Last week, Timothy Snyder, Yale Housum Professor of History, gave a talk at the Yale School of Forestry on the topics of his book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. He explained to his audience how the Second World War can be understood in environmental terms and stressed the importance of learning from history, especially in our current political situation.

Professor Snyder explained that Hitler’s thinking, at its core, was ecological, in the sense that it dealt with humans’ relationship to nature. Hitler’s ideology was essentially about humanity’s struggle for resources. This struggle, Hitler believed, would occur between races, and the superior race would triumph.

Professor Snyder points out that it is a common misinterpretation to think that Hitler believed that the Jews were an inferior race, but the reality was that Hitler didn’t believe the Jews were a race at all, and for that matter he denied them humanity. The Jews, Hitler believed, were behind a global conspiracy to twist the human mind out of its natural state. Any ideology that preached equality and solidarity was a Jewish plot to undermine the racial struggle. Therefore, Hitler could make the assertion that Communism and Judaism were essentially part of the same corrupting force, and that it was the Jews’ fault that Germany hadn’t triumphed.

To Hitler, triumph in the racial struggle was not about having enough to survive, it was about having more than everyone else. Hitler was able to politicize his ideology through the concept of Lebensraum, or “living space”. To have Lebensraum was to live better than any other population on the planet. But this notion of the good life was always changing; the standard of what it meant to have Lebensraum depended on what those around you had. And those around you, in 1930s Germany, included the United States.

Professor Snyder pointed out that we often ignore how much Hitler talked about the United States. He referenced it as the standard which Germany had to rise above. With that perspective, Hitler believed that in order to achieve Lebensraum, Germany needed its own Manifest Destiny, its own expansion.

Hitler wanted to expand into Ukraine, which was known as the “breadbasket of Europe.” Its land was so fertile that the earth was black, hence the name of Snyder’s book. Between Berlin and Ukraine lay the largest concentration of Jews in Eastern Europe. In order to achieve his world order, Hitler didn’t just need to conquer states, he had to destroy the notion of the state in these territories. He had to remove the protection of citizenship and law from entire populations.

Professor Snyder is unique in his interpretations of the Holocaust as environmental history.  There is a tendency in the study of history, he points out, to focus on “narratives of rescue.” This is especially true for the Second World War. And while the Normandy landings and the liberation of Auschwitz are important parts of history, it is not enough to only study them. “The problem with our focus on the rescuers and rescued is that by the time those terms become relevant, the Holocaust already happened.”

Environmental history is the study of humans’ interactions with nature, and how these come to shape our politics and conflicts. There is nothing more universal than our relationship with the environment. We’ve always depended on the planet, and we always will. To study the Holocaust as environmental history is to make the 1930s and 1940s familiar to our reality, to remind us that the Holocaust was not a unique moment in our history that will never happen again, but that its devastation and tragedy are never far from us. 

To end his talk, Professor Snyder talked about our current political and environmental reality. Climate change is shaping some of the most devastating conflicts worldwide and because of this we must be very conscious about what it means to have the United States adopt a policy that augments climate change. A policy that augments the environmental phenomenon that could leave northwestern Mexico without drinking water, or drown the homes of millions of Pacific islanders, or cause droughts and famines in some of the most economically vulnerable places on Earth.

Our “narratives of rescue” always have a redeeming quality to them, but as we face one of the most pressing and dangerous crisis of our history, we must remember that, as Professor Snyder points out, “If you imagine going to the point where somebody has to be rescued, it’s already over.”