There are a number of nations, variously labeled as Central or Eastern European, whose territorial boundaries were ill-defined and whose ethnic makeup was complex in the interwar period. These were lands whose position put them between Germany and Russia both geographically and politically. World War I destroyed the entities that maintained order in this region as empires disappeared and left control to local populations, often leading to ethnic confrontations. It was in this region that most of the violence associated with World War II and the Holocaust occurred.
Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, has made the understanding of the history and culture of this region one of his main research topics. He has produced the book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. In it, Snyder attempts to place the Holocaust, the persecution and murder of Jews, into historical and political perspective. After almost two millennia of anti-Jewish preaching by the Christian Churches it was inevitable that violence against Jews would erupt during chaotic war years. What is less-well known and less-well understood is the degree of violence that also ensued between other ethnic groups. The Ukraine was an area of especially high chaos as it was invaded and reinvaded during the war years. Ukrainian nationalists attempted to eliminate the ethnic Poles that lived in the area with a level of brutality that may have exceeded anything faced by Jews.
Snyder wishes to make sure that we realize that the Holocaust was only one of the black marks on humanity that were apparent after the events that occurred in this region. Violent anti-Semitism has been with us for a very long time—and we have a sense of how that arose. There are, perhaps, deeper and more frightening things to learn about humanity from a more general consideration of the other massacres that occurred. Does the chaos of war force people to do violent things, or does it provide them with the opportunity to do violent things? Is violence the innate response—or is it the exception? What exactly does it take to drive formerly peaceful people to become mass murderers?
The focus here will be on the more limited topic of food security and what the lack of it can cause.
Snyder has recently published two short articles discussing points that he wants to make sure are read by a broader audience than is likely to delve into his book. The first appeared in The New York Review of Books: Hitler’s World. Here, Snyder makes clear Hitler’s motives and philosophy, and explains how they led to war and genocide. The second appeared in the New York Times with the title The Next Genocide. A Hitler is not likely to be seen again, but the conditions that led him to pursue war and mass murder could recur.
Let us begin by learning about Hitler and his world. Hitler believed races lived according to a law of the survival of the fittest. The strong contend against the weak in order to maintain their dominance and acquire the resources they need to survive and thrive.
“Nothing can be known about the future, thought Hitler, except the limits of our planet: ‘the surface area of a precisely measured space.’ Ecology was scarcity, and existence meant a struggle for land. The immutable structure of life was the division of animals into species, condemned to ‘inner seclusion’ and an endless fight to the death. Human races, Hitler was convinced, were like species. The highest races were still evolving from the lower, which meant that interbreeding was possible but sinful. Races should behave like species, like mating with like and seeking to kill unlike. This for Hitler was a law, the law of racial struggle, as certain as the law of gravity.”
There would be no end to this struggle, and the cognizance of its necessity should motivate racial policies. Racial policies and political policies were identical. As Snyder puts it:
“The ceaseless strife of races was not an element of life, but its essence.”
“Hitler entitled his book Mein Kampf—My Struggle. From those two words through two long volumes and two decades of political life, he was endlessly narcissistic, pitilessly consistent, and exuberantly nihilistic where others were not.”
To Hitler, the Jews were not so much an inferior race to be disposed of, as not a race at all by his definition. Having no turf to defend or to extend they intermingled with many of the races and introduced words and ideas about the universality of mankind, suggesting that all men could learn to live together in peace. This is the exact opposite of Hitler’s philosophy, and thus the Jews set themselves up as a threat to Hitler. To the degree that Germans accepted the Jewish view, it weakened Hitler’s hold over them and threatened his goals of conquest.
“Hitler saw the species as divided into races, but denied that the Jews were one. Jews were not a lower or a higher race, but a nonrace, or a counterrace. Races followed nature and fought for land and food, whereas Jews followed the alien logic of ‘un-nature.’ They resisted nature’s basic imperative by refusing to be satisfied by the conquest of a certain habitat, and they persuaded others to behave similarly. They insisted on dominating the entire planet and its peoples, and for this purpose invented general ideas that draw the races away from the natural struggle. The planet had nothing to offer except blood and soil, and yet Jews uncannily generated concepts that allowed the world to be seen less as an ecological trap and more as a human order.”
