by Timothy Snyder, Yale University.
Nothing can be known about the future, thought Hitler, except the limits of our planet: “the surface area of a precisely measured space.” Ecology was scarcity, and existence meant a struggle for land. The immutable structure of life was the division of animals into species, condemned to “inner seclusion” and an endless fight to the death. Human races, Hitler was convinced, were like species. The highest races were still evolving from the lower, which meant that interbreeding was possible but sinful. Races should behave like species, like mating with like and seeking to kill unlike.
This for Hitler was a law, the law of racial struggle, as certain as the law of gravity. The struggle could never end, and it had no certain outcome. A race could triumph and flourish and could also be starved and extinguished. In Hitler’s world, the law of the jungle was the only law. People were to suppress any inclination to be merciful and be as rapacious as they could. Hitler thus broke with the traditions of political thought that presented human beings as distinct from nature in their capacity to imagine and create new forms of association.
Beginning from that assumption, political thinkers tried to describe not only the possible but the most just forms of society. For Hitler, however, nature was the singular, brutal, and overwhelming truth, and the whole history of attempting to think otherwise was an illusion. Carl Schmitt, a leading Nazi legal theorist, explained that politics arose not from history or concepts but from our sense of enmity. Our racial enemies were chosen by nature, and our task was to struggle and kill and die. “Nature knows,” wrote Hitler, “no political boundaries. She places life forms on this globe and then sets them free in a play for power.”
Darwin / Natural Selection
Since politics was nature, and nature was struggle, no political thought was possible. This conclusion was an extreme articulation of the nineteenth-century commonplace that human activities could be understood as biology. In the 1880s and 1890s, serious thinkers and popularizers influenced by Charles Darwin’s idea of natural selection proposed that the ancient questions of political thought had been resolved by this breakthrough in zoology. When Hitler was young, an interpretation of Darwin in which competition was identified as a social good influenced all major forms of politics. For Herbert Spencer, the British defender of capitalism, a market was like an ecosphere where the strongest and best survived. The utility brought by unhindered competition justified its immediate evils.
The opponents of capitalism, the socialists of the Second International, also embraced biological analogies. They came to see the class struggle as “scientific,” and man as one animal among many, instead of a specially creative being with a specifically human essence. Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist theorist of the day, insisted pedantically that people were animals. Yet these liberals and socialists were constrained, whether they realized it or not, by attachments to custom and institution; mental habits that grew from social experience hindered them from reaching the most radical of conclusions. They were ethically committed to goods such as economic growth or social justice, and found it appealing or convenient to imagine that natural competition would deliver these goods.
Hitler entitled his book Mein Kampf—My Struggle. From those two words through two long volumes and two decades of political life, he was endlessly narcissistic, pitilessly consistent, and exuberantly nihilistic where others were not. The ceaseless strife of races was not an element of life, but its essence. To say so was not to build a theory but to observe the universe as it was. Struggle was life, not a means to some other end. It was not justified by the prosperity (capitalism) or justice (socialism) that it supposedly brought. Hitler’s point was not at all that the desirable end justified the bloody means. There was no end, only meanness. Race was real, whereas individuals and classes were fleeting and erroneous constructions. Struggle was not a metaphor or an analogy, but a tangible and total truth. The weak were to be dominated by the strong, since “the world is not there for the cowardly peoples.” And that was all that there was to be known and believed.
Hitler’s worldview dismissed religious and secular traditions, and yet relied upon both. Though he was no original thinker, he supplied a certain resolution to a crisis of both thought and faith. Like many before him he sought to bring the two together. What he meant to engineer, however, was not an elevating synthesis that would rescue both soul and mind but a seductive collision that destroyed both. Hitler’s racial struggle was supposedly sanctioned by science, but he called its object “daily bread.” With these words, he was summoning one of the best-known Christian texts, while profoundly altering its meaning. “Give us this day,” ask those who recite the Lord’s Prayer, “our daily bread.” In the universe the prayer describes, there is a metaphysics, an order beyond this planet, notions of good that proceed from one sphere to another. Those saying the Lord’s Prayer ask that God “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” In Hitler’s “struggle for the riches of nature,” it was a sin not to seize everything possible, and a crime to allow others to survive. Mercy violated the order of things because it allowed the weak to propagate. Rejecting the biblical commandments, said Hitler, was what human beings must do. “If I can accept a divine commandment,” he wrote, “it’s this one: ‘Thou shalt preserve the species.’”
