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The Coming Age of Slaughter

Will global warming unleash genocide?

The age of mass killing, the 1930s and 1940s, was also a moment of environmental panic. World War I had disrupted free trade, and the new Europe was divided between those who needed food and those who controlled it. By the 1960s, improvements in seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides would make surpluses rather than shortages the problem. But, during the crucial 1930s and 1940s, when the decisions were made that sealed the fate of millions, European leaders such as Hitler and Stalin were preoccupied with mastering fertile soil and the people who farmed it.

World War I, in which both Hitler and Stalin played a role, had seemed to show that conquest of cropland meant security and power. It ended in 1918 during a failed German attempt to colonize Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe. To us, the “Ukrainian breadbasket” is a strange notion—perhaps as strange as the concept of “Saudi oil fields” will be 70 years from now. In the 1930s, however, it was at the center of strategic discussions in Moscow and Berlin. The Soviets held Ukraine and wanted to exploit its black earth; the Nazi leadership, ruling a country that was not self-sufficient in food, wanted to take it back.

Both Hitler’s Holocaust and Stalin’s Terror took place during an interval of environmental risk: between the identification of a critical environmental problem and the introduction of the technologies that would solve it. National Socialism and Stalinism both identified enemies to be eliminated, of course; and today, when we talk about Nazism and Stalinism, we understandably emphasize the hatred—the racial hatred of Hitler and the class hatred of Stalin. But there was an economic and environmental side to their ideologies as well: Both Hitler and Stalin made killing seem to serve a vision of economic development that would overcome environmental limitations. Perhaps we today tend to ignore this dimension because noting environmental limitations smacks of making excuses for horror. Or perhaps we see the economy as a realm of rationality and so assume that economic thought must not be implicated in apparently emotional projects such as mass killing. Or perhaps we have simply forgotten the environmental constraints of an earlier period, so different from those of our time.

We face our own environmental limitations and so have very good reason to recover this history. We have entered a new interval of environmental risk, an era in which we know that global warming is taking place but do not yet have the means to slow it. We Americans tend to see events of great importance as unique and the end of history around every corner. Of course global warming is an unprecedented challenge, and of course the Holocaust was an unparalleled tragedy. Yet the relationship is not as distant as we may think. We must use what we know of the dire environmental politics of the past to prepare for the calamities yet to come. We can recall that the most dangerous of ideologies were those that unified a promise of environmental mastery with the demonization of the group that seemed to stand in the way. Perhaps, by recalling this history, we can prevent a new age of mass murder.

Stalin adapted Marxism to a country where peasants were the bulk of the population and the grain they produced was a valuable resource. The peasants stood between utopia and its realization. They controlled the grain that could be used to finance the crash industrialization that would bring about Stalin’s vision of socialism. Food was valuable on international markets because it was scarce, whereas peasants were worthless in the communist schema because their historical moment had passed.

The more prosperous peasants, said Stalin in 1930, should be “liquidated as a class.” In a policy of “collectivization,” Soviet authorities used taxes, intimidation, deportation, shootings, and, finally, hunger to transform agriculture into a state concern. When famine followed, Stalin and his allies decided who would starve, even as grain was exported. More than five million people died of starvation in the early ’30s in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia. Stalin claimed to have discovered conspiracies of “Ukrainian demobilizers” and requisitioned food in Ukraine in late 1932 and early 1933, knowing that this would bring millions of deaths. In the fever of belief, communists in Ukraine convinced themselves that the dying were class enemies deliberately starving themselves, as one communist party member put it, “in order to spoil our optimism.”

Even as millions of Soviet peasants starved, millions more were sent to concentration camps to labor in mines, canals, and forests. When the condemned peasants returned to their homes after five years in the Gulag, Stalin worried that they would agitate against his regime. Although his Great Terror is remembered for the show trials of prominent communists, its major target was the peasantry. The largest shooting action of the Terror, claiming nearly 400,000 lives in 1937 and 1938, was directed chiefly against “kulaks,” people categorized as prosperous peasants. The starvation, the forced labor, and the mass shooting were elements of an ideological campaign for physical control of the countryside. Stalin saw food as the critical resource that would make the state invulnerable to challenges. It would be wrong to see his “war against the peasantry,” as the Italian historian Andrea Graziosi aptly called it, as a matter only of inhumanity or only of economics. That is a false choice. Stalinism brought the two together.

Since Nazi Germany was not self-sufficient in food, Hitler wanted what Stalin had. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had portrayed war in Eastern Europe as the resolution of Germany’s environmental predicament. The destruction of the Soviet Union (and Poland, which was in the way) would bring the Ukrainian breadbasket under German control. Hitler concluded that control of Soviet grain would make Germany “unassailable.” German economic planners foresaw that 30 million Soviet citizens would starve to death in the first winter after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Then, according to the long-term colonial blueprint, the western Soviet Union would become an agrarian colony dominated by Germans. This would require the murder, displacement, assimilation, or enslavement of 40 million or so people. The starvation of Soviet prisoners of war began immediately after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. The concurrent shooting of Jewish men was meant to hasten the destruction of the Soviet state, which the Nazis claimed was largely directed by Jews. For the Nazis, the Jews were among the gatekeepers to the eastern pastoral paradise that Hitler called “the Garden of Eden.”

