Black Earth

The Holocaust as History and Warning
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A brilliant, haunting, and profoundly original portrait of the defining tragedy of our time.

In this epic history of extermination and survival, Timothy Snyder presents a new explanation of the great atrocity of the twentieth century, and reveals the risks that we face in the twenty-first. Based on new sources from eastern Europe and forgotten testimonies from Jewish survivors, Black Earth recounts the mass murder of the Jews as an event that is still close to us, more comprehensible than we would like to think, and thus all the more terrifying. 

The Holocaust began in a dark but accessible place, in Hitler's mind, with the thought that the elimination of Jews would restore balance to the planet and allow Germans to win the resources they desperately needed. Such a worldview could be realized only if Germany destroyed other states, so Hitler's aim was a colonial war in Europe itself.  In the zones of statelessness, almost all Jews died. A few people, the righteous few, aided them, without support from institutions. Much of the new research in this book is devoted to understanding these extraordinary individuals. The almost insurmountable difficulties they faced only confirm the dangers of state destruction and ecological panic. These men and women should be emulated, but in similar circumstances few of us would do so. 

By overlooking the lessons of the Holocaust, Snyder concludes, we have misunderstood modernity and endangered the future. The early twenty-first century is coming to resemble the early twentieth, as growing preoccupations with food and water accompany ideological challenges to global order. Our world is closer to Hitler's than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was --and ourselves as we are. 

Groundbreaking, authoritative, and utterly absorbing, Black Earth reveals a Holocaust that is not only history but warning.


A New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Editors' Choice
Selected as one of the Best Books of 2015 by The Washington Post, The Economist, and Publishers Weekly
Finalist for the Samuel Johnson Prize
Shortlisted for the 2016 Mark Lynton History Prize and the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Book Award

"Clear-eyed . . . Arresting . . . An unorthodox and provocative account . . . Snyder is admirably relentless." The New Yorker

"Black Earth is mesmerizing . . . Remarkable . . . Gripping . . . Disturbingly vivid . . . Mr. Snyder is sometimes mordant, often shocked, always probing.” —The Wall Street Journal

"Revelatory . . . Evocative . . . Most relevant today." The Atlantic

“A very fine book . . . Snyder identifies the conditions that allowed the Holocaust—conditions our society today shares . . . He certainly couldn’t be more right about our world.” The New Republic

“An unflinching look at the Holocaust . . . Mr. Snyder is a rising public intellectual unafraid to make bold connections between past and present.” —The New York Times

“Snyder’s historical account has a vital contemporary lesson . . . It’s a testament to his intellectual and moral resources that he can so deeply contemplate this horrific past in ways that strengthen his commitment to building a future based on law, rights, and citizenship.” —The Washington Post

"Black Earth elucidates human catastrophe in regions with which a Western audience needs to become familiar.” —The New York Times Book Review

“An impressive reassessment of the Holocaust, which steers an assured course [and] challenges readers to reassess what they think they know and believe . . . Black Earth will prove uncomfortable reading for many who hew to cherished but mythical elements of Holocaust history.” The Economist

“Excellent in every respect . . . Although I read widely about the Holocaust, I learned something new in every chapter. The multilingual Snyder has mined contemporaneous Eastern European sources that are often overlooked.” —Stephen Carter, Bloomberg

“In Black Earth, a book of the greatest importance, Snyder now forces us to look afresh at these monumental crimes. Written with searing intellectual honesty, his new study goes much deeper than Bloodlands in its analysis, showing how the two regimes fed off each other.” —Antony Beevor, The Sunday Times



Living Space

Although Hitler’s premise was that humans were simply animals, his own very human intuition allowed him to transform his zoological theory into a kind of political worldview. The racial struggle for survival was also a German campaign for dignity, he maintained, and the restraints were not only biological but British. Hitler understood that Germans were not, in their daily life, beasts who scratched food from the ground. As he developed his thought in his Second Book, composed in 1928, he made clear that securing a regular food supply was not simply a matter of physical sustenance, but also a requirement for a sense of control. The problem with the British naval blockade during the First World War had not simply been the diseases and death it brought during the conflict and in the months between armistice and final settlement. The blockade had forced ­middle-­class Germans to break the law in order to acquire the food that they needed or felt that they needed, leaving them personally insecure and distrustful of authority.

The world political economy of the 1920s and 1930s was, as Hitler understood, structured by British naval power. British advocacy of free trade, he believed, was political cover for British domination of the world. It made sense for the British to parlay the fiction that free exchange meant access to food for everyone, because such a belief would discourage others from trying to compete with the British navy. In fact, only the British could defend their own supply lines in the event of a crisis, and could by the same token prevent food from reaching others. Thus the British blockaded their enemies during war—an obvious violation of their own ideology of free trade. This capacity to assure and deny food, Hitler emphasized, was a form of power. Hitler called the absence of food security for everyone except the British the “peaceful economic war.”

