We all know the story, and many of us teach it. Hitler, a failed Austrian art student and Great War veteran rose to power in the land of Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven. He and his Nazi Party dismantled German democracy and instigated the Second World War. Under the cover of war, Hitler’s Germany orchestrated the murder of six million Jews and myriad others.

We also know, more or less, what Hitler was thinking. He was an antisemite, an ultranationalist, and an anti-liberal. He was a prophet of bad science and warmongering expansionism.

Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth

Timothy Snyder, Yale Historian, had already written a meticulous and devastating book on Nazi atrocities before Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015). That one was called Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010). Snyder, who reads and speaks many languages — he claims eleven, apparently — exhaustively researched the consequences of successive occupations by murderous regimes in central Europe. You didn’t want to live in Ukraine in the 1930s and 1940s.

Black Earth is shorter and less of a landmark than Bloodlands. It is focused on Hitler, Germany, and the Holocaust, not a chronicle and comparison of German and Soviet occupations. What I found particularly powerful about Black Earth, however, was Snyder’s ability to answer two important questions about Hitler and the Holocaust so persuasively and succinctly.

The Four Question Method is, among other things, a reading strategy. Jon and I claim that there are only four questions historians and social scientists ask and answer. Everything else they do is derivative or confused. If you know the 4QM, Snyder’s Black Earth is clear as day.

Snyder’s first argument is an interpretation, an answer to Question Two: What were they thinking? Snyder shows, though careful analysis of Hitler’s writing and speeches, that underlying Hitler’s ambition for lebensraum — “living room” —  was a sense of “ecological panic.” Hitler believed that the struggle for survival between races was conditioned by scarcity. Lebensraum wasn’t just a fantasy of empire and domination. It was, Hitler’s mind, a requirement for survival on an earth that could not sustain us all.

Even Hitler’s antisemitism was colored by this assumption of immutable environmental scarcity. It was a plot by cunning Jews and “Jewish science” to lull the Aryans and other strong races into a sense of environmental complacency. Those Germans who failed to recognize the dire and immediate nature of the struggle for survival were deluded by a Jewish worldview that threatened them with extinction in that winner-take-all struggle.

Snyder’s second argument is an explanation, an answer to Question Three. When and where were Jews most at risk of annihilation? Snyder’s answer to that question echoes his work in Bloodlands, as well as Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, as Snyder acknowledges. The key variable is “state destruction.” In places where civil society, the rule of law, and political institutions survived the Nazi (and Stalinist) onslaught, Jews were much more likely to survive than elsewhere. Nazi genocidal plans bore their greatest fruit in places where the local capacity to resist, enshrined in those institutions, was destroyed. Danish and, ironically, German Jews survived at much higher rates than those of Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, places where killing could be carried on unimpeded by political opposition or bureaucratic encumbrance.

Asking The Right Questions

It’s hard to make an original, persuasive argument about a topic as well researched as the Holocaust. Snyder has made two. He did it by asking two clear and compelling questions and then pursuing them doggedly. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a multilingual savant.

Snyder’s work also shows how our understanding of the world hangs on asking the right questions, and in turn, how giving a new answer to any of those questions compels us to return to the story about the world we thought we knew.

Hitler was an environmental thinker. Not the Green Party kind, obviously, but the kind that, ominously, believed in impending ecological calamity. Hitler thought that immutable scarcity made that calamity inevitable. It’s not. But it is impending. Moreover, the “warning” of Snyder’s subtitle clearly refers to the fragility of the political institutions that sustain peace and civility. When we rage against the state, we endanger the bulwark against bloodlands. Snyder wrote Black Earth in 2015, but the message has ripened since then. (Snyder has repeated this warning in two subsequent books, On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom.)

Thanks to Snyder, we need to answer Questions One (“What happened?”) and Four (“What do we think about that?”) about the Nazis yet again. The story is slightly different now: it’s a story where the perpetrators’ motives included ecological panic and the conditions included state destruction. And what do we learn from that? This, for sure: that our world is more precarious than we thought. Political institutions, under global assault, may be the difference between life and death. And in the face of environmental catastrophe panic, rather than problem-solving, is a reaction we can ill afford.