My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Timothy Snyder's newest book begins by explaining the ideology behind Hitler and National Socialism. In this it is an improvement over most histories which deal with WHAT is done and the immediate WHYs but rarely goes deeper. Hitler believed in an extreme version of Social Darwinism - survival of the fittest. He believed that life was an endless struggle of superior races to vanquish inferior races and take what they needed for survival and that it was a crime NOT to do so. He believed that Germans (Aryans) were THE superior race and that for example, Slavs were sub-human and should be enslaved or starved, their Black Earth (Ukraine) taken to feed the superior race.
While most anti-Semitism is based on the notion that evil Jews are polluting good humans. Hitler saw it quite the opposite. Humans were to live by the law of the jungle and the Jews, which Hitler did not even consider a race, devised ways to prevent the rise of the superior race and the survival of inferior races. Everything civilizational was part of a Jewish plot to control the world. Capitalism, communism, states, laws, institutions, justice, mercy etc were all invented by Jews.
So Hitler undertook to create war, not as a means to an end but to continue forever. There were two wars to be fought simultaneously. A colonial war against the inferior Slavs of the east and an anti-colonial war against the Jews, without which he could not win the first war. Interestingly enough, his colonial war was inspired by superior American destruction of inferior indigenous peoples and their land seized to create the American empire.
Snyder then goes on to describe the situation in Germany and then each of the states that were involved in the war. We tend to think of Germany as a strong state which coerced the other states into the mass murder of Jews. The exact opposite is true. German Jews stood a better chance of survival than Jews in the east where the state had been destroyed completely, either by Germany (western Poland) or first by the Soviets and then by Germany (eastern Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics, western Russia) where 95% or more of the Jews were murdered. In every regions where the state was destroyed, Germany was able to easily involve non-Jewish locals in collaboration to murder Jews. In states which retained some semblance of statehood (Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, to an extent Bulgaria), Jews stood a much better chance of survival. In Holland which was generally not anti-Semitic, where the government fled, more Jews were killed than in Greece which tended to be more anti-Semitic but where the government remained intact.
Anti-Semitism was rampant in Poland (where the vast majority of European Jews lived) in the 1930's. Poland wanted the Jews out and thought their best bet was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. To that end they trained and armed groups of Polish Jewish groups to fight the British in Palestine. These groups also played a part in the Polish Home Army, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Polish and Soviet partisan groups. Ukrainian Nationalist groups such as the UPA made for a very complex situation as they engaged in ethnic cleansing of Poles, murder of Jews, rescuing of Jews, fighting the Soviets and fighting the Nazis.
People who engaged in rescuing Jews did so for many reasons, for money, for love, for companionship, for labour, for replacement of lost children and some did it purely because it was the decent thing to do. Many examples are given of those who put their lives on the line to save one or many Jews. Some are famous (Raoul Wallenberg) but most are simply people who disappeared into history but for the memoirs of those they rescued.
The final chapter deals with lessons learned and situations under which such things could conceivable happen again. The one thing Snyder makes very clear is that strong states and strong institutions are critical to prevent genocide and that the attitudes of the extreme right and extreme left against the state are very dangerous. We are none of us so far removed from the people who collaborated with and participated in the mass killings of the Holocaust.
This book should be read along with Timothy Snyder's previous book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin in which the murders of millions by both Stalin and Hitler are examined in detail, including that of the Jews.
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