I’ve not had the time recently to keep up with my reading of all the current on-line articles dealing with topics of interest to me, but this one, by Timothy Snyder, I just had to read straightaway no matter what I put on hold. Snyder is Housum professor of history at Yale University.
Because I grew up in the shadow of the Second World War, and my nightmares were peopled with members of the Gestapo out for my blood, the title grabbed my attention immediately. Once I began reading I found his argument compelling. It maps almost exactly onto my attempts more fully to understand Nazism and the Holocaust, and fills in some gaps in a way I have never read before. It deals with two out of my three nightmare scenarios: Hitler and Stalin, but not Mao. It also shows me how my bête noire of the reptilian instinct within us can be terrifyingly exploited if politicians get the chance to create a strong sense of emergency, whether justified or not, and can then identify a seemingly credible and convenient scapegoat. It’s a long read but a necessary one. No matter how far we feel we have travelled since the war and how much we feel we have learned, we may still be blind enough to fall into the same abyss again. I will almost certainly be buying his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. (Shortly after writing this I headed to town and bought my copy. So far it’s delivering on its promise: it’s thorough in its analysis but completely accessible.) Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.
It was 20 years after I chose to become a historian that I first saw a photograph of the woman who made my career possible. In the small photograph that my doctoral supervisor, her son, showed me in his Warsaw apartment, Wanda J radiates self-possession, a quality that stood her in good stead during the Nazi occupation. She was a Jewish mother who protected herself and her two sons from the German campaign of mass murder that killed almost all of her fellow Warsaw Jews. When her family was summoned to the ghetto, she refused to go. She moved her children from place to place, relying upon the help of friends, acquaintances and strangers. When first the ghetto and then the rest of the city of Warsaw were burned to the ground, what counted, she thought, was the “faultless moral instinct” of the people who chose to help Jews.
Most of us would like to think that we possess a “moral instinct”. Perhaps we imagine that we would be rescuers in some future catastrophe. Yet if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted and economic incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realised. A historian must be grateful to Wanda J for her courage and for the trace of herself that she left behind. But a historian must also consider why rescuers were so few. It is all too easy to fantasise that we, too, would have aided Wanda J. Separated from National Socialism by time and luck, we can dismiss Nazi ideas without contemplating how they functioned. It is our very forgetfulness of the circumstances of the Holocaust that convinces us that we are different from Nazis and shrouds the ways that we are the same. We share Hitler’s planet and some of his preoccupations; we have perhaps changed less than we think.
The Holocaust began with the idea that no human instinct was moral. Hitler described humans as members of races doomed to eternal and bloody struggle among themselves for finite resources. Hitler denied that any idea, be it religious, philosophical or political, justified seeing the other (or loving the other) as oneself. He claimed that conventional forms of ethics were Jewish inventions, and that conventional states would collapse during the racial struggle. Hitler specifically, and quite wrongly, denied that agricultural technology could alter the relationship between people and nourishment.