Hitler exploited images and tropes that were familiar to Christians: God, prayers, original sin, commandments, prophets, chosen people, messiahs—even the familiar Christian tripartite structure of time: first paradise, then exodus, and finally redemption. We live in filth, and we must strain to purify ourselves and the world so that we might return to paradise. To see paradise as the battle of the species rather than the concord of creation was to unite Christian longing with the apparent realism of biology. The war of all against all was not terrifying purposelessness, but instead the only purpose to be had in the universe. Nature’s bounty was for man, as in Genesis, but only for the men who follow nature’s law and fight for her. As in Genesis, so in My Struggle, nature was a resource for man: but not for all people, only for triumphant races.
Eden was not a garden but a trench. Knowledge of the body was not the problem, as in Genesis, but the solution. The triumphant should copulate: After murder, Hitler thought, the next human duty was sex and reproduction. In his scheme, the original sin that led to the fall of man was of the mind and soul, not of the body.
For Hitler, our unhappy weakness was that we can think, realize that others belonging to other races can do the same, and thereby recognize them as fellow human beings. Humans left Hitler’s bloody paradise not because of carnal knowledge. Humans left paradise because of the knowledge of good and evil. When paradise falls and humans are separated from nature, a character who is neither human nor natural, such as the serpent of Genesis, takes the blame. If humans were in fact nothing more than an element of nature, and nature was known by science to be a bloody struggle, something beyond nature must have corrupted the species.
For Hitler the bringer of the knowledge of good and evil on the earth, the destroyer of Eden, was the Jew. It was the Jew who told humans that they were above other animals, and had the capacity to decide their future for themselves. It was the Jew who introduced the false distinction between politics and nature, between humanity and struggle. Hitler’s destiny, as he saw it, was to redeem the original sin of Jewish spirituality and restore the paradise of blood. Since homo sapiens can survive only by unrestrained racial killing, a Jewish triumph of reason over impulse would mean the end of the species. What a race needed, thought Hitler, was a “worldview” that permitted it to triumph, which meant, in the final analysis, “faith” in its own mindless mission…
Hitler saw the species as divided into races, but denied that the Jews were one. Jews were not a lower or a higher race, but a nonrace, or a counterrace. Races followed nature and fought for land and food, whereas Jews followed the alien logic of “un-nature.” They resisted nature’s basic imperative by refusing to be satisfied by the conquest of a certain habitat, and they persuaded others to behave similarly. They insisted on dominating the entire planet and its peoples, and for this purpose invented general ideas that draw the races away from the natural struggle. The planet had nothing to offer except blood and soil, and yet Jews uncannily generated concepts that allowed the world to be seen less as an ecological trap and more as a human order. Ideas of political reciprocity, practices in which humans recognize other humans as such, came from Jews [i.e., from The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and then the New Testament]. Hitler’s basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strain towards it was precisely what was hateful.
Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s most important deputy, did not follow every twist of Hitler’s thinking, but he grasped the conclusions: Ethics as such was the error; the only morality was fidelity to race. Participation in mass murder, Himmler maintained, was a good act, since it brought to the race an internal harmony as well as unity with nature. The difficulty of seeing, for example, thousands of Jewish corpses marked the transcendence of conventional morality. The temporary strains of murder were a worthy sacrifice to the future of the race. Any nonracist attitude was Jewish, thought Hitler, and any universal idea a mechanism of Jewish dominion. Both capitalism and communism were Jewish. Their apparent embrace of struggle was simply cover for the Jewish desire for world domination. Any abstract idea of the state was also Jewish. “There is no such thing,” wrote Hitler, “as the state as an end in itself.” As he clarified, “the highest goal of human beings” was not “the preservation of any given state or government, but the preservation of their kind.”
