Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Review: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

Since I often show the movie Mr. Death, which is about Holocaust denial and science, in my biochemistry seminar, I have an interest in the history of this dark wound on the middle of the 20th century. From that interest, I stumbled into Black Earth, and didn't really know what I was in for. It was hard to read. Not only is it outside my discipline (written by a historian about Eastern European history when I hardly know Eastern European geography, to my own detriment), it is also simply difficult to read what happened. Civilization spiraled -- scratch that, was PUSHED -- into anarchy and death. But climbing this mountain of a book gives a perspective that is unequalled, because Snyder explains how we are pretty much missing the point in our common knowledge about how the Holocaust happened. Everybody knows and everybody's wrong.

The cliché is that Germany forced the Holocaust on Eastern Europe with its efficient organization, Blitzkrieging its way across an unwilling populace. The fact is that most of the bureaucracy and organization was in Germany itself, and there the Jews were actually safer than they were in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. Outside German borders, the Nazis destroyed the state structures and in the absence of those, perverse incentives were set up which twisted ordinary people into mass murderers. To use a bunch of -isms, National Socialism killed more by its libertarianism than by its totalitarianism, and a large majority of the deaths took place outside the walls of Auschwitz.

Just when you think you can't take another chapter of these horrors, Snyder expands on his thesis in a different direction and shows how the unsung heroes who saved Jews were not who you may expect either, but rather the brave diplomats who extended state power to the powerless, and the people sometimes called heretics, who were used to being outcasts, so they took in other outcasts from some hidden strength of spirit. The most prominent churchman who saved the most Jews was from the Greek Catholic Church. I didn't even know there WAS a Greek Catholic Church, but something in that situation gave him the strength to save others when no one else would.

At the end, Snyder discusses how the Holocaust could happen again today. This section is particularly chilling, yet I feel as if this section, because it is so important, should be expanded and nuanced. Snyder argues that scarcity sets up the people to be servants of atrocity, but leaves it for granted early in the book that the Depression set up a level of scarcity that led to the Holocaust. Once I finished the book, I wished there had been more about specifically how the people felt the fear of scarcity, because if Snyder's thesis is right, those conditions are the ones we should be monitoring if we really mean "Never Again." Yet this area seems de-emphasized in the early chapters.

Part of the problem is that I don't know much about Stalin's famines, which illustrate this point exactly and which Snyder mentions but does not explain. But this leads to another problem. Stalin's famines killed a lot of people, and that seems to fit the mold of the common knowledge about an organized state causing mass death that we unthinkingly apply to the Holocaust. Snyder's analysis at the end focuses only on the dangers of another Hitler -- what are the dangers of another Stalin? And why didn't the scarcity in the Soviet Union lead to the pure horror that is the Holocaust? Or are they more equivalent than I think?

More questions than answers here, but that shows how good of a book this is. For a different take on history that is horrifying precisely because it's so different from what you learned in school (yet so well-supported), read this book. Just make sure you set some time aside, because sometimes you can only take a page at a time.

Book Review: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

Sure, some of these stories are better than others, like in any collection. But every story seems to have something in it that makes it worthwhile. One is a rumination on the fixedness of time in the vein of 11-22-63, and since that's my favorite King novel, I'm happy to return to it here (even if it is also a Kindle commercial?!). One is about how a fleeting sin for hire destroys a person from the inside. One is about an evil little boy with a beanie that somehow still communicates the depths of evil and the unfairness of life. And one's about a car that eats people. Can't really find the extra good in that one, but as for all the others, this is worth it, and may be a good sampler of King's plusses and minuses for someone who doesn't want to commit to a behemoth like 11-22-63.