Do states cause genocide, or does the absence of states? Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues in his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning that we have misunderstood the Holocaust by focusing exclusively on the reach of the Nazi state, rather than on the conditions it created in the territories it occupied, which in turn enabled the mass murder of European Jews to take place.
Hitler is conventionally depicted as a German nationalist par excellence, but according to Snyder, this is misguided, as the dictator did not believe in nations, or states, but only in races. Like animal species, he purported, the races had to fight each other in order to survive. What prevented them from doing so were laws and ethics – unsurprisingly, Hitler believed these to be the work of Jews. The state and its institutions were therefore a Jewish invention to prevent humans from acting on their racial impulses. Jews propounded reason, universal ethics and the rule of law, in order to prevent other races from identifying them as a parasitical non-race and thus destroying them. In order to get rid of the Jews, therefore, the state first had to be disbanded.
Snyder's reinterpretation of the Holocaust's intellectual origins has a compelling logic, but it overlooks important details. If Hitler was truly uninterested in Germany, why did he evoke it so often in his speeches? Was this merely a rhetorical device aimed at ordinary Germans who did not understand the 'science' of race? Or is it possible that Hitler actually believed in the idea of Germany, and that, for him, race and nation coincided more than Snyder suggests? The choice is not either or: Hitler was indeed a 'zoological anarchist' (p. 241), but he was also a German nationalist.
Furthermore, it will be difficult for a reader uninitiated in the history of racial science even to understand Snyder's depiction of Hitler since he provides no background to Hitler's worldview. Without this, it is difficult to understand why, for example, Hitler saw the Jews as a 'planetary threat' (p. 75) that needed to be eliminated in order for mankind as a whole to survive. Such ideas did not emerge fully-formed out of a vacuum; rather, Hitler built on decades of antisemitic and 'scientific' racist writings by the likes of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Paul de Lagarde, Alfred Ploetz, and others. While Snyder does not need to provide a thorough discussion of Hitler's intellectual inheritance, failing to mention it at all weakens one of the central tenets of his overall argument (that Hitler believed in race above all else), since there is no explanation of how this came to be.
The second part of Snyder's thesis – that the mass murder of the Jews was implemented most effectively in areas where the state had ceased to exist – is more convincing. Snyder demonstrates how the Holocaust began in territories that had experienced 'double state destruction' – first by the Soviets in 1939, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the German invasion of Poland, and then by the Nazis after their invasion of the Soviet Union: in particular, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and the eastern half of Poland (pp. 116-118).
Survival rates varied widely depending on whether Jews lived in a country where the state had been destroyed or not. As Snyder points out, almost all of the Jews who lived in Estonia at the time of the German invasion were killed, while in Denmark, the situation was the reverse. Antisemitism, Snyder maintains, had very little to do with this disparity. Local collaboration did exist, particularly in the case of Estonia, but this was motivated primarily by what Snyder calls 'double collaboration' – those who had collaborated with the communists but then switched sides quickly and fervently after the German invasion in order to clear their names (p. 214). However, Snyder's primary explanation for the disparity in survival rates lies in the degree to which state authority was preserved after the German invasion. Estonia was a classic case of 'double state destruction', since it was granted to the Soviet Union by Germany in September 1939, and then reoccupied by the Germans in July 1941. In Denmark, by contrast, the state remained intact. As such, important elements of sovereignty were maintained, and thus the Danish government had some say over the fate of its Jewish citizens (pp. 212-217).
Elsewhere, however, Snyder pushes his 'statelessness' argument too far. Despite the importance of local initiative and improvisation, the Holocaust was ultimately carried out at the behest of the Nazi state. And, as a considerable body of research has shown, German administrators in occupied eastern Europe created highly specialized legislative frameworks which facilitated an efficient, institutionalized persecution and murder process in the territories under their control. Moreover, in his efforts to point out that the vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust 'lived beyond Germany' (p. xii), Snyder almost overlooks the fact that German Jews resided in a sovereign state but were also murdered. He comes close to implying that Anne Frank was only deported because 'in fleeing to the Netherlands she lost even the residual state membership available to her under the Nuremberg Laws' (p. 221). Yet no serious historian would maintain that Anne Frank would have survived had she stayed in Germany.
The book loses some of its interpretive power in the final chapters, which offer little more than a collection of stories of rescue and survival in the Holocaust. These appear to have been included due to the role of states in both cases – diplomats who secured transit visas for Jews, for example, or Jews who survived only by allying themselves with Soviet partisans (pp. 257-259, pp. 280-281). The conclusion, which mounts a robust defence of the state in an age of renewed global uncertainty, is stimulating, but doesn't fit with the rest of the book's analytical tone. Quite simply, Snyder should have published this chapter elsewhere. Not least because he strays far from the historian's remit by making strange speculative predictions. We hear, for example, that the United Arab Emirates and South Korea 'have tried to control large swathes of Sudan' and that, faced with resource shortages, China 'will perhaps find the ideas that seem to justify the impoverishment and death of Africans and Russians' (p. 329, p. 331). No evidence is provided for either of these claims.
Black Earth is a prime example of 'blockbuster' academic history: bristling with big ideas, moral authority and emphasizing its relevance to the present. Snyder predicts that, while the 'precise combination of ideology and circumstance' which enabled the Holocaust will not appear again, 'something like it might' (p. xiii). The book is smoothly and engagingly written, but it isn't genuinely ground-breaking: for the most part, it's a compendium of ideas that have appeared elsewhere (the work of another American historian of eastern Europe, David Engel, comes frequently to mind). Yet it is one of the most thought-provoking of the many books on the Holocaust which have appeared in recent years. Just as its predecessor Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Black Earth is likely to be at the centre of historical debates on the topic for a good few years. For this reason alone, scholars and students of the Holocaust will find it worth reading.
 See, for example, the chapters on 'Wartheland', 'Zichenau' and 'East Upper Silesia' in: Wolf Gruner and Jörg Osterloh (eds.), The Greater German Reich and the Jews: Nazi Persecution Policies in the Annexed Territories, 1935–1945, trans. by Bernard Heise (Oxford: Berghahn, 2015).