In Bloodlands, his groundbreaking history of mass killing in Eastern Europe from 1933 to 1945, Timothy Snyder reserved exactly three pages for Auschwitz. This was deliberate. Auschwitz is commonly misunderstood as the place where the most Jews were killed, even though by the time the camp was established, more than three-quarters of the Jews who would perish during the war were already dead, shot by the mobile killing units of the Einsatzgruppen or asphyxiated in the death camps of Treblinka, Bełzec, and Sobibór. Auschwitz’s symbolic power had also bewitched a generation of philosophers like Theodore Adorno and Hannah Arendt whose interpretation of the Holocaust largely became our own. They saw in the concentration and death camp an example of an all-powerful state that had taken bureaucracy to its terrifying conclusion, using it as a tool to catalogue, repress and then exterminate an entire class of its own citizens. 

Looking further east, Snyder saw a different kind of killing with different implications. The dehumanizing tattoos of Auschwitz, the orderly gas chambers and crematoria were not what characterized the massacres there. What happened in the territory he dubbed the Bloodlands—in western Belarus and Ukraine, in the Baltic states, and in what was independent Poland—was chaos, improvisation, and sudden death for the vast majority of Jews in lands in which all social and political order had broken down. The only reason we know so much about Auschwitz, Snyder wrote, was because there were some who survived it. For most of those killed in the Holocaust the story was different, but they did not live to tell it.

The book’s aim was to offer a corrective. Snyder aimed to explain what made killing on such a scale possible, tracing how both Hitler and Stalin played out their fantasies of empire and conquest on the same territory, destroying polities and the people they believed were in their way, whether Ukrainian, Polish or Jewish. This new narrative framed the Holocaust as part of a wider phenomenon of mass murder, making Jews one set of victims among the 14 million who were killed. Certainly Jews were unique in this story for their status as nonbeings in Nazi cosmology; but he saw what happened to them from a broader perspective, as the result of a unique and deadly politics that emerged in the Bloodlands.

Yet Snyder did not move from narrative to overarching theory, offering a new way of understanding the killing to counter the codified Auschwitz-inspired one that has stuck in the popular imagination. Instead, he tended to zoom in on human detail, telling the individual stories of starving Ukrainians forced to cannibalism or the Soviet POWS on whom the Nazis first tested poison gas. As the historian Samuel Moyn wrote in a 2010 review, Snyder’s fine-grained work “lays the foundation for some grand new explanation rather than providing one itself.”

This brings us to Black Earth, Snyder’s new book, which is, most definitely, an attempt to provide a “grand new explanation” specifically of the Holocaust—a departure for a historian who seemed wary of such things. It tries to offer lessons, moving Snyder from the historian’s mode to the prophet’s, something that seems to come naturally to him tonally, a self-assured narrator of history as dark prelude.

The book follows the chronology of the war against the Jews from 1939 to 1945, laying out a set of conditions that allowed for the genocide of European Jewry. He begins with Hitler’s ideology, which drew, Snyder argues, on a fear of resource scarcity and the promise of a self-sufficient nation that would always have enough to feed itself and live comfortably. This combined with the identification of a scapegoat, the Jew, who stood in the way of this dream and therefore presented a global threat to be eliminated. But the critical element that brought this vision to reality was the Nazi destruction of states, which created “black holes,” as Snyder puts it, where anarchy made mass murder possible and presented the Germans with collaborators who would join in the killing for the sake of their own redemption.

As Snyder makes clear in an apocalyptic conclusion, these conditions are not particular to the 1930s and 40s, to the Nazis and the Jews, and they could come together again to lead to mass murder on a global scale. In fact, Snyder sees in the disruptions caused by climate change—which, among other things, will reduce the amount of arable land and potable water on earth—a potential threat that could trigger a new Holocaust.

Snyder is so invested in the airtightness of these conditions as necessarily leading to killing that he doesn’t leave much room for the unexplainable, for those actions that defy our moral imagination. There is a difference between deducing how something can happen and giving a definite reason for why it will happen, but here the two seem to get confused. And when it comes to divining the motives of men standing on a killing field with the sound of screaming in their ears, sometimes murdering thousands a day with such intimacy, Snyder conflates an explanation for what made those killing fields possible with an explanation for why a man would murder children and their mothers.

The political vision at the root of the killing, however, is unambiguous. It was Hitler’s dream of the German people as the strongest race, creating the empire they need in order to have enough Lebensraum, living space, to grow their own food and not be dependent on imports over British-controlled oceans. Hitler envisioned a kind of colonial manifest destiny—actually modeled on the American push past the Mississippi—that would involve conquering the fertile Ukraine and subduing its Slav population for the benefit of the superior German people.

