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Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic


Georg Pahl / Wikimedia

Understanding Hitlers Anti-Semitism

It wasnt about German nationalism, the historian Timothy Snyder argues. It was about
We noticed
the whole world.


that you have an




Edward Delman Sep 9, 2015

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The evocative title of Timothy Snyders new bookBlack Earth: The Holocaust as
History and Warningis a reference to the fertile soil of Ukraine, where Adolf Hitler
hoped to establish lebensraum, or living space, for the German race. And yet it could
also be seen as an allusion to what Snyder argues is the underappreciated importance
of ecology in Hitlers worldview. Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, is building
on his 2010 book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which highlighted the
devastation visited upon World War IIs often-ignored but hugely consequential Eastern
Front. But whereas Bloodlands examined Nazi and Soviet atrocities in Eastern Europe,
Black Earth travels inside the mind of Hitler himselfa mind from which sprang the
murder of 6 million Jews.
In Black Earth, Hitlers quest for lebensraum is placed in a

global context. Snyder, for example, asserts that Hitler was

inspired in part by the wide-open spaces of the American
West, quoting the German leader as complaining, Neither

s of Adolf Eichmann


the current living space nor that achieved through the

restoration of the borders of 1914 permits us to lead a life
comparable to that of the American people. The book

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focuses on the integral role that the state and its institutions
played in determining the effectiveness of Hitlers genocide. Where states were
destroyed, Jews were murdered; where the state remained intact, Jews could find some
protection in bureaucracies and passports. It was in the stateless regions of Eastern
Europe where the Nazis were able to experiment with and calibrate the Final Solution,
which they then tried to export back west.

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One of the most revelatory parts of the book is Snyders diagnosis of Hitlers warped
worldview. And its perhaps the most relevant today amid a fierce debate, in the pages of
The Atlantic and elsewhere, over whether Iranian leaders are anti-Semitic and whether
they can be counted on to conduct foreign policy rationally given their professed desire
to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. I think [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khameneis] ideology is steeped with anti-Semitism, and if he could, without catastrophic
costs, inflict great harm on Israel, Im confident that he would, U.S. President Barack
Obama told The Atlantics Jeffrey Goldberg in August, in defending the nuclear deal with
Iran. But it is possible for leaders or regimes to be cruel, bigoted, twisted in their
worldviews and still make rational calculations with respect to their limits and their selfpreservation.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia

Hitler is often depicted as the prototypical totalitariana man who believed in the[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

superiority of the German state, a German nationalist to the extreme. But according to
Snyder, this depiction is deeply flawed. Rather, Hitler was a racial anarchista man for
whom states were transitory, laws meaningless, ethics a facade. There is in fact no way
of thinking about the world, says Hitler, which allows us to see human beings as human
beings. Any idea which allows us to see each other as human beings come[s] from
Jews, Snyder told me in an interview. As Snyder sees it, Hitler believed the only way for
the world to revert to its natural orderthat of brutal racial competitionwas to eradicate
the Jews.
Last week, I spoke to Snyder at length about the nature and import of Hitlers ecological
anti-Semitism; the spectrum of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe during the 1930s and
1940s; the intersection between anti-Semitism and rationality, and whether the question
of rationality is even worth considering. An edited and condensed transcript of the
conversation follows.

Edward Delman: In your book, you offer a portrait of Hitler as a brilliant tactician, but
one who operated on the basis of a truly warped worldview based around racial struggle.
Just so we can lay the framework: What would you say were the basic principles of
Hitlers worldview, and what did that mean for how he viewed the idea of nation-states,
or ethics, and other universalist principles we assume as given?

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia


Timothy Snyder: So what Hitler does is he inverts; he reverses the whole way we
think about ethics, and for that matter the whole way we think about science. What Hitler
says is that abstract thoughtwhether its normative or whether its scientificis
inherently Jewish. There is in fact no way of thinking about the world, says Hitler, which
allows us to see human beings as human beings. Any idea which allows us to see each
other as human beingswhether its a social contract; whether its a legal contract;
whether its working-class solidarity; whether its Christianityall these ideas come from
Jews. And so for people to be people, for people to return to their essence, for them to
represent their race, as Hitler sees things, you have to strip away all those ideas. And
the only way to strip away all those ideas is to eradicate the Jews. And if you eradicate
the Jews, then the world snaps back into what Hitler sees as its primeval, correct state:
Races struggles against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try
and take land.
Delman: And thats a good world to Hitler?
Snyder: Yeah, thats the only good. Its a very dark, empty universe. I mean, thats how
Hitler describes it to himself. There are really no values in the world except for the stark
reality that we are born in order to take things from other people. And so Hitler sees the
only good thing as removing the Jews who pervert, as he says it, human nature and[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

physical nature.
Delman: And so thats what you mean when you
say that Hitler saw the Jews as an ecological or
planetary threatthat they were truly existentially

