/ 2 July 2023

Scarcity and the threat of another ‘final solution’

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Visitors look at the flags of Nazi Germany, inside the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland. Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Could there be another Nazi-style “Final Solution”? Not specifically the genocide of European Jews as happened in 1941 to 1945 but of any minority group scapegoated as a threat to the survival of a country or the planet?

We regard ourselves as far too civilised to descend into the barbarism of the Holocaust, tending to see it as a temporary collective psychosis resulting from unique circumstances.

Yale University’s Timothy Snyder, widely considered the premier historian of the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century, disagrees.

 “We share Hitler’s planet and several of his preoccupations; we have changed less than we think,” he warns in his history of the Holocaust, Black Earth. “We like our living space, we fantasise about destroying governments, we denigrate science, we dream of catastrophe.”

And: “If states are destroyed, local institutions corrupted and economic incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and ’40s.” 

Central to Snyder’s radically revisionist account is scarcity, or fear of scarcity, in the wake of the Great Depression, which touched off an explosive German drive for Lebensraum (living space) and fertile soil  to the east. 

The Nazi vision was one of perpetual race war for limited resources, in which the “higher” races were to  sweep away “inferior” peoples, principally Slavs, and their state structures. 

The Drang nach Osten ultimately created a 2 000km arc of anarchy, from Ukraine to Estonia, in which the world’s largest Jewish population was left denuded of state protection. Earlier ideas of the mass relocation of Jews from Europe — to Madagascar in one proposal — morphed into mass murder.

It should not be forgotten that in this killing zone an equal number of other non-combatants — principally Soviet prisoners of war and ethnic Poles and Byelorussians — were wiped out by shooting, starvation and disease.

Snyder remarks on Adolf Hitler’s “unusual” personal rejection of a scientific response to scarcity and grandiose appetite for military conquest and world-historical upheavals.

Compared to the first half of the 20th century, when at least 100 million died in wars, there has been relative global stability since World War II, apparently pointing to a decline in militaristic and catastrophic fantasies.  

Snyder sees this as a reflection of the greatest leap forward in agriculture since the Neolithic period — “the Green Revolution”, when scientific farming based on high-yielding seeds, agrochemicals and advanced irrigation techniques tripled the world’s cereal output between 1960 and 2000.

It is, indeed, an extraordinary fact that agricultural prices in 1989 were half those of 50 years previously, despite a more than twofold population increase.

But this, he goes on to warn, may be a temporary reprieve. World grain production peaked in the 1980s and global stocks never outstrip a few months’ supply. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates that the number of people experiencing food insecurity is rising, from 135 million in 2019 to 343 million in 85 countries last year.

Throughout human history there has been a close nexus between food prices and political turmoil. A modern example is the “Arab Spring” of 2010, which was preceded by a food price spike stemming from shrinking farmlands, drought and poor water allocation.

Bread was the symbol of the Egyptian uprising, with one protester famously wearing an improvised helmet of loaves strapped to his head. Before the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, food inflation rose by 20% a year.

The new source of ecological anxiety is, of course, climate change, which is seen as an ever-worsening menace to both crop yields and potable water.

Surveying the countries potentially worst affected by ecological crisis, Snyder notes that China — with 18.5% of global population — became a net importer of grain in 2003 and is losing a million hectares of arable land a year, as climate change-driven seasonal drought compounds degradation from urbanisation and other causes.

Water is another splitting headache — by 2030, demand in the East Asian giant is predicted to double available supply. 

As the noose of global warming and population growth tightens, which countries could conceivably begin pressing for Lebensraum

Although he concedes that Beijing favours scientific over territorial solutions, Snyder muses that at some point, “Chinese leaders might draw the same conclusion as the Germans in the 1930s … Durable control of living space … ensures food supplies.” 

If this sounds far-fetched, consider Tibet. Behind China’s determination to hang on to its Himalayan colony in the teeth of world censure lies the desire to control the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, wellspring of 10 major Asian river systems.

Snyder does not consider the disruptive potential of the US, which has shown a marked appetite for military adventure and the toppling of states since World War II — Korea, Chile, Cuba, Brazil, Angola, Nicaragua, Iraq ….  

The US imports just 20% of its food but that is shifting with world economic integration. Noting that food imports are steadily rising, the US agriculture department predicts that the country will be bringing in 75% of its fruit and 50% of its vegetables by 2027.

Russia’s botched war of neo-colonial conquest in Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin’s mendacious justifications for it, bear the closest resemblance in our age to Hitler’s campaign for Lebensraum.

Just as the Nazi leader couched his Drang nach Osten as a sacred campaign for racial purity, Putin presents his anarchic aggression as a cleansing crusade against a decadent liberal-democratic Western Europe poisoned by a “gay lobby”.

This is humbug — Ukraine’s “black earth” has been a constant magnet for its neighbours, the target of Josef Stalin’s pitiless Holodomor (murder by starvation) and the Nazis’ planned “breadbasket” for the greater German Reich.

Food is power. A Ukrainian satellite would enable Putin to control a third of world’s wheat exports, three-quarters of its sunflower oil,  a quarter of its barley (vital in animal husbandry) and a fifth of its maize

Africa offers the clearest post-war example of genocide sparked by ecological panic, leading to state breakdown and the scapegoating of a minority.

Snyder writes that arable land in Rwanda was exhausted by the late 1980s and that the government tried to offload excess population on neighbouring states. In spring 1994, it started urging majority Hutus to murder minority Tutsis, widely resented as a favoured group under Belgian colonialism.

Significantly, the call had most traction in areas of land shortage, where land-hungry peasants denounced their property-owning neighbours.

Snyder sees Africa, a continent of weak states with shaky property rights, and the location of half the world’s untilled soil, as “a potential site of global competition for food” in the future.

He argues that it is already central to Asian food security planning. In the wake of the 2007/8 food price spike, the Gulf States and East Asian countries, including China, Japan and Korea, initiated large-scale “land grabs” to secure food and water supplies to feed their own citizens through long-lease deals with African governments.

This has the distinct flavour of comprador colonialism. The International Land Coalition estimates that 50 million hectares of African agricultural land — an area the size of Kenya — have been leased to foreign interests. Sometimes the deals are tainted by corruption and the displacement of indigenous small farmers.

Drawing on the lessons of the Holocaust, Snyder’s analysis highlights the continued danger of catastrophic territorial fixes for the problems of dwindling resources in our age.

It is profoundly worrying that millions of people in the US, the world’s most technically advanced nation, believe that the science of global warming is a political conspiracy. “In the case of climate change, the denial of science legitimates military action, rather than investment in technology,” he writes.

Green politics might not be as simple and emotionally alluring as “red blood on black earth” but Snyder argues that it is only through technical answers to shortages — advances in agronomy, water management and the energy economy — that a safe future for the planet exists.