The Holocaust and State Destruction

In Timothy Snyder’s new book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, one of the most essential themes is that of the destruction of states by the Nazi regime, and the perils which can befall innocent groups – minorities and even those comprising majorities – when state destruction takes place.

By ‘state destruction’, Snyder does not simply mean the ordinary – if traumatic – processes of invasion and annexation which had to some extent forged the map of Europe for many centuries; instead he writes of a very different situation: the act of erasing states from the map, declaring their existence at an end, and saying that they had never been legitimate entities in any case.

This was and remains a distinctly radical phenomenon, and it represented an immense challenge both to the diplomatic status quo ante bellum and to those who had been citizens of the states destroyed by the German Reich.

The destruction of the state, as Snyder portrays it, represents an abrupt severing of ordinary life, a kind of return to ‘year zero’ in national and personal terms. Institutions which had hitherto wielded immense power and influence were simply erased in the face of new political realities; traditions and customs which had shaped lives for generations were eliminated; and all the protection afforded by such things as the rule of law was suddenly rendered invalid in the eyes of the new occupiers.

In Austria, after the Anschluss with Germany in 1938, Jews found their situation to have rapidly deteriorated. As soon as the union was announced, many of them were forced on to the streets to form part of thrown-together ‘scrubbing parties’. These were soon put to work by the Austrian SA (who began this process before the German military had even arrived) in the manner the name suggests – but this represented even more than simple and crude attempts at humiliation; what they were in some cases removing from the streets was the very name of the country. ‘Austria’ had ceased to exist.

The same was true, after the invasion in September 1939, of Poland. That part which was to be occupied by the German military was soon denuded of its institutions and all which gave it aspirations to statehood; in parallel, the same occurred in the part of the country occupied by the USSR, which, in addition, witnessed the forcible eradication by the NKVD of all who could serve as potential focal points for a national resurgence.

According to Snyder, here – in both German-occupied and initially Soviet-occupied Poland – was where Jews and other national minorities were most at risk of violence. Because there was no state in Poland – as there was in occupied Denmark, for example, to protect minorities and apply such things as the rule of law to deter extra-judicial violence – those who Snyder terms ‘entrepreneurs of violence’ in the SA and latterly the SS could follow Adolf Hitler’s long-held ambition of eradicating Europe’s Jews.

These forces, which were in fact private armies (at heart contravening the traditional definition of the state, which includes the monopolisation of violence) running parallel to the state and occasionally intersecting with it, were to provide much of the impetus for the Holocaust, both as it began – with mass shootings in newly dissolved nations – and as it ended, with extermination camps in occupied Poland. (Auschwitz, as Snyder writes, ‘was built on a zone of state destruction, after the invasion of Poland and as part of the attempt to obliterate the Polish political nation’.)

The same was true, in many cases, for the other nations German forces invaded and occupied after its invasion of the USSR in 1941. Snyder makes repeated and pointed reference to the ‘double occupation’ of countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the eastern part of Poland which had initially fallen under Soviet rule after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

For Snyder the citizens of these countries, having already seen the consequences of totalitarian rule, were eager to avoid the potential hazards of another; this provided a great deal of ‘political resource’ for the German occupiers, who could exploit this fear and have eastern European populations turn against, condemn and even kill their Jewish neighbours.

With all remnants of statehood destroyed and all hope of independence apparently gone, a very large number of such people ended up collaborating with the SS and Einsatzgruppen in mass murder. Jealous of material resources and often desirous of more, especially during the lean times which war made inevitable, some people chose to participate in the committing of atrocities. Similarly, one thing the Nazis, with their Hitlerian fanaticism and desire to crush what they thought of as Jewish power, could not understand about those whose countries they had conquered was their desire to escape their own role in the Soviet system; for many, following the German policy of killing Jews could have represented some attempt at exculpation.

But even in such situations, Snyder is unequivocal: ‘Only the destruction of the state transformed cities with Jewish particularities into sites for a general policy of killing’. He states also that ‘denial of citizenship, usually by the destruction of states, was what permitted the mass murder of Jews’. In short, such things cannot be put down to the actions of conquered peoples alone.

This thesis could serve to change how many – especially in the West – perceive the war and the crimes of Nazi Germany. Rather than an opportunistic act, the policy of extermination was driven by fevered fears – some of them almost ecological – and carried out with radical ruthlessness. In addition, rather than being the result of an overly powerful state in isolation, the horrific culmination of this policy can be seen to have resulted from the calculated destruction of states; and the only thing which eventually stopped such a crime against humanity was nothing less than the single greatest application of state power – a culmination of Great Britain and its empire, the United States of America, and the Soviet Union – in the history of the world.