Hitler in the early 1920s


damaging the planet with their ideas and their

attempts to invert the natural order. You said that they were un-nature.
Snyder: Yeah, so unnatur is actually a term that Hitler uses, and I think its a really
telling term. I think it gets to the heart of the matter. When we think of anti-Semitism, we
start from the ground up, right? We think about everyday prejudice. We think about
discrimination. We think about the separation of Jews from other people.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia

What Im trying to do is start from the top down, and say that the fundamental issue is
not that Hitler was more of an anti-Semite than other people. Its not a matter of just
turning up the notches and getting up to a higher level of anti-Semitism. Its a whole
worldview, in the literal sense of the world. He sees the Jews as being the thing which
destroys the world, which infects the world. He uses the term pestilence in this sense
the Jews have infected the world. Theyve made the world not just impure in some kind
of metaphorical sensehe really means it. And so the only way to purify the worldto
make things go back to the way theyre supposed to be, to have a natural ecology, to go
back to this struggle between races, which Hitler thinks is naturalthe only way to do
that is to physically eliminate the Jews.
Delman: How did you arrive at this analysis of Hitler? Are you building upon prior
scholarly literature to form this diagnosis? Or are you working off of new sources?
Snyder: It started with an intuition, which was actually present in my earlier book, in
Bloodlands: that ecology was much more central to Hitlers thinking than we had
realized. And that was just an intuition from practice, from looking at what Hitler actually
did. And another intuition, which was that the destruction of the state was very important.
In practice, as I argue in the book, Jews die where states are destroyed.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia


So those were intuitions, but then I went back and reread [Hitlers manifesto] Mein
Kampf, and reread the second book, and read all the major Hitler primary sources, and I
was really astonished at how clearly these ideas came outthat, in fact, Hitlers quite
explicitly an ecological thinker, that the planetary level is the most important level. This is
something that he says right from the beginning of Mein Kampf, all the way through. And
likewise, I was struck that Hitler explicitly said that states are temporary, state borders
will be washed away in the struggle for nature. In other words, the anarchy that he
creates was actually there in the theory from the beginning. He says from the very
beginning, what we have to do is destroy the Jews; strip away the artificial political[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

creations that the Jews are responsible for; and let nature just take its course. And what
he means by natures course is [that] the stronger races destroy the weaker races.

Hitler saw the only good thing as removing the Jews who pervert, as he
said it, human nature and physical nature.

Delman: We all think of Hitler as the prototypical nationalist, and being one who utilized
nationalism and was a fervent nationalist in his own right, but according to you, Hitler
doesnt believe in the state as an institution. He thinks its an abstraction, possibly even a
Jewish invention. He only believes in the race. So, in your view, what was Hitlers
relationship with the German nation-state?
Snyder: [I]f we think that Hitler was just a nationalist, but more so, or just an
authoritarian, but more so, were missing the capacity for evil completely. If Hitler had
just been a German nationalist who wanted to rule over Germansif he was just an
authoritarian who wanted to have a strong statethe Holocaust could not have
happened. The Holocaust could happen because he was neither of those things. He
wasnt really a nationalist. He was a kind of racial anarchist who thought that the only
good in the world was for races to compete, and so he thought that the Germans would
probably win in a racial competition, but he wasnt sure. And as far as he was
concerned, if the Germans lost, that was also alright. And thats just not a view that a
nationalist can hold. I think a nationalist cannot sacrifice his entire people on the altar of
the idea that there has to be racial competition, which is what Hitler did, and thats what
made him different from a Romanian nationalist, or a Hungarian nationalist, or what have
you. At the end of the war, Hitler said, Well the Germans lost, that just shows the
Russians are stronger. So be it. Thats the verdict of nature. I dont think a nationalist
would say that.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia

