Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The "Extended Play" Counterfactual: Michael Marrus on Tim Snyder's "Black Earth"


The publication of Tim Snyder's new book, Black Earth, offers a fresh opportunity to see how counterfactual reasoning is being applied to the subject of the Holocaust.  I am still to read the book, which is a sequel of sorts to his previous study, Bloodlands, which I discussed in my own recent study, Hi Hitler!  But I took note of the recent review published by the eminent historian Michael Marrus in The New York Times


Marrus assumes a largely critical stance towards the book, focusing in particular on Snyder's claims about the relative importance of antisemitism and state power in the murder of European Jewry.

Near the end of his review, Marrus writes:

"Having reached the start of the war in 1939, we are still without a survey of German or European Jewry, a sense of the varying potency of ­anti-Semitism or other contextual factors in the events of the time. As a result, Snyder gives us insufficient means to appreciate one of the key elements of the Holocaust — the Nazi determination to hunt down and murder Jews wherever they lived, even in countries like England and Ireland, which Hitler’s legions had not yet had the opportunity to conquer."

"Instead, Snyder highlights the issue of the state. Playing down anti-Semitism as a driving force behind Eastern European involvement in the Holocaust, he introduces a special kind of politics generated by the Germans’ and, to some degree, the Soviets’ destruction of the states in territories they envisioned as part of their respective empires. The destruction of state machinery, he says, first by the Soviets and then by the Germans, stimulated a frenzy of lawlessness and murder, facilitating, in case of the Nazis, genocidal campaigns against imagined enemies. Killing flourished in 'zones of statelessness,' Snyder writes, extending his analysis at this point to Western Europe, and even Germany itself. 'Wherever the state had been destroyed,' he tells us, 'whether by the Germans, by the Soviets, or both, almost all of the Jews were murdered.'"

"A more pertinent observation, I believe, is that in some countries — notably France and the Netherlands — despite the radically different proportions of Jews murdered, the persistence of prewar bureaucracies facilitated the registering of Jews and the carrying out of the Final Solution. A better interpretation would depend less on statelessness than on the degree to which the Germans were able to apply their power. Murder varied according to wartime strategy, geography, the concentrations of the Jewish population and the attitudes of the locals. And the most crucial variable of all may have been time. Had the 1944 D-Day landings failed, and had the war persisted for several more years, killing rates might have approached 100 percent everywhere, rather than the different percentages on which some historians continue to speculate."

This observation echoes claims made by earlier historians, who have used the same counterfactual claim to underscore the Holocaust's uniqueness.  As I pointed out in Hi Hitler!, "The supporters of uniqueness typically advanced their case with sweeping assertions about the totality of the Nazis’ murder plans.  Steven Katz, for example, argued in 1981 that because Hitler’s goal was 'to make the world Judenrein by the elimination of…all Jews as concrete individual human beings,' it stood to reason that if 'Hitler had had his way,…there would have been no ‘Jews’ after the 1940s.” Similarly, Yehuda Bauer stressed that the Holocaust was set apart from other genocides by “its intended totality.  The Nazis were looking for…all Jews.  According to Nazi policy, all persons with three or four Jewish grandparents were sentenced to death for the crime of having been born.  Such a policy…would have undoubtedly been applied universally if Germany had won the war.' Finally, William D. Rubinstein speculated that even if World War II had not actually been won by the Nazis, but merely 'lasted longer,…it seems certain that every Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe would have perished.'"

Rubinstein's point directly anticipates Marrus's in the sense that it asks us to imagine an "extended play" version of history transpiring beyond the point when its course was interrupted in reality.   It represents the opposite of the "clockstopper counterfactual," which asks us to imagine the course of history being interrupted before it did in reality (I've discussed this kind of counterfactual on previous occasions in this blog).  An extended play counterfactual allows us to recognize how history would have continued to unfold without outside intervention and may allow us to appreciate the causal factors that were ultimately driving the course of events.  In this instance, antisemitism may end up emerging as a more important factor than Snyder allows in his study.  It sheds light on the importance of motive, as opposed to means, in the perpetration of the Holocaust.

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