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Book reviews - reviews of selected recent publications in our field of interest

blackearthby Timothy Snyder London The Bodley Head 2015 

Review by Paul Hoggett

With winter nearing an end the current movement of well over one million refugees, largely from the war torn Middle East, into Europe sees no sign of abating. 

After the initial positive response of Germany and Sweden walls are now going up across the continent threatening to turn Greece into one huge internment camp. The response of wealthy countries such as Britain, hiding behind the natural wall of the English Channel, is shameful.

If this is a trial run for the much larger displacements of peoples that will accompany the deepening climate chaos of the coming decades then the signs are not good. Europe’s initial warm and civil response to the refugees has now turned cold and hostile. There has been little violence yet but European history suggests that this will not be long in coming particularly if, as Russia hopes, the EU begins to break up. We easily forget the terrible price paid by some for the destruction of the state of Yugoslavia just twenty years ago - according to the UNHCR’s own figures over 120,000 Muslims were killed in the Bosnian region.

In her recent article on the CPA website Sally Weintrobe offers a number of invaluable thoughts about care and compassion. In particular let me reproduce one of Sally’s most important arguments:

…people are not inherently caring or inherently uncaring by nature; rather they struggle between a part that cares and a part that does not care. When we take this fact seriously, we know we need frameworks of care – both legal and moral - to keep our uncaring part in check and to support our caring part

It is easy to forget but the framework of law and justice corresponding to the notion of citizenship and statehood provides the modern foundation for such frameworks of care. Human violence flourishes where people are denied or deprived citizenship. When states are absent, rights are impossible to sustain. Described by some as ‘our most distinguished historian of evil’ Timothy Snyder’s new book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning argues that the worst crimes against humanity are not perpetrated by the state but occur where functioning states no longer exist, either because they have been deliberately destroyed by invading powers or because they have collapsed as a result of civil war.

Snyder’s argument is that, contrary to common assumption, the extermination of the Jews did not occur primarily within the territory of the German state but in those areas – Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic countries, where the state had been destroyed after invasions, first by Stalin’s armies then by Hitler’s. The statistics he provides are startling. As he says, “Jews who were German citizens were much more likely to survive than were Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed” (Snyder, 337). His point being that the state, even a fascist state, maintains a rule of law, something which disappears completely where the state is destroyed. It is precisely in these lawless zones where people were engaged in a struggle for survival that the worst crimes against humanity were perpetrated in the Second World War. Snyder cites a survivor of Stalin’s Gulag to say that a person can only be human under human conditions. He adds, “the purpose of the state is to preserve these conditions, so that its citizens need not see personal survival as their only goal” (Snyder, 341).

But Black Earth makes fascinating reading for those interested in climate psychology for another reason. It has become almost a commonplace to say that the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust that followed provide us with a warning, because history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. But Snyder is the first historian of the holocaust to locate this warning explicitly in the context of a future world seriously damaged by climate change. Snyder takes the threat of climate change absolutely seriously. He insists that the basic practical objective underlying Nazism was to secure a habitat, Lebensraum, for the so-called Aryan race to flourish in a world which was seen to be facing an imminent crisis of shortages in foodstuffs and other necessities. Climate change faces the world with same kind of crisis, but this time it is real and not located in the febrile imagination of far right extremists, and the land grab has begun already, particularly in Africa.

Nazism thrived on catastrophism and Snyder warns against those in culture and politics who might re-evoke this in the context of climate change:

The future now clings to us, heavy with complications and crises… In vernacular media -films, video games, and graphic novels – the future is presented as post-catastrophic. Nature has taken some revenge that makes conventional politics seem irrelevant, reducing society to struggle and rescue. The earth’s surface grows wild, humans go feral, and anything is possible. (325)

As Sally Weintrobe argued, too much trauma, inequality and despair leads to volatility in the human climate with dangerous tipping points. Snyder warns us that although it has become fashionable to be cynical about politics, the liberal state with its separation of spheres and powers (legislature from the judiciary, the state from religion, an independent media, etc) is, so far, the best way we have found to provide a social context where it is possible to be human under human conditions.

Returning to the refugee crisis, are we to respond with indifference, hostility or solidarity? This is not just about Syria in 2016, and it is not just about our response to the waves of climate refugees we can expect in the future, because if we get this wrong we will also be eroding the political conditions which make it possible for future generations to be human.