And with the state, if anything thats even more important. Hitler doesnt so much make
the German state stronger as prepare the German state to be an instrument for
destroying other states, which is what the SS [Nazi paramilitary organization] does, and
what the concentration camps are models for. And insofar as German power reaches
outward, beginning in 1938, and destroys Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and
then tries to destroy the Soviet Union, it creates a zone where the escalation of the Final
Solution is possible. And again, thats only possiblekilling Jews is only possible
because states are destroyed. And the idea in the end, which is not true of course, [is
that] this racial struggle is going to eventually transform the German race until therell be
some kind of final revolution at the end. That of course never happens.
Delman: In your view, Hitlers anti-Semitism and beliefs were all completely genuine?
They werent a cynical ploy to play off of popular frustrations and consolidate power?
Snyder: Its the other way around. So, Hitler uses popular frustrations to come to
power. He uses the Great Depression to come to power. He presents himself precisely
as a German nationalist who is going to get the German economy going, who is going to
bring Germans inside the borders of Germany. Thats how he presents himself, but that
is a lie. Hes quite consciously manipulating German national sentiment to get to power
and then to start the war, which he thinks will transform the Germans, as it were, from a[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

nation into a race. So hes aware that German nationalism is a force in the world, but
hes just using it in order to create the world that he wants, which is this world of racial
struggle. And hes actually pretty explicit about that, which is pretty striking. So he knows
that the Germans care about Germany, but he doesnt. He actually just wants to
manipulate their attachment to Germanyto toss them out into this struggle, which will
purify them and so on.
Einsatzgruppen murdering Jews in Ukraine, 1942 (Wikimedia)
Delman: You have this leader of a major power. Hes a racial anarchisthe doesnt
believe in the validity of states, or laws, or ethics, or even history, and claims them as
either Jewish lies or abstractions that get in the way of the law of the jungle, as you put
it and as he put it. In your view, could a leader who thinks this way ever be rational?
Could they understand cause-and-effect and cost-and-benefit?

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia


Gl b l
Snyder: Its certain at a tactical level that he was quite rational, because he was able
to say, My goal is coming to power and starting this war, and then he was able to do
things rationally to attain that goal, including tamping down the expression of his own
views. So clearly he was politically rational, or he was means-ends rational. Whether he
could see the world in an entirely rational waythere I would say no.
But the problem is that you dont have to see the world rationally to be very powerful,
and in fact certain kinds of circular ways of seeing the world, like anti-Semitism, can
inform you day to day. They can keep you goingthey can bring in the population
even though theyre not really true. You can create what Hannah Arendt talks about, a
fictional worldwe use the phrase today alternative reality to mean the same thing.
You can create this fictional world in which you live, and which guides you and which
allows you to move forward. In fact, it can even be a source of your success. So in
December of 41, when Hitler faces this unbeatable alliance basically of the British, the
Americans, and the Soviets, he interprets that as the Jewish international conspiracy,
which of course it wasntthe Jews had nothing to do with that whatsoever. But he
interprets it that way, and he says, Ah-hah! This is what Ive always said, that all the
world powers are controlled by the Jews, therefore theyre lining up against us, and then
that becomes an argument for escalating the Final Solution. So the fictional world
provides arguments that you then use to change the real world, because its at that point
that the Final Solution becomes a total policy of killing all throughout Europe.

If we think that Hitler was just a nationalist, but more so, or just an
authoritarian, but more so, were missing the capacity for evil completely.

Delman: [Hitlers] actions during those first six years [before he invaded Poland]he
put in place the Nuremberg Laws and other discriminatory acts, but he also, as you said,[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

worked to build up the German state. Youre saying that those domestic and foreign
policies were all part of this strategy to prepare the German state for this war that would
then lead to racial struggle?
Snyder: What Im trying to suggest in this book is that Hitler, [Hitlers deputy
Heinrich] Himmlerthey werent really thinking only about transforming Germany. They
were mainly thinking about the future revolution, which would be possible once the war
got started. And if you look at the 30s in that light, then everything starts to make a lot
more sense. The huge Wehrmacht [German army] makes sense as an instrument to
destroy other armies. The SS makes sense as an instrument to destroy other states.
Concentration camps make sense as a model for how youre going to rule other states
once youve gotten rid of their institutions and declared those institutions never existed
and never had any validity.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia

So as I see it, its not so much that Hitler built up the German state in a conventional
sense. He built up this new capacity to impose a racial worldview on other countries. And
the paradox is that he couldnt really do it in Germany. I mean, what happened to
German Jews was dreadful, but German Jews were not actually killed in significant
numbers in prewar Germany. The total is a couple hundred. Jews could only really be
killed once Hitler got himself out of the box of Germany and used this German racial
power that he created over the six years to wipe out other states. Its at that point that all
kinds of things are possible in those other states. But also, you can then send German
Jews east, to places like Minsk or Riga where youve wiped out the political order, and
have them be killed there. Thats one of these things that I think Holocaust historians
have to explain. Sure, there was lots of anti-Semitism in, for example, Vienna, but the
Jews of Vienna were murdered in Belarus. Why is that? And the answer is that the
German state couldnt actually murder them inside Germanynot in very large numbers.
To carry out mass killing, it had to first create this zone of anarchy out in the east and
then physically take the Jews and send them out there.
Delman: You mention that Nazi Germany was not the only anti-Semitic regime in
power at the timePoland, Hungary, and Romania were all governed by anti-Semitic
regimes. How did Polish official anti-Semitism, for example, differ from Hitlers, and how
did that affect their decision-making and policies?

