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As we see flashes of an emboldened right-wing across Europe and the Americas, the thing that fascinates me most is how does a liberal, modern society transform into a population capable of killing on the scale seen during the 1930s and 40s?

Timothy Snyder’s book Black Earth gets closest to this answer than anything I’ve read previously, but what’s most disturbing about it isn’t the descriptions of violent death and acts of cruelty carried out by the Nazi’s, it’s that western societies are scarily close to repeating history.

“A common American error is to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority.”

Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

What’s clear is that Nazi Germany isn’t an outlier; it’s the inevitable consequence of rampant social inequality, the embracement of populist leaders, and a willingness to dehumanise sections of society by forcing statelessness upon them. What Black Earth proves is that any society can be twisted into the worst that the Nazi’s perpetrated with just a few social and political tweaks. We’re all capable of the atrocities carried out by the Germans in the 1930’s, no matter how much we may protest.

Most of us would like to think that we possess a “moral instinct.” Perhaps we imagine that we would be rescuers in some future catastrophe. Yet if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted, and economic incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized.

Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

Black Earth isn’t an easy read, but it does give the most concise overview of the holocaust I’ve read so far.

Take a look at Timothy Snyder’s numerous YouTube videos on this and other historical subjects.

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