Hitler understood that Germany did not feed itself from its own territory in the 1920s and 1930s, but also knew that Germans would not actually have starved if they had tried. Germany could have generated the calories to feed its population from German soil, but only by sacrificing some of its industry, exports, and foreign currency. A prosperous Germany required exchange with the British world, but this trade pattern could be supplemented, thought Hitler, by the conquest of a land empire that would even the scales between London and Berlin. Once it had gained the appropriate colonies, Germany could preserve its industrial excellence while shifting its dependence for food from the ­British-­controlled sea lanes to its own imperial hinterland. If Germany controlled enough territory, Germans could have the kinds and the amounts of food that they desired, with no cost to German industry. A sufficiently large German empire could become ­self-­sufficient, an “autarkic economy.” Hitler romanticized the German peasant, not as a peaceful tiller of the soil, but as the heroic tamer of distant lands.

The British were to be respected as racial kindred and builders of a great empire. The idea was to slip through their network of power without forcing them to respond. Taking land from others would not, or so Hitler imagined, threaten the great maritime empire. Over the long term, he expected peace with Great Britain “on the basis of the division of the world.” He expected that Germany could become a world power while avoiding an “Armageddon with ­En­gland.” This was, for him, a reassuring thought.

It was also reassuring that such an alteration of the world order, such a reglobalization, had been achieved before, in recent memory. For generations of German imperialists, and for Hitler himself, the exemplary land empire was the United States of America.

America taught Hitler that need blurred into desire, and that desire arose from comparison. Germans were not only animals seeking nourishment to survive, and not only a society yearning for security in an unpredictable British global economy. Families observed other families: around the corner, but also, thanks to modern media, around the world. Ideas of how life should be lived escaped measures such as survival, security, and even comfort as standards of living became comparative, and as comparisons became international. “Through modern technology and the communication it enables,” wrote Hitler, “international relations between peoples have become so effortless and intimate that Europeans—often without realizing it—take the circumstances of American life as the benchmark for their own lives.”

Globalization led Hitler to the American dream. Behind every imaginary German racial warrior stood an imaginary German woman who wanted ever more. In American idiom, this notion that the standard of living was relative, based upon the perceived success of others, was called “keeping up with the Joneses.” In his more strident moments, Hitler urged Germans to be more like ants and finches, thinking only of survival and reproduction. Yet his own scarcely hidden fear was a very human one, perhaps even a very male one: the German housewife. It was she who raised the bar of the natural struggle ever higher. Before the First World War, when Hitler was a young man, German colonial rhetoric had played on the double meaning of the word Wirtschaft: both a household and an economy. German women had been instructed to equate comfort and empire. And since comfort was always relative, the political justification for colonies was inexhaustible. If the German housewife’s point of reference was Mrs. Jones rather than Frau Jonas, then Germans needed an empire comparable to the American one. German men would have to struggle and die at some distant frontier, redeeming their race and the planet, while women supported their men, embodying the merciless logic of endless desire for ever more prosperous homes.

The inevitable presence of America in German minds was the final reason why, for Hitler, science could not solve the problem of sustenance. Even if inventions did improve agricultural productivity, Germany could not keep pace with America on the strength of this alone. Technology could be taken for granted on both sides; the quantity of arable land was the variable. Germany therefore needed as much land as the Americans and as much technology. Hitler proclaimed that permanent struggle for land was nature’s wish, but he also understood that a human desire for increasing relative comfort could also generate perpetual motion.

If German prosperity would always be relative, then final success could never be achieved. “The prospects for the German people are bleak,” wrote an aggrieved Hitler. That complaint was followed by this clarification: “Neither the current living space nor that achieved through a restoration of the borders of 1914 permits us to lead a life comparable to that of the American people.” At the least, the struggle would continue as long as the United States existed, and that would be a long time. Hitler saw America as the coming world power, and the core American population (“the racially pure and uncorrupted German”) as a “world class people” that was “younger and healthier than the Germans” who had remained in Europe.

While Hitler was writing My Struggle, he learned of the word Lebensraum (living space) and turned it to his own purposes. In his writings and speeches it expressed the whole range of meaning that he attached to the natural struggle, from an unceasing racial fight for physical survival all the way to an endless war for the subjective sense of having the highest standard of living in the world. The term Lebensraum came into the German language as the equivalent of the French word biotope, or “habitat.” In a social rather than biological context it can mean something else: household comfort, something close to “living room.” The containment of these two meanings in a single word furthered Hitler’s circular idea: Nature was nothing more than society, society nothing more than nature. Thus there was no difference between an animal struggle for physical existence and the preference of families for nicer lives. Each was about Lebensraum.

The twentieth century was to bring endless war for relative comfort. Robert Ley, one of Hitler’s early Nazi comrades, defined Lebensraum as “more culture, more beauty—these the race must have, or it will perish.” Hitler’s propagandist Joseph Goebbels defined the purpose of a war of extermination as “a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a big dinner.” Tens of millions of people would have to starve, but not so that Germans could survive in the physical sense of the word. Tens of millions of people would have to starve so that Germans could strive for a standard of living second to none.

