Black Earth
Author:Timothy Snyder

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.”

In the late nineteenth century, Germans tended to see the fate of Native Americans as a natural precedent for the fate of native Africans under their control. One colony was German East Africa—today Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and a bit of Mozambique—where Berlin assumed responsibility in 1891. During an uprising in 1905, the Maji Maji rebellion, the Germans applied starvation tactics, killing at least seventy-five thousand people. A second colony was German Southwest Africa, today Namibia, where about three thousand German colonists controlled about seventy percent of the land. An uprising there in 1904 led the Germans to deny the native Herero and Nama populations access to water until they fell “victim to the nature of their own country,” as the official military history put it. The Germans imprisoned survivors in a camp on an island. The Herero population was reduced from some eighty thousand to about fifteen thousand; that of the Nama from about twenty thousand to about ten thousand. For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. “The natives must give way,” he said. “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.”

A famous German novel of the war in German Southwest Africa united, as would Hitler, the idea of a racial struggle with that of divine justice. The killing of “blacks” was “the justice of the Lord” because the world belonged to “the most vigorous.” Like most Europeans, Hitler was a racist about Africans. He proclaimed that the French were “niggerizing” their blood through intermarriage. He shared in the general European excitement about the French use of African troops in the occupation of Germany’s Rhineland district after the First World War. Yet Hitler’s racism was not that of a European looking down at Africans. He saw the entire world as an “Africa,” and everyone, including Europeans, in racial terms. Here, as so often, he was more consistent than others. Racism, after all, was a claim to judge who was fully human. As such, ideas of racial superiority and inferiority could be applied according to desire and convenience. Even neighboring societies, which might seem not so different from the German, might be defined as racially different.

When Hitler wrote in My Struggle that Germany’s only opportunity for colonization was Europe, he discarded as impractical the possibility of a return to Africa. The search for racial inferiors to dominate required no long voyages by sea, since they were present in eastern Europe as well. In the nineteenth century, after all, the major arena of German colonialism had been not mysterious Africa but neighboring Poland. Prussia had gained territory inhabited by Poles in the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late eighteenth century. Formerly Polish lands were thus part of the unified Germany that Prussia created in 1871. Poles made up about seven percent of the German population, and in eastern regions were a majority. They were subjected first to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, a campaign against Roman Catholicism whose major object was the elimination of Polish national identity, and then to state-subsidized internal colonization campaigns. A German colonial literature about Poland, including best sellers, portrayed the Poles as “black.” The Polish peasants had dark faces and referred to Germans as “white.” Polish aristocrats, fey and useless, were endowed with black hair and eyes. So were the beautiful Polish women, seductresses who, in these stories, almost invariably led naive German men to racial self-degradation and doom.