Black Earth: a thesis taken a bit too far

Utrecht, December 21, 2015

Reputed Holocaust-historian Timothy Snyder published a new interpretation of the Holocaust this year: Black Earth - the Holocaust as History and Warning. Critical reviews appeared among others in The Guardian and The New York Times.

I am not writing another review; I just reflect on one particular detail in the book. Snyder's thesis, as I understand it, is that where, in occupied Europe during WWII, the normal organisations of the state were still intact (as was the case in the West), the Holocaust was far less complete than there where the pre-existing state had been thoroughly destroyed (as was the case in Poland, the Baltic republics, Belarus and Ukraine). Indeed, if one compares per country the percentages of the Jews deported and killed, there is a striking difference between East and West: in the West, relatively many Jews managed to survive.

There is, however, one exception to this rule: the Netherlands. Although in France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Norway the percentage of Jews killed was well below 50% and in most cases even below 30%, in the Netherlands this was 75%, which compares well with percentages obtained in eastern Europe. There are explanations for this state of affairs, but one doesn't find them in Snyder's book.

Instead, there is a comment about the people who sheltered the family of Anne Frank which seems inspired by the wish to see the main thesis confirmed rather than by any understanding of life and moral dilemmas of conscientious Dutch people during the occupation: The Dutch citizens who had hidden her [i.e., Anne Frank's] family survived, since what they did was not subject to criminal prosecution in the Netherlands (p. 221).

This comment is offensive and nonsensical. Offensive, because by implying that sheltering Jews was risk-free, it trivialises the decision potential helpers had to make.

Nonsensical, because the comment suggests that the rule of (Dutch) law was still in force in the country. In fact, although Dutch courts of law continued to function, a parallel system of German courts had arisen, which punished offences against the Germans (and certainly, Judenbegünstigung - doing favours to Jews - was perceived by the Nazis as directly working against their interests). And it was the Germans who decided where a suspect was brought to court. Apart from those courts, there was the system of Schutzhaft, by which the SD (the security police under SS control) could put people in concentration camps without any form of process whatsoever.

Timothy Snyder may be surprised at the number of things "not subject to criminal prosecution in the Netherlands" which could still bring you in a concentration camp: whistling "It is a long way to Tipperary" on an Amsterdam tram, celebrate the birthday of the Dutch queen, wearing a yellow star whilst not being Jewish (as a protest), singing the Dutch national anthem in church, founding an independent journal, printing and distributing such a journal,... the list is endless.

Due to the disparity in judicial systems, the policy towards people who sheltered Jews was erratic: some got away scot-free, others were sent to German or Dutch concentration camps (such as one of my wife's uncles, Benjamin Blankenstein, whose name appears on Yad Vashem's "Righteous among the Nations" list. He died in Bergen-Belsen in the spring of 1945). It all depended on by whom you were caught, and who handled your case. Another thing "not subject to criminal prosecution in the Netherlands" was sheltering a British or American pilot whose plane had been shot down over the Netherlands. Here the policy was not erratic at all: you got the bullet - no exceptions.

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