Black Earth

Historian and author Timothy Snyder discusses climate change, genocide, and the ideology of Hitler.

Photo: Saeima/FlickrTimothy Snyder

Comparing someone or something to Hitler has become something of a running joke, but then again, those hyperventilated comparisons usually come from anonymous cranks in online chat rooms. When a true expert like Yale’s Timothy Snyder says that climate change could bring on conditions similar to those that led to the Holocaust, you sit up and listen. onEarth talked to the history professor about his new book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, climate change, and the lessons we still haven’t learned from Hitler.

You argue in your book that the Holocaust was in part a grab for resources. How do you know that was Hitler’s motivation?

Timothy Snyder: It’s all in the primary sources. Hitler thought that all of life is a racial struggle. He also believed that it’s normal for us to be frightened, to take what we need to survive, and to always want more, and more, and more. Those are the two sides of Lebensraum [a German ideology promoting expansion].

Hitler believed that we need more because we’re animals, and we want more because we’re humans. Anyone who made an argument—whether it was ethical, religious, moral, political, or scientific—that we shouldn’t keep taking and taking, if it meant starving other people, was Jewish in Hitler’s view. So he moved to exterminate the Jews. It’s all very clear in Mein Kampf.

It’s also confirmed by what he did in practice. He led Germany into a war to seize the fertile territory of Ukraine. That’s what the war was actually all about. The western front, which we focus on, was a distraction for Hitler. The main thing was the eastern front, destroying the Soviet Union, seizing Ukraine.

Where does science denial come in?

TS: Hitler believed that science is just a kind of politics, or that politics is just a kind of science, that there really isn’t any difference between the two. He didn’t view science as a privileged realm of experimentation, of hypothesis and conclusion. In a way, that was the most profound foundation of Hitler’s thinking. If you start from that premise—that science doesn’t have the power to change the world—it’s a big step toward what Hitler concludes, namely that you have to take what you can while you can.

Specifically, Hitler did not believe that agricultural technology could significantly expand production, so he fought a war for arable land. Of course, he was wrong. Agricultural technology changed the world dramatically, beginning in the 1950s. Most of us in the West now live in abundance. We have too many calories, and so on.

There is a connection to climate change, although the context is a bit different. If you deny that climate change is happening, and you deny that there are scientific responses that we should be taking now, then you’re generating a world of scarcity. The more climate change there is, the more desertification there is, the more flooding there is, the greater the problems we’re going to have with not enough food and water around the world. At some point way down the line, it might seem more plausible to make the argument that we have to take what we can now.

In the United States, we choose to forget the parts of Hitler that are inconvenient. We remember that we shouldn’t discriminate against other races, but we don’t remember the elements of thought that might actually appeal to us. The ideas of Lebensraum are that your standard of living is holy, that it’s OK to do whatever you want to do in order to maintain your standard of living, and that science isn’t the way forward.

I’m not saying we’re just like the Nazis—that would be absurd. But if we are serious about remembering the Holocaust and serious about opposing Hitler’s ideas, we have to think about the things that are close to home. Those are the ideas that are dangerous.

How do the ideas that you write about play out today? Who’s at risk from a climate change–inspired war or genocide? And who would be the perpetrators?

TS: What I’m trying to argue in Black Earth is that the Holocaust isn’t just a matter of bad people with bad ideas. You have three factors: an ideology of conquest, a condition of ecological panic, and statelessness. The Holocaust isn’t something that happened in Germany; it’s something that happened beyond Germany, as Germany destroyed other states.

A number of genocides—Rwanda, Sudan, and Syria come to mind—make more sense if you keep those factors in mind. In Syria we have a refugee crisis, which is leading Europeans to write numbers on people’s arms, to put up barbed wire, and to return to right-wing populism. In that crisis, you see state failure. You have the destruction of the Iraqi state, the failure of Syria itself, and you have four consecutive years of drought.

In the long run, I’m most worried about China—not because I think the Chinese are worse than other people, but because China is a place where arable soil is in very short supply, where water is in very short supply, where climate change is going to make things much worse very fast.

I don’t know exactly how it would play out. I would just make the general point that if you have a big, powerful country that has a Lebensraum problem, then you’ve got some of the ingredients for a disaster in the future.

Godwin’s Law is a meme saying that in any long debate, someone will eventually make a comparison to the Nazis. How would you respond to an accusation that you’re making a classic overreach by comparing the future climate change crisis to the Holocaust?

TS: Most people who bring out Hitler comparisons aren’t doing it on the basis of reading the primary sources in German, spending 20 years thinking about the Holocaust, and coming up with a new argument. Most of the time when people refer to Hitler or the Nazis, they’re referring to whatever stereotype they already have in their minds.

There’s no question that Hitler overpopulates the Internet ecosphere. I spend a lot of my time as a professional historian cleaning up after people inappropriately talking about Hitler. But the fact that some people misuse conceptions doesn’t mean you can’t learn from history. It would be a great shame if the fact that people talk about Hitler all the time means that we can’t learn from the Holocaust.

Aside from reducing carbon emissions, what changes do we need to make to prevent climate change from causing future conflicts?

TS: The basic line that [Holocaust] museums take—that individuals should observe ethics and that people need to treat their neighbors as neighbors—is very important. But if we want to be realistic, we have to create the conditions in which more people will find it possible to behave ethically.

In the United States and in Europe, from both the right and the left, we’ve developed a rhetoric of suspicion about the state itself. The basic lesson of the Holocaust is that if you allow the state to collapse, it becomes very dangerous for minorities. There has to be a philosophical reconsideration about the state as a good in and of itself.

Whether it’s a couple of hours in New Orleans during a hurricane, or whether it’s a few months in Abu Ghraib, we are all subject to the tendency to behave very differently if conventional institutions are removed.

It’s not enough to be “not Hitler.” The Holocaust involved many years and millions of people. We have to think about how to avoid a period like that.

Then, in terms of ecological panic, there is a rhetoric of catastrophism. We’re getting to a tipping point where we think there’s nothing we can do to avert an environmental calamity, so we should just prepare for that scenario. In fact, we still have time to act. A relatively small investment in alternative sources of energy and a relatively small investment in climate science would make a huge difference.

But we have to do it now, because it will eventually be too late. Again, I point to the Holocaust. Never in human history were larger forces arrayed against any enemy than during the Second World War, and that still did not stop the Holocaust. It was too late. We have to think about what we can do in advance. Protecting people from genocide is not a matter of waiting for disaster and then riding in on a white horse. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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