occupiers.

Snyder offers the case of Denmark as support for this position. Denmark too was occupied by Nazi forces, and the Nazi regime was interested in destroying Danish Jews. However, he argues that the survival of its political institutions made extermination of Denmark’s Jews impossible. Snyder discusses the efforts of Rudolf Mildner, Gestapo chief in Denmark, in attempting to carry out genocide against Denmark’s Jews. “He was confronted in Copenhagen with institutions that had been abolished further east: a sovereign state, political parties with convictions and support, local civil society in various forms, a police force that could not be expected to cooperate” (216). And when that citizenship protection failed, Jews in Denmark were killed. “The Jews who were denied state protection in Denmark shared the fate of Jews who lacked state protection in Estonia or, for that matter, everywhere else: death” (217).

Snyder argues that the bureaucracies of a modern state work to protect the individuals and groups who fall within their scope. “Citizenship in modern states means access to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has the reputation of killing Jews; it would be closer to the truth to say that it was the removal of bureaucracy that killed Jews. So long as state sovereignty persisted, so did the limits and possibilities afforded by bureaucracy” (221).

This point is highly consequential for our reading of the nature of totalitarian murder. And in fact, Snyder believes that the centrality of “state smashing” in the Holocaust is the clue to preventing genocide in the future. We need to build and defend the institutions of law, judiciary, and citizenship; these institutions are the bulwark against horrifying atrocities in the future.

If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in this broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and opened the way to an unprecedented crime. 320

Mass killings generally take place during civil wars or regime changes. It was the deliberate policy of Nazi Germany to artificially create conditions of state destruction and then steer the consequences towards Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions produces more conventional disasters. 336

This concern by Snyder for the persistence of resilient institutions of state also helps explain the passion and seriousness he brings to his concerns about the degradation of the institutions of democracy that has occurred in the United States and Europe in the past decade (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century). It is not merely that we care about democracy; it is that the institutions of state are themselves the most important bulwark against atrocities directed against individuals and groups by the powerful. When Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, or Donald Trump work deliberately to undermine the judiciary, the institutions of voting, the citizenship rights of minority groups in Brazil, Hungary, or the US, these actions are not just undesirable in a generic sense. They are highly dangerous for the future. They leave the citizens of their states with diminishing protections against arbitrary power, violence, vilification, and sometimes murder.

Here are the closing lines of Black Earth:

Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity. That is not enough for its victims. No accumulation of good, no matter how vast, undoes an evil; no rescue of the future, no matter how successful, undoes a murder in the past. Perhaps it is true that to save one life is to save the world. But the converse is not true: saving the world does not restore a single lost life. The family tree of that boy in Vienna, like that of all of the Jewish children born and unborn, has been sheared at the roots: “I the root was once the flower / under these dim tons my bower / comes the shearing of the thread / death saw wailing overhead.” The evil that was done to the Jews—to each Jewish child, woman, and man—cannot be undone. Yet it can be recorded, and it can be understood. Indeed, it must be understood so that its like can be prevented in the future. That must be enough for us and for those who, let us hope, shall follow. 343

Snyder has made a very important contribution to how we understand the genocide of the Holocaust, and how we can best strive to prevent such moments in the future.

(Here is a powerful piece of memory in music and video, for the tragedy of Babi Yar; link.)

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