Yet, standing in the way of German triumph, as Hitler saw it, were the Jews. The Nazis wrote and spoke about the Jews as a planetary, ecological problem—a non-race, a bacteria, who have managed to enslave the Germans by distracting them from taking what should be theirs. Responsible for a conspiracy that includes creating all the ethical and political systems of the world, from Communism to Capitalism, the Jews wooed people toward universalism and ideas about human equality, and away from what Hitler saw as the only fact of life: racial struggle. According to this logic, then, the Jews needed to be eliminated from the face of the earth so that Germans could finally achieve the quality of life that was their racial birthright. The existence of a single Jewish child was itself enough to undermine the victory that nature itself had ordained for the German.

This worldview fueled Hitler’s plans, both to gain control of the Ukrainian breadbasket and to eliminate the Jews from the world and end their unnatural control over human society. Both ideas converged on the single war aim of destroying the Soviet Union, which Hitler believed to be run by Jews and was in control of the Ukraine. Judeobolshevism, as Snyder terms it, the belief that the Soviet Union was a Jewish plot, would be the main argument Hitler used to rally his people eastward and against the Jews.

Climbing into Hitler’s brain in this way does make his actions more legible. Why, for example, in 1941 did the Nazis decide to increase the killing of Jews just as it became clear that their Soviet offensive was failing? Why not divert all attention and resources to defeating Stalin? Because in Hitler’s mind the two objectives were connected.

But what of the Germans who took part massively in this endeavor? How did Hitler move them toward the kind of magical thinking that saw a rural Polish Jew as responsible for the ills of the world, that made Bruno Muller, commander of an Einsatzegruppe in Poland in 1939 at his first execution lift up a two-year old Jewish child in his hands and say, “You must die so that we can live”?

Snyder doesn’t have an answer to this question (though other historians, such as Christopher Browning in his book Ordinary Men, have tried to provide one). What he does do is identify an important variable that allowed such killing to take place at all: statelessness. Across Europe, it was only in those places where Nazis managed to demolish the state that the “entrepreneurs of violence” could come in and fulfill fantasies such as the one spawned in Hitler’s mind. Destroying states meant undoing their reciprocal relationship with their citizens, meant getting rid of a bureaucracy—with all its dreaded rubber stamps—that could slow down the process of singling out one group for persecution.

German Jews, for example, often assumed to be the primary victims of the Nazis, were killed at a much lower rate than other Jews who came under Nazi control, mostly due to a slow bureaucratic system that involved stripping them of nationality and deporting them east, giving them more time to potentially escape. Unlike the lessons drawn by his predecessors who saw evil in bureaucracy, Snyder asserts that it “it would be closer to the truth to say that it was the removal of bureaucracy that killed Jews.” The state, he writes “endures to create a sense of durability.”

Snyder compares Estonia and Denmark: two countries that came under German control but where the outcomes for Jews were drastically different. Nearly all of Estonia’s Jews were killed—99 per cent in fact—whereas in Denmark nearly all survived. This difference in survival rates cannot be explained by saying that one country was more anti-Semitic than the other, Snyder writes, as simple an explanation as that might seem. In fact, it would be easier to document anti-Semitism in Denmark. While Estonia took in Jewish refugees in the 1930s, Denmark turned them away after 1935.

The difference was that Estonia had a weak state, having been occupied by the Soviets in 1939, and subsequently occupied by the Germans in 1941. Denmark on the other hand, was never invaded by the Soviet Union and when the Germans arrived, they occupied but mostly left the Danish state intact, allowing both king and parliament to remain. When the Final Solution came to Denmark, the Danes understood that giving up Jewish citizens to the Nazis would undermine their own sovereignty, forcing them to violate the protection of their own citizens. With the German navy watching, Denmark then helped send 6,000 of its Jewish citizens in boats to the safety of Sweden. The essential distinction, Snyder contends, was that in one case there was a state that—interested in preserving its own power—wanted to protect its citizens, and in the other case, there existed an anarchic place where killing could easily proceed.

In countries in which the German occupation followed the Soviet, the Nazis found psychological, material and political resources to exploit as they looked for collaborators. Local people were sold the myth of Judeobolshevism as the cause of their troubles and the way to their salvation. If Jews were responsible for what happened to them under Soviet occupation—including the deportations and the killing of prisoners as the Soviets retreated—then revenge should be taken out on Jews. This had the added benefit of politically clearing a Soviet collaborator’s name and pleasing the new Nazi masters.