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia


Gl b l
Snyder: So in the Nazi case, you have a leader who is much more radical than his
population, right? Hitlers goal is to spread anti-Semitism within the German population,
and he succeeds in doing that, but he comes to power much more radical than the
population, and he comes to power in part by concealing just how anti-Semitic he is.
In Poland, you have something like the opposite situation. The government is less[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

anti-Semitic than the population, and for the government anti-Semitism is a kind of
problemand its a problem at a time of the Great Depression, lets not forget, when
rural unemployment in Poland was higher than 50 percent and lots of people in Poland
actually wanted to leave. Not just Poles, not just Jews, but actually mainly Polish
peasants, but [they] couldnt because the world immigration was such, U.S. laws were
such, that no one could actually go anywhere. And, of course, Jews couldnt go to
Palestine either. So everyone was stuck where they were. And the Polish government
tries to handle this problemthat no one can immigrate and that theres quite
considerable local anti-Semitismby this pro-Zionist policy, by supporting right-wing
Zionists, by training them, so that they can work against the British in Palestine with the
goal of creating some kind of Jewish state, so that in the fairly short run millions of Polish
Jews can go there.
Now, I think thats interesting in and of itself, but the contrast with Germany has to do
with the state. The Nazis are thinking that the state is not really an entityonce we get
our way were going to wipe them out. The Poles are thinking in terms of states. This
isnt to say that they were good or whatever[just that] they were thinking much more
conventionally. They were thinking, OK, if there are Jews, then one way to solve the
problemthey also saw it as a problemis to create a state for them in Palestine, or
help them create a state in Palestine.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia

So it shows how anti-Semitism itself is not a sufficient description [of the Nazi
worldview], because there was plenty of anti-Semitism in Poland, but what there wasnt
was this anarchy. The Nazis had this ecological vision, this anarchic vision, which the
Polish just did not have, and it was not very widespread in the Polish population either.
And you can see this precisely on the question of Israel, because the Nazis are against
Israel on the grounds that it will become some kind of center of Jewish world power,
whereas the Poles are enthusiastically in favor of Israel because they think that building
states is a perfectly normal thing to do.
Children behind barbed wire in Auschwitz, 1945 (AP)
Delman: As the books [subtitle] is Holocaust as history and warning, how would you
say that Hitlers beliefs about Jewish power square with contemporary anti-Semitism?
Has the world really moved that far from believing that Jews, or Jewish entities, control
the world?
Snyder: Look, Im not a sociologistyou cant count on me to tell you what people
think. But my general sense is this: Anti-Semitism of the Hitlerian kindwhere you use
the Jews to explain the whole planetthat is more resonant at times of, lets call it,
globalization crisis. And I see the period of 1914 to 1941 as globalization crisis. And
what I worry about is that we are to some extent repeating this.
There was a first globalization that starts in the 1870s. Things seem to be going pretty
wellyou know, Victorian theories of progress and so on, lots of global commerce, Suez
Canal, Panama Canal. All these things which seem to be building one world. And then
bangtheres the First World War, and then the 1920s and 30s, the Second World War,
and the Holocaust. And you can see the Holocaust as the low point, the nadir, the final
collapse of globalization, because globalization depends upon the idea that, Hey were
all human, lets trade things, lets trade ideas, whereas Hitlerian anti-Semitism has the
idea that, in fact, some of us arent human and anything thats going wrong in the world[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

can be explained in reference to these unnatural beings.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia


