World War 2: Black Earth – Who Destroyed Poland? [PART 1]

Updated on

Danylo was sweating. What would the NKVD (Soviet secret police) do to him? Danylo was sure he was a doomed man, so he kissed his mother goodbye and asked her to pray for him as he approached the local commissar. The commissar was at first hostile, and Danylo’s mother was frightened but then saw him a few days later as he jumped off a jeep with a smile on his face. Danylo and his family will never forget that fateful day. It was Sept. 25, 1939, and he was now an informer for the NKVD.

Danylo Tereshchenko  was born in a small town in Volhniya in November 1918. Although he grew up a Greek Catholic peasant, he read in his spare time and mastered Russian, German, Roman Catholisy, Lutheranism and Russian Orthodoxy. This allowed him to blend into many social groups, and he would be a vital spy for the Polish authorities, which kept a close eye on the growing Ukrainian nationalist movement in southern Poland. On Sept. 20, 1939, shortly after World War 2 begun, USSR troops entered what for the past two decades had been Poland.

The area had been assigned to the USSR under the terms of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, struck right before World War 2 “begun”. Danylo became an informer for the Soviets on the Ukrainian nationalists. The Soviets did not care that Danylo worked for the Polish regime because he was competent and well-informed on who was a potential ally and who was an enemy. He was an opportunist and did not care much for ideology. He had heard reports (emphatically denied by Joseph Stalin) that Germany was set to invade the USSR. A few days after Operation Barbarossa, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists declared an independent Ukraine. Danylo knew that the Germans had no intention of allowing this, and he offered his services to the SS. Again, the Schutzstaffel (SS), or “Protective Echelon,” which served as Nazi regime leader Adolf Hitler’s protective force, knew that Danylo was a Communist, but they saw a man they could trust and one who had deep knowledge of the Ukrainians who might oppose the German colonization of Ukraine. Danylo helped point out who would pose a danger to German rule and within months was taking part in mass shootings of local Jews in the area.

The above story is fictional, and although exaggerated in scope, it nonetheless represents the core of Snyder’s thesis. This is the crux of Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

What caused the Holocaust? Statelessness. Who committed it? Not only opportunists but many times former Communists who wanted to erase their past associations with the USSR. Who was responsible for the death of the Jews of Europe? Not the World War 2 era UPA (a Ukrainian Fascist right-wing paramilitary organization), not the AK (Poland’s home army and Europe’s largest resistance group), not right-wing nationalists. It was the fault of Hitler’s fanatic Lebensraum policy and the destruction of states by Hitler and his former partner in crime, the USSR.

Poland1937linguistic World War 2
Poland prior to World War 2
Europe under Nazi domination World War 2
Europe under Germany rule – World War 2
This was a difficult book to review. I try not to read Holocaust books even though my area of passion is World War 2 Eastern Front, and there is much overlap, as I find them depressing. However, I felt I needed to read this one.

My first issue with Snyder is one absurd claim he makes on page 150.

Snyder claims:

The notion that local east European antisemitism killed the Jews of eastern Europe confers upon others a sense of superiority akin to that the Nazis once felt. These people are quite primitive, we can allow ourselves to think. Not only does this account fail as an explanation of the Holocaust; it’s racism.


We fall into the trap of ethnicization and collective responsibility, we collude with Nazi and Soviet propagandists…..

Yet, Snyder himself places all the blame for World War 2 and the Holocaust on the Russians and the Germans. Just like it is not wrong or racist to state that the Americans had a horrific, racist system only 50 years ago (parts of which still exist today), so too, it is not Nazi (a.k.a. racist) to say that certain parts of the population hated Jews and participated in massacres  state the same as Poland and Ukraine in the 1930 and 40s. It should also be noted that this is not a genetic composition. In fact, Poland was probably the best place to live for Jews and even Muslims (and possibly even Catholics) for many hundreds of years. Before being dismembered by Russia and Germany, Poland was arguably the most advanced democracy on earth (for more on this topic see Poland: A History).

However, many nations have dark periods, and while I am not saying all or even a majority of Poles or Ukrainians, etc. supported murdering Jews, there were collaborators and a good percentage of Jew haters. I am not even going to begin to get into the fact that many Poles saved Jews or that everyone, especially Jews, owes a debt of gratitude to the Poles who made a massive contribution to the war, especially in the Battle of Britain (Poles in Defence of Britain), and by helping crack the enigma (Enigma: How the Poles Broke the Nazi Code). It is both hypocritical and non-objective to ignore these facts.

