The title of Timothy Snyder’s new book is more cryptic than his unambiguously named Bloodlands, in which he explored the phenomenal violence imposed on the territories between Russia proper and the shifting eastern frontier of Germany in the late 1930s. However, the term ‘black earth’ describes a large part of this territory – namely, the fertile regions of Ukraine, where much of the Soviet food surplus was produced. In practice, therefore, this book returns to the ‘bloodlands’ again, reiterating much of what is now familiar from Snyder’s previous work.
The difference lies in the approach. This time Snyder argues that Hitler’s world-view, expressed in Mein Kampf and the so-called ‘Second Book’ (an unpublished manuscript composed around 1928) was moulded by the idea of ecological disaster, specifically the notion that Germany could not feed itself adequately from its shrunken post-Versailles territory. His Darwinian stance that humans obey the crude laws of natural competition in which the stronger always prevail led him to the conclusion that more soil could only be gained through violent occupation of ‘black earth’, the rich lands to the east. This idea, Snyder claims, was linked with