Living Space [Lebensraum]
Although Hitler’s premise was that humans were simply animals, his own very human intuition allowed him to transform his zoological theory into a kind of political worldview. The racial struggle for survival was also a German campaign for dignity, he maintained, and the restraints were not only biological but British. Hitler understood that Germans were not, in their daily life, beasts who scratched food from the ground. As he developed his thought in his Second Book, composed in 1928, he made clear that securing a regular food supply was not simply a matter of physical sustenance, but also a requirement for a sense of control. The problem with the British naval blockade during the First World War had not simply been the diseases and death it brought during the conflict and in the months between armistice and final settlement. The blockade had forced middle-class Germans to break the law in order to acquire the food that they needed or felt that they needed, leaving them personally insecure and distrustful of authority.
The world political economy of the 1920s and 1930s was, as Hitler understood, structured by British naval power. British advocacy of free trade, he believed, was political cover for British domination of the world. It made sense for the British to parlay the fiction that free exchange meant access to food for everyone, because such a belief would discourage others from trying to compete with the British navy. In fact, only the British could defend their own supply lines in the event of a crisis, and could by the same token prevent food from reaching others. Thus the British blockaded their enemies during war—an obvious violation of their own ideology of free trade. This capacity to assure and deny food, Hitler emphasized, was a form of power. Hitler called the absence of food security for everyone except the British the “peaceful economic war.”
Hitler understood that Germany did not feed itself from its own territory in the 1920s and 1930s, but also knew that Germans would not actually have starved if they had tried. Germany could have generated the calories to feed its population from German soil, but only by sacrificing some of its industry, exports, and foreign currency. A prosperous Germany required exchange with the British world, but this trade pattern could be supplemented, thought Hitler, by the conquest of a land empire that would even the scales between London and Berlin. Once it had gained the appropriate colonies, Germany could preserve its industrial excellence while shifting its dependence for food from the British-controlled sea lanes to its own imperial hinterland. If Germany controlled enough territory, Germans could have the kinds and the amounts of food that they desired, with no cost to German industry. A sufficiently large German empire could become self-sufficient, an “autarkic economy.” Hitler romanticized the German peasant, not as a peaceful tiller of the soil, but as the heroic tamer of distant lands.
The British were to be respected as racial kindred and builders of a great empire. The idea was to slip through their network of power without forcing them to respond. Taking land from others would not, or so Hitler imagined, threaten the great maritime empire. Over the long term, he expected peace with Great Britain “on the basis of the division of the world.” He expected that Germany could become a world power while avoiding an “Armageddon with England.” This was, for him, a reassuring thought.
It was also reassuring that such an alteration of the world order, such a reglobalization, had been achieved before, in recent memory. For generations of German imperialists, and for Hitler himself, the exemplary land empire was the United States of America.
America taught Hitler that need blurred into desire, and that desire arose from comparison. Germans were not only animals seeking nourishment to survive, and not only a society yearning for security in an unpredictable British global economy. Families observed other families: around the corner, but also, thanks to modern media, around the world. Ideas of how life should be lived escaped measures such as survival, security, and even comfort as standards of living became comparative, and as comparisons became international. “Through modern technology and the communication it enables,” wrote Hitler, “international relations between peoples have become so effortless and intimate that Europeans—often without realizing it—take the circumstances of American life as the benchmark for their own lives.”
Globalization led Hitler to the American dream. Behind every imaginary German racial warrior stood an imaginary German woman who wanted ever more. In American idiom, this notion that the standard of living was relative, based upon the perceived success of others, was called “keeping up with the Joneses.” In his more strident moments, Hitler urged Germans to be more like ants and finches, thinking only of survival and reproduction. Yet his own scarcely hidden fear was a very human one, perhaps even a very male one: the German housewife. It was she who raised the bar of the natural struggle ever higher. Before the First World War, when Hitler was a young man, German colonial rhetoric had played on the double meaning of the word Wirtschaft: both a household and an economy. German women had been instructed to equate comfort and empire. And since comfort was always relative, the political justification for colonies was inexhaustible. If the German housewife’s point of reference was Mrs. Jones rather than Frau Jonas, then Germans needed an empire comparable to the American one. German men would have to struggle and die at some distant frontier, redeeming their race and the planet, while women supported their men, embodying the merciless logic of endless desire for ever more prosperous homes.
