The evocative title of Timothy Snyder’s new book—Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning—is 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 Hitler’s 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 II’s 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 himself—a mind from which sprang the murder of 6 million Jews.
In Black Earth, Hitler’s 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 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 focuses on the integral role that the state and its institutions played in determining the effectiveness of Hitler’s 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.
One of the most revelatory parts of the book is Snyder’s diagnosis of Hitler’s warped worldview. And it’s 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 Khamenei’s] ideology is steeped with anti-Semitism, and if he could, without catastrophic costs, inflict great harm on Israel, I’m confident that he would,” U.S. President Barack Obama told The Atlantic’s 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 self-preservation.”
Hitler is often depicted as the prototypical totalitarian—a man who believed in the 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 anarchist”—a 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 order—that of brutal racial competition—was to eradicate the Jews.
Last week, I spoke to Snyder at length about the nature and import of Hitler’s 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 Hitler’s 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?
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 thought—whether it’s normative or whether it’s scientific—is 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 beings—whether it’s a social contract; whether it’s a legal contract; whether it’s working-class solidarity; whether it’s Christianity—all 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 that’s a good world to Hitler?
Snyder: Yeah, that’s the only good. It’s a very dark, empty universe. I mean, that’s 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 physical nature.
Delman: And so that’s what you mean when you say that Hitler saw the Jews as an ecological or planetary threat—that they were truly existentially 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 it’s 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.
What I’m 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. It’s not a matter of just turning up the notches and getting up to a higher level of anti-Semitism. It’s 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. They’ve made the world not just impure in some kind of metaphorical sense—he really means it. And so the only way to purify the world—to make things go back to the way they’re supposed to be, to have a natural ecology, to go back to this struggle between races, which Hitler thinks is natural—the 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 Hitler’s 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.
So those were intuitions, but then I went back and reread [Hitler’s 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 out—that, in fact, Hitler’s 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 creations that the Jews are responsible for; and let nature just take its course. And what he means by nature’s course is [that] the stronger races destroy the weaker races. …
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 doesn’t believe in the state as an institution. He thinks it’s an abstraction, possibly even a Jewish invention. He only believes in the race. So, in your view, what was Hitler’s 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, we’re missing the capacity for evil completely. If Hitler had just been a German nationalist who wanted to rule over Germans—if he was just an authoritarian who wanted to have a strong state—the Holocaust could not have happened. The Holocaust could happen because he was neither of those things. He wasn’t 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 wasn’t sure. And as far as he was concerned, if the Germans lost, that was also alright. And that’s 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 that’s 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. That’s the verdict of nature.’ I don’t think a nationalist would say that.
And with the state, if anything that’s even more important. Hitler doesn’t 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, that’s only possible—killing 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 there’ll be some kind of final revolution at the end. That of course never happens.
Delman: In your view, Hitler’s anti-Semitism and beliefs were all completely genuine? They weren’t a cynical ploy to play off of popular frustrations and consolidate power?
Snyder: It’s 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. That’s how he presents himself, but that is a lie. He’s 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 nation into a race. So he’s aware that German nationalism is a force in the world, but he’s just using it in order to create the world that he wants, which is this world of racial struggle. And he’s actually pretty explicit about that, which is pretty striking. So he knows that the Germans care about Germany, but he doesn’t. He actually just wants to manipulate their attachment to Germany—to toss them out into this struggle, which will purify them and so on.
Delman: You have this leader of a major power. He’s a racial anarchist—he doesn’t 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?
Snyder: … It’s 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 way—there I would say no.
But the problem is that you don’t 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 going—they can bring in the population—even though they’re not really true. You can create what Hannah Arendt talks about, “a fictional world”—we 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 wasn’t—the Jews had nothing to do with that whatsoever. But he interprets it that way, and he says, ‘Ah-hah! This is what I’ve always said, that all the world powers are controlled by the Jews, therefore they’re 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 it’s at that point that the Final Solution becomes a total policy of killing all throughout Europe.
