Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Timothy Snyder’s previous book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, was well received in 2010. Since then, Putin left one of his massive estates, took a Stalin pill, ordered the assassination of more of his critics, and seized the Crimean peninsula in March 2014. This last action finally provided Russia with a fresh water port. Putin’s quislings then invaded eastern Ukraine, and infamously shot down a Malaysian Airline jet, killing all 298 passengers. Subsequently, world wide invasions of talking heads landed on many beaches. During that time, Snyder’s live interviews proved him to be one of the most informed and reliable commentators on the history leading up to, and during, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Black Earth he returns to Second World War Ukraine, Poland, and other east European countries to examine in close and fine detail the devastation wrought upon these countries and their Jewish populations by Hitler and Stalin.

Black Earth is not a book that adds some incremental history to what we know about interwar and war time eastern Europe. It is a wide ranging and detailed history of the devastating decisions and actions taken by Hitler and German officials, as well as those taken by Stalin, that led to the outbreak of the Second World War, and to the genocide of millions of Jews and other innocent people. Snyder writes knowledgeably, and looks clearly at the decisions that many officials made in many countries to betray the innocent into the hands of Hitler and Stalin’s murderers.

During the time covered by Black Earth, the borders between many countries changed significantly, or disappeared, only to reappear in sometimes unrecognizable forms. In some cases, large areas of some countries became part of other countries. And small areas such as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia simply disappeared. Without maps, much of Snyder’s history would have often been difficult to follow. However, he has provided extensive and detailed maps throughout Black Earth—an average of two maps in each chapter, and on some occasions three or four maps in other chapters. These maps ensure that the close reader may easily follow the often complex, yet unfailingly clear history that unfolds in each chapter.

I say “close reader” while recalling that Michael R. Marrus in The New York Times Book Review of September 6, 2015 wrote, “I suspect that Snyder will have lost many readers by this point” (About 60-70 pages into the book). I was about 130 pages into the book when I happened to read the Marrus review, and I was deeply engaged by Snyder’s clarity and detail, as I examined each map. Maybe Marrus wasn’t attending to the maps.

Two hundred pages into the book, and Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jewish people has not yet begun. But once any country is occupied by German forces, or by Russian forces, some members of the local police, military, and some residents take up arms and begin evicting Jews from their houses, and murdering them wherever they see a Jew. This is very difficult reading. In each country, the responses vary. Some residents volunteer to betray Jews into German hands. Other residents, at great personal risk to themselves, hide Jews in their houses, and care for them. Sometimes local police forces take part in killing innocent Jews. At other times, police officers sometimes save as many Jews as they can.

If you have an interest in this period of European history, Black Earth is a compassionate, wide-ranging, and troubling history of that time. Snyder concludes this fine book with informed warnings about how easily the murder and genocide of innocents occurs, and has occurred since the Second World War. He surveys how these genocides are occurring, and touches briefly on how these terrible choices will occur yet again. Snyder’s compassion extends to his friends. When his colleague Tony Judt was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Snyder was one of Judt’s caregivers. At different times, Snyder and Judt have both quoted the Polish Army Officer Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to enter Auschwitz, in order to understand it: “I bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.” (The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, p. 13).

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