By Andrea Ouyang
“When we think and talk and read and write about the Holocaust today, it’s very much a matter of seeking survivors, finding survivors,” said Timothy Snyder, Bird White Housum Professor of History and Eastern Europe. “I worry that when we treat the Holocaust as a matter of remembering rather than a matter of history, we give ourselves answers that are too easy.”
On Tuesday evening at Horchow Hall, Snyder presented an unconventional take on the Holocaust, expounding on ideas summarized in his recently published book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder’s reinterpretation of the Holocaust, which defines Hitler’s worldview as ecological in nature and links state destruction, rather than state-organized bureaucracy, to the systematic slaughter of the Jews, has garnered praise and controversy alike. The event, a collaboration among the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, the International History Workshop, and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, well reflected the structure of the presentation, which historically reinterpreted the nature of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the relationship the Holocaust had with international history, and how they apply to modern global affairs.
Snyder delivered a compelling argument for re-examining the nature of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. The significance of Hitler’s focus on Jews was not only a difference in degree, he argues, but also a difference in the quality of anti-Semitism he fostered. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was effective, Snyder argues, because it was a “planetary, ecological” anti-Semitism, centering on competition among the different races for food, space, and other resources. In this context, for example, Hitler’s Lebensraum was a policy that promoted a struggle among the races to survive as well as an insatiable desire for more land and resources to fuel a higher standard of living. Any concept of human reciprocity, technology, or anything that allowed humans to exit the resource struggle, Hitler saw as unnatural, and attributed to the Jews, whom he saw as an obstacle in the way of the racial struggle.
Snyder further argued that state destruction was the primary cause that allowed the Nazis to slaughter Jews on such an inconceivably large scale during the Holocaust. Studying the Holocaust on an international scale, he pointed out a pattern that the German occupying forces were most effective at killing Jews in areas where the Soviet Union had already very efficiently destroyed the occupied state and its existing political structures. Concentration camps, he noted, were legally defined only as a zone without law. Where the state had largely remained intact, however, Jews were afforded some protection if they had the state’s legal recognition, since Germans were far less likely to kill those recognized by their own countries as citizens.
“How interesting it is that the passport can stop the bullet,” said Snyder. In the same vein, state bureaucracy could not kill the Jews directly; rather, it was forced to send them to stateless areas, bureaucracy-free zones, in order to do so. Snyder’s unconventional take on the Holocaust and its causes drew a large crowd to Horchow Hall.
Those who gathered there were largely fascinated by Snyder’s willingness to take on old narratives and infuse them with new meaning. Roa Harb, a physician at the Yale School of Medicine, had read Black Earth, and was impressed with the interpretation Snyder had presented.
“What I found interesting and compelling was what what he said about passports being able to stop bullets,” Harb said. She found the data in Snyder’s book correlating the statehood of a region with the percentage of Jews who survived the Holocaust particularly powerful.
Pauline Marcou, who is European, was also drawn to the novelty of Snyder’s views.
“The way we know about [the Holocaust] is in a very orthodox sense, as a part of history taught in a dense way,” she said, adding that Snyder’s way of viewing the Holocaust was very different from the traditional interpretations taught in Europe.
Regardless of whether his interpretations are correct, Snyder’s mission to reinterpret the Holocaust is also a reinvention of its significance to us. He worries about ethics or identity as the sole lessons learned, and believes that we are not yet focused on learning how to prevent history’s repetition. By focusing on the concrete, global concepts that were in play during the Holocaust, we empower ourselves with the lessons we may learn, and perhaps apply, today. The horrific price we paid for these lessons makes discovering them, and understanding them, all the more imperative.
Andrea Ouyang is a freshman in Davenport College. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org