Snyder was not as blatantly pro-Polish and Ukrainian or anti-Russian as he is in some of his prior books. In The Reconstruction Of Nations, Snyder argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that the reason Eastern Europe did not end up like the Balkans after the Iron Curtain fell was largely due to the attitude of the Polish Government. The Poles reconciled themselves to the post World War 2 borders created by Stalin, renounced territorial claims to cities like Lvov and Vilna, and discouraged the agitation of Polish minorities outside of Poland. Snyder, whether justified or not, comes with a bias, just as I do, coming with family who came from current day Belarus and Ukraine. However, besides this one page which I found outrageous, Snyder only implied the lack of any guilt by anyone besides the Germans or Russians by roundabout methods. His bias with Poland notwithstanding, Snyder showed more objectivity in this book than he did in some of his prior books and recent articles.

Snyder, in a roundabout way, attempts to downplay hatred of Jews (judenhass) as a cause for the Holocaust as much as possible, although he does it in a way which does not hit raw nerves as Bloodlands did a bit. He does make some convincing arguments, especially noting that neither Lithuania nor Latvia had no history of Jew hatred, yet committed horrible genocide.

To make matters less confusing, as the borders have changed so many times, we will confine ourselves to current day Belarus. In general, the Belorussians were the far least likely to collaborate with the Germans and were the least hostile to the Jews — but why? According to Snyder’s convincing thesis that many people involved in the pogroms were Communists who wanted to prove their loyalty, why did not more Belorussians join the German hunt for Jews?

Ribbentrop-Molotov WWII World War 2
World War 2

However, as I was reading the book, I kept asking, “What about Belarus?”

Snyder finally brought up the topic and noted how important Belarus was in the Holocaust. It had a huge population of Jews and was probably the most devastated country during World War 2, with 90% of the villages destroyed and 20% of the overall population murdered. Yet he notes that the Germans had a lot of trouble finding collaborators in Belarus because of the lack of judenhass in the region.

Belarus had an almost non-existent nationalist movement as can be explained in the region known as Poelsie (which at the time was mostly part of Poland). Even by World War 2 when nationalism grew in places like Poland and Ukraine in Polesie, most people there identified themselves as Poleshuks (residents of Polesie – South Belarus, North Ukraine) because they had a weak sense of national identity.

The main difference before World War 2 lay in religion.

The Orthodox church did not care about ethnic differences and used the old Russian language for all services. There were some who changed Orthodox for the Catholic church to become a Pole and make a career in governmental institutions. Therefore, worshipers had to address their prayers to God in the language of that Bible. Plus most of them were illiterate. There were some Polish families there as well, but quite few.

If the locals were asked, “Who are you?” by nationality, they were at a loss and responded, “I am local,” or, “I am Christian.” So what did the Germans do?

The role of the Wehrmacht in war crimes is so well-documented today that we will not waste time on this point. The Germans were frustrated they had to take semi-reluctant Wehrmacht soldiers to do their barbarous work. However, Snyder does not explain why Belorussian police and local collaborators could not be used on a far wider scale. This is a critical flaw on Snyder’s part in the lack of a thesis for a vital region of the destruction of Eastern-European Jewry in World War 2.

This is a problem for the thesis of the book. Belarus was impacted by the Sovietization of the region (both in pre-1939 borders and in the area which at the time was Eastern Poland and taken over by the USSR after World War 2 begun). Perhaps judenhass did have a role, notwithstanding Lithuania and Latvia (or Estonia) as examples. Perhaps in those areas, one could find another reason to explain participation. First off, many Jews in Lithuania were seen connected with Pilsudski’s regime, which was technically in a state of war with Lithuania for 20 years. Jews had voted earlier on the status of Vilna/Wilno/Vilnius to remain neutral. Just as Lithuanians killed Jews to remake the demographics of the capital, so too they killed Polish. See The World on Fire and Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe

Second, Snyder relies on scant evidence to prove the mood of the attitude of the people in those two Baltic nations during the World War 2 era. Both were ruled by dictators who were very tolerant to the Jews (especially in contrast to other regimes in the area), but how much did that reflect popular opinion? That question is not raised or even considered much. Furthermore, since the dictators wanted to keep peace in their countries for economic reasons and because they faced threats from the USSR, Germany and, in Lithuania’s case, Poland, they had every reason to crack down on citizens who would disturb the peace. Furthermore, this would more likely induce the population to keep in line with measures, especially in a state where there are few forests and opportunities to really oppose a regime. I am not suggesting that anti-Semitism was a big issue in those two Baltic states in the World War 2, compared to the rest of Europe, but Snyder’s thesis does not provide any evidence really.

Snyder also fails to point out the differences between nations which hated the USSR, Germany, the Jews and other groups. For example, Lithuania hated Poland and Germany, while Latvia hated Germany. However, both countries saw the USSR as the lesser of two evils, especially as they were under USSR rule until the German invasion. But this does not mean that there was no judenhass in the World War 2 era. This dilemma was not as problematic in Western Europe where, although Bolshevism was a threat, it seemed much more remote, being separated from the West by a powerful Germany. See White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 and The Miracle on the Vistula.