“Hitler’s basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strain toward it was precisely what was hateful. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s most important deputy, did not follow every twist of Hitler’s thinking, but he grasped its conclusion: ethics as such was the error; the only morality was fidelity to race.”
If the master race was to be spared Jewish corruption the only solution was to remove Jews and their influence from society. There seems to be some disagreement over whether extermination was his initial plan. He talked of gathering Jews and removing them to some remote location (Siberia?), but extermination was the eventual decision.
Hitler’s plan for protecting the future of the master race depended on a belief that food and resources were limited. The land could only provide so much and if a race needed more they must take it from another race. The fundamental driver behind his plans for aggression was his belief that the German people would not long be able to feed themselves without capturing new territory. Hitler’s gaze was always turned to the east where he saw races easy to defeat and rich agricultural land. Attacking Poland and Russia was unavoidable.
Hitler’s idea of warfare was not an attempt to just control land, it was also necessary to defeat another race and eliminate it if possible. His plans for mass murder far exceeded the number of dead that so horrifies us to this day.
“A war of simple conquest, no matter how devastatingly triumphant, could never suffice. In addition to starving inferior races and taking their land, Germans needed to simultaneously defeat the Jews, whose global power and insidious universalism would undermine any such healthy racial campaign.”
Hitler believed that technology would never be able to increase food production in Germany to the extent needed. Food security thus was the justification he used for waging war and mass extermination. While Hitler and his philosophy my never be duplicated, food security has always been a worry and a source of conflict. Global climate change will affect food production, likely diminishing it in total and causing major redistributions in agricultural productivity. This brings us to Snyder’s warning about “the next genocide.”
“The Holocaust may seem a distant horror whose lessons have already been learned. But sadly, the anxieties of our own era could once again give rise to scapegoats and imagined enemies, while contemporary environmental stresses could encourage new variations on Hitler’s ideas, especially in countries anxious about feeding their growing populations or maintaining a rising standard of living.”
Many countries are unable to feed their populations without importing food. Food scarcity leads to higher prices. In many of the poorer nations food is a large fraction of a family’s budget and price increases lead to political unrest. Some attribute the “Arab spring” to widespread concerns in the Middle East about food security at the time.
Snyder points out that Africa is the only location where there still exists a significant amount of underutilized arable land. The fact that it is underutilized does not mean it isn’t providing food for the local populations, but it does mean the land is a tempting target for wealthy countries in need of more food. Many have already closed deals with African nations to work land currently being used by local Africans to produce food to be shipped back home—a form of agricultural imperialism.
Snyder suggests China as a country that is incapable of feeding its population and could eventually succumb to “ecological panic.”
“The Chinese government must balance a not-so-distant history of starving its own population with today’s promise of ever-increasing prosperity — all while confronting increasingly unfavorable environmental conditions. The danger is not that the Chinese might actually starve to death in the near future, any more than Germans would have during the 1930s. The risk is that a developed country able to project military power could, like Hitler’s Germany, fall into ecological panic, and take drastic steps to protect its existing standard of living.”
“How might such a scenario unfold? China is already leasing a tenth of Ukraine’s arable soil, and buying up food whenever global supplies tighten. During the drought of 2010, Chinese panic buying helped bring bread riots and revolution to the Middle East. The Chinese leadership already regards Africa as a long-term source of food. Although many Africans themselves still go hungry, their continent holds about half of the world’s untilled arable land. Like China, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea are interested in Sudan’s fertile regions — and they have been joined by Japan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in efforts to buy or lease land throughout Africa.”
“Nations in need of land would likely begin with tactfully negotiated leases or purchases; but under conditions of stress or acute need, such agrarian export zones could become fortified colonies, requiring or attracting violence.”
Snyder leaves us with this warning:
“It is not difficult to imagine ethnic mass murder in Africa, which has already happened; or the triumph of a violent totalitarian strain of Islamism in the parched Middle East; or a Chinese play for resources in Africa or Russia or Eastern Europe that involves removing the people already living there; or a growing global ecological panic if America abandons climate science or the European Union falls apart.”