Hitler believed that Germany would secure Ukrainian food (and Caucasian oil) in a matter of weeks. The invasion of the Soviet Union, he thought, would be “child’s play.” When the war consumed rather than delivered resources, Jews were blamed, and Jews were killed. When Soviet power did not collapse in summer 1941, the Germans began to exterminate entire Jewish communities in occupied Ukraine. After having murdered Jewish men, the Nazis called Jewish women and children “useless eaters.” These words captured the two sides of Nazi ideology: the racial contempt and the obsession with resources. By late 1941, Soviet Jews were being asphyxiated in gas vans. The technology of death by carbon monoxide was then extended westward to occupied Poland. The death factory at Bełżec began operations in spring 1942. Its simple innovation was the attachment of an internal combustion engine to an airtight building. (We hardly ever remember that the internal combustion engines that today warm the atmosphere are the very technology used to gas Jews at Bełżec and other death factories.) In summer 1942, German occupation authorities in Poland used food shortages as an argument to hasten the deportation of Warsaw Jews to Treblinka, a larger death factory built on the same model.

It was Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and that of his henchmen and many supporters, that made Jews the primary enemy of the war. But without the Germans’ colonial expansion eastward through the main Jewish homelands, the Holocaust would have been impossible. When the war began, about 3 percent of the Jews of Europe were under Hitler’s control. Only the occupation of Poland and the western Soviet Union brought Europe’s major Jewish populations under German rule.


We are today in the midst of another interval of environmental uncertainty. We have recognized the reality of global warming, but we have not invested sufficiently in possible technical solutions. It seems reasonable to expect that global warming will prove to be at least as frightening to leaders and populations as food shortages—the more so since, among other consequences, it can lead to food shortages. This summer’s fires in Russia, made more likely by global warming, raised food prices. The fields of Pakistan are underwater as a result of typhoons, which are also made more likely by global warming.

A number of worrisome scenarios involve China. As Jared Diamond points out, the earth’s most populous country has just half the world average of fertile cropland per capita and one-quarter the world average of potable water per capita. As we saw this summer, China’s croplands are vulnerable to the typhoons that China’s industrialization makes more likely. Much of China’s potable water comes from glaciers that are now melting. China is still governed by a communist party that oversaw the starvation of 30 million people between 1958 and 1961 and killed hundreds of thousands during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. It is far from inconceivable that the Chinese leadership could, at some future point, look north to Siberian Russia for the water and cropland that will soon be in very short supply.

Meanwhile, Beijing is leading the charge to purchase cropland in Africa, thereby reducing its availability to Africans. One risk is that pressure from the outside will exacerbate tensions within Africa itself. In Darfur, desertification, brought on by climate change, intensified the competition for arable land and laid some of the groundwork for mass murder.

There now seems to be a consensus among national security experts that we can expect more of the same in the years to come. A report by retired American generals on global warming and U.S. national security, published by the CNA Corporation, speaks of failed states, ungoverned spaces, and widespread war. A report by experts on science and national security, brought together by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security, speaks of mass migration, resource wars, and “geopolitical reordering”—and that’s the best-case scenario. In the other scenarios, the authors forecast significantly increased risks of nuclear war and worldwide terrorism.

During intervals of environmental panic, fear itself is the crucial factor, as states and groups are tempted to seize resources for themselves before the crisis worsens. If leaders do not support technical solutions that are feasible in a timely fashion, they may later be tempted by economic preemption through violent means. The longer the interval is expected to last, the greater will be the temptation, in the meantime, to preempt. And when the purpose of conflict is to secure a scarce resource, ideologies can sometimes be found to deny claimants to the resource their humanity. Then comes the spiral of death.

The Holocaust was an unprecedented crime. But, as the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer likes to say, just because a historical event was unprecedented does not mean that something similar cannot happen in the future. If new ideologies were to unite contempt for others with plans for economic security in conditions of environmental threat, the mass killing of the last century could repeat itself. No one, of course, can predict when or where such ideologies will emerge. But awareness of the past gives us the capacity to make choices that will decrease the likelihood of future tragedy.

We must invest in the technical solutions that will make our current interval of environmental panic as brief as possible. One candidate is fusion; and, to give the Chinese credit, China has made fusion a higher priority than the United States. Other candidates are advanced fission, photovoltaics, electric vehicles, and biofuels. Had food been bountiful in Europe slightly earlier, had seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides been as good in the 1920s as they were by the 1960s, it is exceedingly unlikely that the Nazi and Stalinist regimes would have taken the forms they did. If we find a way to a renewable energy economy in the 2020s rather than the 2060s, we can perhaps spare ourselves not only environmental collapse, but also ideologies of mass murder that will tempt leaders with violent solutions to environmental problems.

Those who follow such ideologies will be responsible for their deeds. But we are all responsible for the environment.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University. He is the author, most recently, of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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