Rumors spread that killing one Jew was the ticket toward recognition under the Germans. So the Estonian who saw the loss of his independence to the Soviets could be convinced it was his Jewish neighbor’s fault and then also see an added benefit in participating in the killing of Jews as a way to gain favor with the new regime, a way to erase the past and secure the future, a form of “personal and political redemption.” The Germans were then also able to reward such collaborators by doling out the property of huge numbers of now dead Jews.

Snyder is emphatic that it was not ingrained anti-Semitism that led to the easy involvement of the local collaborators, but political calculation, psychological inducement and the promise of loot. What he calls the prevailing “stereotype” of Lithuanians or Ukrainians as more hateful of Jews and therefore more willing to kill them is itself racist, offering us today, he writes, “the same sense of superiority that the Nazis once felt.” In this, Snyder entertains not the slightest objection. “There is no particular reason to think that anti-Semitism was more prevalent in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania between the wars than it was in the United States, Great Britain or Canada,” he writes. Anti-Semitism does not explain why there were mass killings exactly in the summer of 1941 and exactly in those places where Germans had just expelled Soviet power. Only politics does.

This is where Snyder becomes unconvincing. When he reaches beyond the how—the conditions for mass killing—to the why, the ability to flip morality and kill neighbors, it all seems too clean. His discussion of Nazi collaborators in the occupied countries is filled with abstraction. While his argument about the collapse of the state is backed by overwhelming evidence, when he explains why people acted the way they did in these vacuums of authority and order, he too often resorts to the kind of academic jargon that pushes reality away: The collapse of the Soviet regime, he writes, “supplied aesthetic elements of a certain political choreography by which the local population performed Nazi ideology, reconciling its own interests and hopes with the perceived ideas of those who now held power.”  “Aesthetics” and “political choreography” and “performance” feel like strained words for describing what it took to kill a child.

Couldn’t it be the case that it was easier for local people to kill Jews because as Jews they were already beneath moral consideration? What of the research by historians like Jan Gross and others who see patterns of anti-Semitism and violence in Eastern Europe that extend before and even after the double occupation?  Or maybe it’s more than anti-Semitism that motivated these men to kill, something else, something mysterious and untouchable by us today? Is it legitimate to admit this?

Later in the book, Snyder concedes that there is such a category of actions that can’t just be explained by politics: the actions of people like the Polish peasants who saved Jews by hiding them. In fact he explicitly says that while the collaborators could be seen to have “followed standard economic rationality,” it was the rescuers, who risked their own life to shelter Jews, who “were behaving in a way that a norm based on economic calculations of personal welfare would regard as irrational.” Snyder does not push this further. He grants them the mysteriousness of their irrational behavior. How did this small minority of people abide by norms of humanity and disinterested virtue when everyone else was seduced by the Nazis or terrified of them? “Their sense of normality must have come from within, or from something learned or internalized before the war, since there were few or no external sources for the norms they exemplified.” Snyder allows that goodness can reside beyond explanation but evil has to have identifiable, structural reasons.

In his conclusion, Snyder turns to our world today. Like Germany in the 1930s, we too are the children of an era of mass globalization in which we are primed to see local problems as having “planetary” sources. And nothing will have a bigger impact on our daily lives than climate change. Food and water shortages, alterations to our climate and living standards, could breed the same catastrophic ideologies as Hitler’s, searching for an ecological scapegoat, another people who are the bacteria ruining everything. We shouldn’t flatter ourselves that we are so different from the Germans of the 1930s, in that we want the comfort that comes with Lebensraum, fear global catastrophe, and want to heal the world, from the left and the right, with total solutions that often involve the destruction of the state. The conditions, in other words, are ripe.

And Snyder thinks that “if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted, and economic incentives directed toward murder,” that “few of us would behave well.” He certainly couldn’t be more right about our world. We don’t dream these days of a gleaming future. But is he right to predict that killing would soon commence? The slight flaw in this very fine book—which sees rules where only strong potentialities exist—might be a source of hope in this case. Another Holocaust is possible. And Snyder makes a convincing case for what would lead to the killing fields. But he doesn’t explain why someone would pull the trigger. That does remain, as it probably always will, an enigma, as unknowable as why people risk their lives to act righteously. There is no tremendous comfort in realizing this, but doing so frees us, at least, to imagine that learning from the past can alter the future.