World War 2 – WHO destroyed Poland?

In the chapter on the destruction of Poland, Snyder repeatedly mentions how Hitler wanted to “destroy” Poland after World War 2 begun. This chapter is his key segway into how Jews in total stateless areas had the lowest chance of survival, while those in a state had the highest chance. But was Poland destroyed because of Hitler’s wishes or their partners in crime?

Robert Conquest states emphatically in Stalin: The Breaker of Nations that it was Stalin who wanted to completely destroy Poland. Stalin was afraid that any Polish puppet state on the western side of the Bug River would cause problems.  To be fair (and he is largely correct), Conquest blames nearly everything under the sun on Stalin. However, other sources indeed point the finger directly at Stalin.

In Anthony Read and David Fisher’s masterpiece on Molotov-Ribbentrop, The Deadly Embrace, they discuss in depth specifically “who destroyed Poland.”  Below is a damning quote on the topic:

“Stalin had personally told Schulenburg that in order to avoid “anything that might in future create friction between Germany and the Soviet Union…. he considered it wrong to leave an independent residual Poland.” —  page 345

Some Poles initially had welcomed Hitler’s rise before World War 2, as they saw him as less of a threat than many nationalist Germans. Hitler grew up in Austria, and the clash there was usually between the Ethnic Germans and the Czechs. By contrast, the nationalist Prussians saw the Poles as their ethnic enemy, and many identified themselves by Protestantism as opposed to Roman Catholicism (See Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis.)

Snyder told me regarding Poland:

“I’d ask you not to consider those things as alternatives.  In order to create a puppet state, an existing state must (often) be destroyed.  Thus a Slovak state arises after the destruction of Czechoslovakia, and a Croatian one after the destruction of Yugoslavia.  German planning about Poland was fluid because hasty and because, typically, different agencies had different ideas.  But Hitler’s wish that the existing Polish state be destroyed — including, critically, its political class — was consistently expressed.”

Snyder is right that plans regarding Poland were hasty, especially as Moltov Ribbentropp was only concluded a week before the war (and revised after the fall of Poland). Additionally, Hitler clearly disliked the Poles, committed a horrific genocide, and turned out to be far worse than most Prussian nationalists would have been. But two questions remain. Who wanted to destroy Poland? And was Hitler’s statelessness a deliberate policy to kill Jews or was it a byproduct of other concerns as we (arguably) see with Poland? The answer is not clear anywhere in Europe, and I would argue that as everything was hastily planned in the East, it was a byproduct, and there were internal Nazi arguments over what to do with places like Ukraine. For more on Nazi racial policies and planning for post-War Europe, see Mark Mazower’s masterpiece Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, which Snyder also quotes extensively in Black Earth).

This brings us to another question. Hypothetically, would it had mattered if Poland (or Ukraine) were totally destroyed or set up as a “complete” puppet state? Note that Snyder (rightfully) differentiates between full puppet states like Slovakia and loose puppet states like Vichy France, which had much sovereignty (see Robert Paxton’s Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order for more on Vichy and domestic and foreign policy in World War 2). It is hard to believe that the result would be different for the Jews. Conversely, in a hypothetical situation, if the Polish people loved the Jews in the World War 2 era and saw them as no different than Roman Catholic Poles, Pilsudski was a leader in exile and the state was destroyed, and Pilsudski (and perhaps the Pope) told all Poles to save the Jews, is it even debatable that a higher percentage would have survived?

Let us give a comparison to the Saarland. The area was a mandate after WWI with a choice after 15 years to remain independent, join France or reunite with Germany. In the free and fair elections (which were monitored using troops by the League of Nations) which took place in 1935, the heavily Catholic and Communist area voted 90% to rejoin Germany. This vote took place after Hitler had seized power, after the night of the Long Knives occurred, and after Hindenburg. Hitler had largely secured absolute power.

The people of the Saarland were voting to join Nazi Germany largely rid of opponents. If Brunning, Hindenberg, or Stresemann had been leader in 1935, the vote likely would have been the same. Most expected the largely ethnic German Saarland to vote for reunification, but the overwhelming results for this surprised even election observers. However, it is hard to argue that the vote did not demonstrate the growing popularity of Nazism. For more on the general topic of German support for Nazism, see anything by Ian Kershaw.  So too, in all these areas, even though statelessness may have been a key factor, judenhass was still a key element throughout World War 2. (For more on the Saarland between 1920 and 1935, see The Saar Battleground and Pawn.) It is beyond the scope of this article to get into Schleswig, and Upper Silesia referendums, however, a counter-argument to my point could possibly be made comparing (although I think not a fair one) the Saar to those territories.

Click here for part two of my review of World War 2 – Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Leave a Comment