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Rethinking Unthinkable Ideas

Featured History Philosophy

My roommate recommended to me a book called Black Earth by historian Timothy Snyder and sent me a lecture of his.

I cannot stress how much of a revelation this lecture was.  Like most people (a certain New Democrat candidate excepted), I consider myself familiar with the causes, events, and effects of the Holocaust.  In my summer trip which included a few days in Berlin, I woke early to reflect at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe before it was disturbed by schoolchildren; and while walking down the bank of the Spree near the Reichstag found a monument to a Jewish family of four: three of whom died in the camps and one of whom died as an American solider on D-Day (I’ve uploaded the memorial as the post image).

The story of the Holocaust is so familiar to us that we rarely stop to think critically about it.  Whenever it makes an appearance in public discourse, it’s often to commemorate its horror or to draw parallels to a cause out of our favour.  We take its premises as granted:  Adolf Hitler was a German nationalist, a virulent racist who murdered millions of German and other European Jews, Roma, homosexuals, persons with disabilities, and political outsiders.

Snyder argues that we’ve got Hitler all wrong.  This kind of statement tends to be a non-starter.  There are those who begin with those words who neatly fit into the nasty box of “Nazi Apologist”, or at least Thai-like ignorant fascination.  Snyder’s argument, however, is that Hitler wasn’t a nationalist.  While racism is often paired with extreme nationalism, Hitler was first and foremost an Aryan supremacist.  This isn’t surprising until Snyder doubles down on the importance of this distinction.

Snyder explains that Hitler’s brand of racism had only one concept: racial competition.  Races were distinct and essential features of humanity and were in perpetual competition with each other for land and resources.  The state in itself was unimportant except that it should be wielded as a tool for the race.  Snyder’s sources his claim that this was the only concept in Mein Kampf.  All ideas – all concepts beyond race feud –  were Jewish and false.  Communism, capitalism, science, humanism, these were all just Jewish perversions of culture and distractions from the Aryan race’s struggle against its opponents.  There was no concept that brought humanity together as one.  Snyder mentioned that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who had been hidden by gentiles always referred not to any motive of their benefactors, but to their humanity – an essential unifying trait of equality among peoples entirely incompatible with Hitler’s world view.

In its monomaniacal focus on race, Hitler’s ideology set up the perceived necessity of lebensraum (“living space”) and the defeat of anti-Aryan forces.

Synder continued to talk about the importance of citizenship as a part of the Holocaust.  He seized on the fact that the Holocaust was primarily a phenomenon outside of Germany as the springboard to discuss how the Nazis designed state collapse by executing the political and intellectual classes of subjected nations in Eastern Europe, taking a scorched-earth approach to ensuring no opposition could rise up against the regime and propose an alternative state.  With a border of effectively stateless territory around them, they stripped Jews of all rights of citizenship and turned what spare political structures remained against them.  As a counterpoint, he compares the death rate of Jews in Occupied Estonia where there was no state and no citizenship (99%) to the rate for Jews in Denmark, which clung to its ancient statehood and monarchy (1%).

This is all to say that it’s important to re-examine ideas that we take for granted, especially about things we consider disturbing or unflattering.  Too many ideas go untouched because they’re simply accepted as received wisdom or because it would be impolitic to discuss the details of troublesome thoughts.

Anyways, the lecture is incredibly interesting.  It starts around the 10 minute mark and you should listen to the whole thing.  The book has definitely make it on to my reading list.

The Holocaust as History and Warning.

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