In his new book Black Earth, Timothy Snyder, the Yale history professor familiar to the Estonian reader thanks to his books Bloodlands and The Red Prince, turns his attention to the Holocaust—a subject that is still hot in Estonia and elsewhere, and which some have been trying to erase from history.
It seems that everything has been written about the Holocaust. Yet this is not the case. Snyder said in an interview with the Estonian culture weekly Sirp (30 October 2015) that
It is not that we have too much literature about the Holocaust; the problem is that too much attention is paid to culture, memory and identity issues when discussing the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not a question of identity. It is the way of interpreting the Holocaust that is important when speaking about it.
Snyder digs deep in writing about the Holocaust. I have encountered very few descriptions of how the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler thought. But in Snyder’s treatment Hitler’s mindset turns out to be very important in understanding the Holocaust.
According to Snyder, Hitler was not a radical nationalist. Such categories were to be discarded in the case of the Führer. Hitler saw the world as the arena for a contest of races, where the Jews were the most dangerous since they had no land to hold on to or represent. The Jews represented ideas and values, and infected others with them. They hindered the natural battle of the races. It was therefore the only solution to destroy the Jews alone, so that the world could return to its normal condition, where the strongest would win. For Hitler, the German people were the strongest, but the defeat that started to become evident in 1945 caused him to give up on his wager on the German nation as well.
In principle, Snyder’s description of Hitler’s views thoroughly answers some questions that have been asked about the Holocaust. For example, why did the Germans continue to direct resources into operating death camps and the trains that went there while those resources were needed to fend off the enemy?
Being unfamiliar with Hitler’s views also gives rise to other conclusions. There probably was no chance of Western politicians understanding Hitler and thereby preventing World War II. It was perhaps Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, who saw the world as a great battleground, that came closest to comprehending Hitler. But we can argue that the inability to understand Hitler even during the war caused the deaths of millions, since the Allies did not bomb death camps but targeted cities or military objectives. Naturally, this is only speculation, but the knowledge that his project to exterminate the Jews had failed because the death camps had been destroyed might have stopped Hitler sooner.
Back to Snyder. The book is certainly a painful text for Estonian readers, as Snyder specifically compares Estonia to Denmark. He proceeds from the thesis that it was easiest to accomplish the Holocaust in areas that had faced double occupation (first by the Soviet Union and then by Germany) that eradicated the structures of the occupied states, and thus destroyed the protection against the Germans’ arbitrary exercise of authority.
Indeed, Snyder’s argument seems highly plausible at first sight—Denmark preserved its state structures during the German occupation and, essentially, did not hand a single Jew over to the Germans. Estonia, however, was “Jew-free” by 1942. The reason was that its state structures had been destroyed. Snyder believes that pre-war policies related to the Jews (such as whether or not antisemitism occurred frequently) are irrelevant. All of it became unimportant with the double occupation.
Moreover, Snyder writes that the organisation of the Holocaust was simplified in Estonia and the other Baltic States by people who had collaborated with communists in 1940 and wished to hide their wrongdoings and blame the Jews for everything thereafter. Snyder highlights the example of Ain-Ervin Mere, who worked initially for the NKVD and then for the Estonian Security Police. The latter institution was the main eradicator of Jews in Estonia.
At this point, it seems that cracks begin to form in Snyder’s argument. If we conclude that this was a mass phenomenon on the basis of Mere’s behaviour (Ervin Viks and Aleksander Viidik are also mentioned), it still might not be true. We could equally well conclude, using the example of Uku Masing, that all Estonians hid Jews during the war. Not everyone who turned communist in 1940 started collaborating with the Germans—some of them fled to the Soviet Union, some were shot and some simply stayed in the middle.
The passages on Estonia in Snyder’s book are mainly based on Anton Weiss-Wendt’s book Murder Without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust. Weiss-Wendt thinks that two types of circumstance coincided in Estonia upon the destruction of Jews. First, the Germans had learnt to manage the killing of Jews more efficiently on the basis of their experiences in Lithuania and Latvia, and paramilitary units (like the Arajs Kommando in Latvia) were therefore not used to murder Estonian Jews; instead, their liquidation was organised systematically, primarily through the Security Police. Second, the Estonians supposedly helped to kill the Jews because they hoped to get their state back. Estonians were first and foremost shocked by the loss of statehood; all other emotions, including the fate of the Jews, were secondary. The fact that Estonians collaborated with the Germans also meant that the German occupation was lenient compared to conditions elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
We can think what we like about Weiss-Wendt’s book but it is a fact that Western historians have used it repeatedly in writing the history of World War II. Maybe we need alternative treatments on what happened during the German occupation. If there was an alternative, would Snyder have used the Estonian example in his argument?
But Snyder’s hypothesis—that the Holocaust was possible in areas that endured double occupation, and not possible elsewhere if state structures stayed intact—is also too powerful to abandon. After all, isn’t such a generalisation exaggerated? For example, the Netherlands is second only to Poland in terms of the number of Jews sent to death camps; and Holland was only occupied by Germany. However, the loss of state structures undoubtedly played a role—the Germans simply did not have anyone to negotiate with, and Hitler’s declaration that the Eastern Front meant a new kind of war with no rules changed the general context in comparison to Western Europe.
However, those who think that Snyder’s book again supports the claim that Estonia was a Nazi-minded state through and through, where people try to bring national socialism back to life to this day, must now be disappointed (or consider that there are complications). Snyder also describes the German occupation in Russia, for example in Kaluga, where an Orthodox priest went to live in an abandoned Jewish house.
Snyder has used the skill set of a historian to write about the Holocaust as a historical event but he has also added a contemporary, or rather, future dimension—a warning—to its historical one. Generally speaking, the most intriguing part of the book is the conclusion, drawn for the benefit of the future. The Economist has already criticised Snyder’s conclusions.1 Global warming cannot be seriously compared to Hitler’s brutal environmental thinking, or Nazi propaganda juxtaposed with conspiracy theories about Israel being responsible for all the Middle East’s woes currently spreading in Muslim countries. There were conspiracy theories long before Hitler, as The Economist notes.
However, The Economist fails to mention the most important thing—Snyder concludes that everyone might behave like the Nazis or their collaborators during the Holocaust. It is not valid to claim that we are somehow morally better because we simply cannot imagine the circumstances in which people had to live during the Holocaust. Hiding a Jew was a crime punishable by execution. Are you really sure you would do the right thing in such times?
The great value of Snyder’s book lies in that he does not offer a detailed description of the horrors of the Holocaust—this can be found in other books and films—but writes about the heroes among ordinary people who saved Jews. They really were common people; it is a mystery of the 20th century that the people responsible for killing Jews often held doctorates, while some of those who saved them had only attended school for a couple of years. According to Snyder’s epilogue, comprehending the Holocaust is perhaps our last chance to remain human. Indeed.