The inevitable presence of America in German minds was the final reason why, for Hitler, science could not solve the problem of sustenance. Even if inventions did improve agricultural productivity, Germany could not keep pace with America on the strength of this alone. Technology could be taken for granted on both sides; the quantity of arable land was the variable. Germany therefore needed as much land as the Americans and as much technology. Hitler proclaimed that permanent struggle for land was nature’s wish, but he also understood that a human desire for increasing relative comfort could also generate perpetual motion.
If German prosperity would always be relative, then final success could never be achieved. “The prospects for the German people are bleak,” wrote an aggrieved Hitler. That complaint was followed by this clarification: “Neither the current living space nor that achieved through a restoration of the borders of 1914 permits us to lead a life comparable to that of the American people.” At the least, the struggle would continue as long as the United States existed, and that would be a long time. Hitler saw America as the coming world power, and the core American population (“the racially pure and uncorrupted German”) as a “world class people” that was “younger and healthier than the Germans” who had remained in Europe.
While Hitler was writing My Struggle, he learned of the word Lebensraum (living space) and turned it to his own purposes. In his writings and speeches it expressed the whole range of meaning that he attached to the natural struggle, from an unceasing racial fight for physical survival all the way to an endless war for the subjective sense of having the highest standard of living in the world. The term Lebensraum came into the German language as the equivalent of the French word biotope, or “habitat.” In a social rather than biological context it can mean something else: household comfort, something close to “living room.” The containment of these two meanings in a single word furthered Hitler’s circular idea: Nature was nothing more than society, society nothing more than nature. Thus there was no difference between an animal struggle for physical existence and the preference of families for nicer lives. Each was about Lebensraum.
The twentieth century was to bring endless war for relative comfort. Robert Ley, one of Hitler’s early Nazi comrades, defined Lebensraum as “more culture, more beauty—these the race must have, or it will perish.” Hitler’s propagandist Joseph Goebbels defined the purpose of a war of extermination as “a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a big dinner.” Tens of millions of people would have to starve, but not so that Germans could survive in the physical sense of the word. Tens of millions of people would have to starve so that Germans could strive for a standard of living second to none.
“One thing the Americans have and which we lack,” complained Hitler, “is the sense of vast open spaces.” He was repeating what German colonialists had said for decades. By the time Germany had unified in 1871, the world had already been colonized by other European powers. Germany’s defeat in the First World War cost it the few overseas possessions it had gained. So where, in the twentieth century, were the lands open for German conquest? Where was Germany’s frontier, its Manifest Destiny?
All that remained was the home continent. “For Germany,” wrote Hitler, “the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself.” To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European “spaces” were, in fact, “open.” Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonization of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imagination of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. Like millions of other children born in the 1880s and 1890s, Hitler played at African wars and read Karl May’s novels of the American West. Hitler said that May had opened his “eyes to the world.” …
[Referencing Germany’s desire for empire and previous attempts in Africa and elsewhere, generals insisted it was a law of nature] “The natives must give way”. “Look at America.” The German governor of the region compared Southwest Africa to Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado. The civilian head of the German colonial office saw matters much the same way:
“The history of the colonization of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavor the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” He understood the need for an “annihilation operation.” The German state geologist called for a “Final Solution to the native question.”
Timothy Snyder is one of the world’s leading historians, and a prominent public intellectual in the United States and Europe. An expert on eastern Europe and on the Second World War, he has written acclaimed and prize-winning books about twentieth-century European history, as well as political manifestos and analyses about the rise of tyranny in the contemporary world. His work has been translated into more than forty languages.
— Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
—The Origins of the Final Solution. Dr. Timothy Snyder.
“In World War II, we Americans did not go to war with Germany for Great Britain, when it declared war on Hitler’s Germany and then was defeated in France. We went to war with Germany only when Hitler declared war on us, four days after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.”— Patrick Buchanan