Gl b l
I worry a little bit now about, just very generally, that with the financial crisis; with the
instability in the Middle East; with the Chinese economy tanking; with Russia breaking all
the rules in Europe; and with people in Russia, in Europe, in North Africa more freely
expressing anti-Semitic viewsI worry a bit that we are tilting towards some kind of antiglobalization where the Jews, or somebody else, could become the explanation for why
things are going wrong.
Delman: You make the point in the book that at some point during the war, Hitler
realizes that hes not winning the colonial aspect of the warthe object to conquer
Ukraine and Eastern Europe and create lebensraumbut he can still possibly be
victorious in the second objective, which was to exterminate the Jews. [Whats your
sense of] how much Hitler could really separate his worldview from his grand strategy
and his day-to-day decisions?
Snyder: This gets back to the disturbing fact that a worldview can lead you to
successful actions even if the worldview is completely unreal. So, Hitler invades the
Soviet Union, partly on the logic that the Soviet Union is a Jewish state, and therefore it
will collapse on the first blow.
So whats worldview there and whats strategy? Its impossible to separate. I mean, the
[German] invasion of the Soviet Union is extremely well-planned. Its very effective as
these things go. Its the largest assembly of men for an offensive operation in the history
of the world. They cover a lot of territory very quickly. You cant say it was bad tactics,
but it was based on this ideological assumption that the Soviet Union is Jewish, because
communism is Jewish, and therefore its going to fall apart immediately, and the Slavs
will be very happy to be our slaves. Thats not true, but it doesnt prevent the war from
starting, and then when the war doesnt go as well as [Hitler] thinks its going to go, he
can then make the move of saying, Well if the Soviet Union didnt collapse, its because
of Jews beyond the Soviet Union in the rest of the world. The rest of the conspiracy
around the world is supporting them and propping them up, and therefore we have to
expand our war against the Jews.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia

So the worldview comes in and helps you when the real world isnt doing what you say
its going to do, and you can just go back and forth and do this until youve killed tens of
millions of people. Thats the tragic aspect of it.

Theres a difference between a leader who sees the Jews as the hinge to an
entire worldview, and a leader who is massively anti-Semitic but at the[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

end of the day also cares about his own people and accepts that the world
order involves states.

Delman: Do you think this question of whether a country or leader is rational is relevant
or important?
Snyder: I would put it in a slightly different way. I would say, is a leader concerned
primarily with transforming the world so that some other logic can take over? Thats what
Hitler was like. Its not that Hitler was rational or irrational. You can say both things. Its
that his primary concern was unleashing some kind of correct world order which was just
lurking beneath the surface. The right way to think about Hitler is that he thought there
was a natural order, and you just had to do a few things to unleash it. You had to kill the
Jews, you had to get the Germans into the war, and then you would return to the
struggle, which was nature. And that was the only thing for Hitler which was good.
Thats one model of leader. And thats not just anti-Semitism; thats not just antiSemitism-plus. Its seeing the Jews as the essence of the world, and seeing everything
else as being secondary. You can have leaders like [Ion] Antonescu in Romania, who
are unquestionably anti-Semitic; who hold a good deal of prejudices about Jewslike,
for example, that theyre the communistsand who even carry out policies of killing
Jews. The Romanians, after the Germans killed the most Jews during the war, they
killed 300,000. And yet, for Antonescu, thats not the only thing he cares about. He
doesnt really think that the Jews are the only thing that matters in the world or that
theyre the Gordian knot you have to cut to allow the world to return to its proper state.
He doesnt think something like that, which means that even after killing 300,000 Jews,
he can reverse the policy. He can stop the Romanian holocaust, and he can not only
refuse to send Romanian Jews to the German death facilities, but he can reverse the
policy so that he actually starts protecting Romanian Jews and seeing them as citizens.
Thats different, right? There you have a leader whos clearly anti-Semitic, but who also
cares about the statewhos not fundamentally concerned about changing the whole
world, but whose fundamental concern is about preserving the state.

Georg Pahl / Wikimedia

And so looking at [Hitler and Antonescu] in 1938, it may have been difficult to tell the
difference. And when they both invade the Soviet Union together in 1941, rightthe
Romanian army is massively present in the Soviet Unionit might be difficult to tell the
difference. When theyre both killing Jews in the fall of 1941 in comparable numbers, in
comparable ways, its hard to tell the difference. And so its a very difficult question of
political judgment. But with the distance of history, we can say there was a difference.
Theres a difference between a leader who sees the Jews as the hinge to an entire
worldview, and a leader who is massively anti-Semitic[who] wants to ethnically[15-09-2015 12:10:14]

Timothy Snyder's 'Black Earth' Offers a New Theory of Hitler's Anti-Semitism - The Atlantic

cleanse Jewsbut at the end of the day also cares about his own people and accepts
that the world order involves states. So thats not a kind of political judgment Im going to
issue in the case of Iran or anything, but its a distinction that maybe we can draw from
this history.


About the Author

EDWARD DELMAN is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic .

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