The slogan "Never Again" appeared often in the 20th century, as the world slowly came to grips with the greatest crime of the modern era, the killing by Nazi Germany of six million European Jews in the 1940s. It was said with confidence, as if the Holocaust had taught everyone about the profound evil that can spring from racial hatred.
But the slogan faded as it became clear that the lesson was not universally shared. In the last few decades mass murder has been deployed as a political weapon in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in the name of ethnic cleansing, as if the Jews in Europe had died in vain. And the fresh intensity of anti-Semitism suggests that the Jews themselves are again being targeted, as they were before the mass killing began.
Many of us think we understand the Holocaust, perhaps as much as one can grasp such a titanic evil. But Timothy Snyder, a Yale University professor, tells us that there are aspects of it that we need to think about again. His recent book, Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning (Random House) is a disturbing work. Reading it, while sometimes agreeing and sometimes not, we are likely to realize that we are in the hands of an industrious historian who is also an original thinker.
"Black earth" in his title refers to the grain-rich regions of Ukraine. Many Jews were killed there by the Nazis, but long before they appeared it was already the scene of genocide, the man-made famine of 1932-33. Millions of Ukrainians were killed by Stalin's decision to steal their grain and leave them to starve.
The Soviets did their best to obliterate Ukrainian identity. Ukraine became what Snyder calls a "zone of statelessness." There was no structure of society to protect the Jews and they were easily killed.
The success of Hitler's Holocaust depended on the breakdown of government machinery across eastern Europe and far into the Soviet Union. Consider, Snyder says, the difference between two German-occupied countries, Estonia and Denmark. In Estonia, about 99 per cent of Jews were killed. In Denmark, about 99 per cent of the Jews survived. The difference was the stability of the state.
The Soviets had invaded Estonia in 1940, demolishing the government and imprisoning most of its leaders. When the Germans arrived in the summer of 1941, they installed a Nazi-chosen government and hired former Soviet police to kill Jews and others. In Denmark, where the Germans had a relatively benign occupation force, the still-in-place Danish authorities understood that yielding Jewish citizens to Germany would compromise Danish sovereignty. They stood in the way of Germany's plans, and nearly all the 6,000 Jews of Danish citizenship survived.
"The Jews who were killed were first separated from their states," Snyder points out. Those who were not were relatively safe. In passing, he remarks that Zionists were correct to believe that statehood was crucial to the future national existence of the Jews.
This is why Snyder wants us to understand how the Holocaust functioned. Today we often hear of "failed states" in various places, notably Africa and the Middle East. They are places where genocide can happen. When Vladimir Putin belittles the stature of Ukraine, he's treating it as a non-state, as Stalin did, robbing it of its ability to defend itself.
And what about the madman who dreamed of the "final solution" to the Jewish problem? Snyder explains that Adolf Hitler believed in a natural world of conflict among races for supremacy.
He wanted to re-create that world as he imagined it once existed. He disliked science because science complicates every fanaticism. Modern biology makes nonsense of racial pride and racial hatred. Modern psychology makes us question our own feelings. To Hitler, abstractions and ideas were errors of modern times, infections caused by Jews. He hated the Jews for their role in creating the modern world and complicating the minds of the people. Hitler believed that the world had to strip away all those ideas so that people could return to their essence. To do that, it was necessary to eradicate the Jews. If that were done, the world could snap back into its primeval, correct form. In Snyder's view, Hitler dreamed of a world in which "Races struggle against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try and take land." His murderous policy was born in his crazy desire to turn history backwards.