How Not to Write a History of the Holocaust

Historians in the News
tags: Holocaust, Timothy Synder, Black Earth

Omer Bartov is a professor of European history at Brown University and the author of  "The Voice of Your Brother’s Blood: Buczacz, Biography of a Town" (Simon & Schuster, to be published in September 2017).

Related Link Yale historian aims for wider picture of momentum behind the Holocaust (Harvard Gazette)

… The Yale historian Timothy Snyder thinks there is plenty more to say about the Holocaust; indeed, as he argues in a recent book, previous scholarship — to which he pays only fleeting attention — got the story substantially wrong. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Tim Duggan Books, 2015) sets out to correct both the record of Holocaust history and the moral and political lessons it presents to us today. This is an ambitious agenda, not least because it simultaneously weaves in a set of old historical and ideological ideas that, while never explicitly stated, constitute the underlying premise of the entire undertaking. These include the idea that the Holocaust was largely Hitler’s personal obsession rather than a larger German or European project; that its conceptualization and implementation can be traced back to Bolshevik ideas and Soviet policies; and that the mass collaboration in the murder of the Jews by their Eastern European neighbors resulted largely from the latter’s own oppression by the Soviets and was, in any case, a mere sideshow. (Snyder is also the author of the 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.)

One can only admire Snyder’s ambition. Putting together analyses of Nazi ideology, Polish politics, Soviet occupation, German and other states’ genocidal practices, and Zionist responses, and then reinterpreting this entire body of research not merely as a new history but also as a morality tale and a warning, is no mean feat. Unfortunately, Black Earth collapses under the sheer weight of his ambitions….

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