Delman: [Hitler’s] 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, worked to build up the German state. You’re 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 I’m trying to suggest in this book is that Hitler, [Hitler’s deputy Heinrich] Himmler—they weren’t 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 you’re going to rule other states once you’ve gotten rid of their institutions and declared those institutions never existed and never had any validity.
So as I see it, it’s 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 couldn’t 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. It’s 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 you’ve wiped out the political order, and have them be killed there. That’s 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 couldn’t actually murder them inside Germany—not 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 time—Poland, Hungary, and Romania were all governed by anti-Semitic regimes. How did Polish official anti-Semitism, for example, differ from Hitler’s, and how did that affect their decision-making and policies?
Snyder: So in the Nazi case, you have a leader who is much more radical than his population, right? Hitler’s 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 anti-Semitic than the population, and for the government anti-Semitism is a kind of problem—and it’s a problem at a time of the Great Depression, let’s 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] couldn’t because the world immigration was such, U.S. laws were such, that no one could actually go anywhere. And, of course, Jews couldn’t go to Palestine either. So everyone was stuck where they were. And the Polish government tries to handle this problem—that no one can immigrate and that there’s quite considerable local anti-Semitism—by 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 that’s 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 entity—once we get our way we’re going to wipe them out. The Poles are thinking in terms of states. This isn’t 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 problem’—they also saw it as a problem—‘is to create a state for them in Palestine, or help them create a state in Palestine.’
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 wasn’t 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. …
Delman: As the book’s [subtitle] is “Holocaust as history and warning,” how would you say that Hitler’s 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, I’m not a sociologist—you can’t count on me to tell you what people think. But my general sense is this: Anti-Semitism of the Hitlerian kind—where you use the Jews to explain the whole planet—that is more resonant at times of, let’s 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 well—you 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 bang—there’s 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 we’re all human, let’s trade things, let’s trade ideas,’ whereas Hitlerian anti-Semitism has the idea that, in fact, some of us aren’t human and anything that’s going wrong in the world can be explained in reference to these unnatural beings.
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 views—I worry a bit that we are tilting towards some kind of anti-globalization 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 he’s not winning the colonial aspect of the war—the object to conquer Ukraine and Eastern Europe and create lebensraum—but he can still possibly be victorious in the second objective, which was to exterminate the Jews. [What’s 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 what’s worldview there and what’s strategy? It’s impossible to separate. I mean, the [German] invasion of the Soviet Union is extremely well-planned. It’s very effective as these things go. It’s the largest assembly of men for an offensive operation in the history of the world. They cover a lot of territory very quickly. You can’t 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 it’s going to fall apart immediately, and the Slavs will be very happy to be our slaves.’ That’s not true, but it doesn’t prevent the war from starting, and then when the war doesn’t go as well as [Hitler] thinks it’s going to go, he can then make the move of saying, ‘Well if the Soviet Union didn’t collapse, it’s 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.’
So the worldview comes in and helps you when the real world isn’t doing what you say it’s going to do, and you can just go back and forth and do this until you’ve killed tens of millions of people. That’s the tragic aspect of it. …
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? That’s what Hitler was like. It’s not that Hitler was rational or irrational. You can say both things. It’s 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.
That’s one model of leader. And that’s not just anti-Semitism; that’s not just anti-Semitism-plus. It’s 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 Jews—like, for example, that they’re the communists—and 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, that’s not the only thing he cares about. He doesn’t really think that the Jews are the only thing that matters in the world or that they’re the Gordian knot you have to cut to allow the world to return to its proper state. He doesn’t 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. That’s different, right? There you have a leader who’s clearly anti-Semitic, but who also cares about the state—who’s not fundamentally concerned about changing the whole world, but whose fundamental concern is about preserving the state.
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, right—the Romanian army is massively present in the Soviet Union—it might be difficult to tell the difference. When they’re both killing Jews in the fall of 1941 in comparable numbers, in comparable ways, it’s hard to tell the difference. And so it’s a very difficult question of political judgment. But … with the distance of history, we can say there was a difference.
There’s 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 cleanse Jews—but at the end of the day also cares about his own people and accepts that the world order involves states. So that’s not a kind of political judgment I’m going to issue in the case of Iran or anything, but it’s a distinction that maybe we can draw from this history.