“One thing the Americans have and which we lack,” complained Hitler, “is the sense of vast open spaces.” He was repeating what German colonialists had said for decades. By the time Germany had unified in 1871, the world had already been colonized by other European powers. Germany’s defeat in the First World War cost it the few overseas possessions it had gained. So where, in the twentieth century, were the lands open for German conquest? Where was Germany’s frontier, its Manifest Destiny?

All that remained was the home continent. “For Germany,” wrote Hitler, “the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself.” To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European “spaces” were, in fact, “open.” Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonization of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imagination of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. Like millions of other children born in the 1880s and 1890s, Hitler played at African wars and read Karl May’s novels of the American West. Hitler said that May had opened his “eyes to the world.”

In the late nineteenth century, Germans tended to see the fate of Native Americans as a natural precedent for the fate of native Africans under their control. One colony was German East Africa—today Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and a bit of Mozambique—where Berlin assumed responsibility in 1891. During an uprising in 1905, the Maji Maji rebellion, the Germans applied starvation tactics, killing at least ­seventy-­five thousand people. A second colony was German Southwest Africa, today Namibia, where about three thousand German colonists controlled about seventy percent of the land. An uprising there in 1904 led the Germans to deny the native Herero and Nama populations access to water until they fell “victim to the nature of their own country,” as the official military history put it. The Germans imprisoned survivors in a camp on an island. The Herero population was reduced from some eighty thousand to about fifteen thousand; that of the Nama from about twenty thousand to about ten thousand. For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was ­self-­evident. “The natives must give way,” he said. “Look at America.” The German governor of the region compared Southwest Africa to Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado. The civilian head of the German colonial office saw matters much the same way: “The history of the colonization of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavor the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” He understood the need for an “annihilation operation.” The German state geologist called for a “Final Solution to the native question.”

A famous German novel of the war in German Southwest Africa united, as would Hitler, the idea of a racial struggle with that of divine justice. The killing of “blacks” was “the justice of the Lord” because the world belonged to “the most vigorous.” Like most Europeans, Hitler was a racist about Africans. He proclaimed that the French were “niggerizing” their blood through intermarriage. He shared in the general European excitement about the French use of African troops in the occupation of Germany’s Rhineland district after the First World War. Yet Hitler’s racism was not that of a European looking down at Africans. He saw the entire world as an “Africa,” and everyone, including Europeans, in racial terms. Here, as so often, he was more consistent than others. Racism, after all, was a claim to judge who was fully human. As such, ideas of racial superiority and inferiority could be applied according to desire and convenience. Even neighboring societies, which might seem not so different from the German, might be defined as racially different.

When Hitler wrote in My Struggle that Germany’s only opportunity for colonization was Europe, he discarded as impractical the possibility of a return to Africa. The search for racial inferiors to dominate required no long voyages by sea, since they were present in eastern Europe as well. In the nineteenth century, after all, the major arena of German colonialism had been not mysterious Africa but neighboring Poland. Prussia had gained territory inhabited by Poles in the partitions of the ­Polish-­Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late eighteenth century. Formerly Polish lands were thus part of the unified Germany that Prussia created in 1871. Poles made up about seven percent of the German population, and in eastern regions were a majority. They were subjected first to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, a campaign against Roman Catholicism whose major object was the elimination of Polish national identity, and then to ­state-­subsidized internal colonization campaigns. A German colonial literature about Poland, including best sellers, portrayed the Poles as “black.” The Polish peasants had dark faces and referred to Germans as “white.” Polish aristocrats, fey and useless, were endowed with black hair and eyes. So were the beautiful Polish women, seductresses who, in these stories, almost invariably led naive German men to racial ­self-­degradation and doom.

During the First World War, Germany lost Southwest Africa. In eastern Europe the situation was different. Here German arms seemed to be assembling, between 1916 and 1918, a vast new realm for domination and economic exploitation. First Germany joined its prewar Polish territories to those taken from the Russian Empire to form a subordinate Polish kingdom, which was to be ruled by a friendly monarch. The postwar plan was to expropriate and deport all of the Polish landholders near the ­German-­Polish border. In early 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution had taken Russia from the war, Germany established a chain of vassal states to the east of Poland, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the largest of which was Ukraine. Germany lost the war in France in 1918, but was never finally defeated on the battlefield in eastern Europe. This new east European realm was abandoned without, it could seem to Germans, ever having been truly lost.

The complete loss of the African colonies during and after the war created the possibility for a vague and malleable nostalgia about racial mastery. Popular novels about Africa with titles such as Master, Come Back! could make sense only after such a complete break. Germans could continue to see themselves as good colonizers, even as the realm of colonization itself became fluid and vague, projected into the future. Hans Grimm’s novel A People Without Space, which sold half a million copies in Germany before the Second World War, concerned the plight of a German who had left Africa only to be frustrated by confinement within a small Germany and an unjust European system.

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