Timothy Snyder, A Historian of Eastern Europe (Interview - Part I)

By Zbigniew Truchlewski | 11 February 2013

To quote this document: Zbigniew Truchlewski, “Timothy Snyder, A Historian of Eastern Europe (Interview - Part I)”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 11 February 2013, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1640, displayed on 08 December 2022

Nouvelle Europe interviewed Prof. Timothy Snyder of Yale University on the history of Central and Eastern European nations and on his works (such as Bloodlands and The Reconstruction of Nations).

Zbigniew Truchlewski (ZT): Many readers are curious about your background. You are American and you came to study Eastern Europe, a region that many in Western Europe do not really know themselves. How did this happen? How did you become a historian of Eastern Europe?

Prof. Timothy Snyder (TS): It is a very profound question because we don't really know why we do anything. As a historian, I always think that the individual level is the level where we have the hardest time explaining anything. We have stories about why we do things but I am not usually convinced that these stories are actually explanations. I can tell you certain relevant things, and one of the relevant things is generational. The first Solidarity of 1980-81 was perhaps the event in Europe, which forced me to think about the people behind the Iron Curtain as being human beings. Up until that point the iron curtain functioned very well intellectually, everything behind it was grey and vague. But the first Solidarity forced people to make distinctions between Poland and Russia, between Poland's government and Poland's people. And that was extremely important, not because I understood it, I was eleven years old at that time, but because it forced me to think about that world as a world with a complicated history, where there are people.

More important was the second Solidarity and the Velvet Revolutions of 1989, when I was a university student. I was a student in the late cold war, at a time when there were things to be negotiated but it was thought that the Soviet Union probably would go on forever. In that sense, I think I am at the very end of a very important generational line, because in some ways I have more in common with people who are sixty or seventy than I have in common with people who are thirty, because like everyone who grew up in the world of the Cold War, I thought it was just the world. There was no sense of change. And so the excitement that brought me to the study of the change in Central and Eastern Europe is precisely that it did change. I thought I was going to be some kind of lawyer working on arms negotiations, that was, I thought, what I wanted to do. But again, it was precisely the revolutions of 1989 and the beginning of change in Eastern Europe, which drew my attention away from Russia and Germany and towards Eastern Europe. Partly it was an excitement about those revolutions, and this was naïve, there was this idea that people who had thoughts were now going to have power. That's a very simple, naïve way of putting it, but it was fascinating for me at that time, and what I came to be interested in, what I'm still interested in, is this tradition of the intelligentsia and the idea of people who have role in national culture, thinking about national politics. This is the tradition that mattered then and it matters now.

It's not the only thing that matters. I was lucky enough to be able to study Eastern European history, which was unusual, and I was also lucky enough to get a fellowship to study at Oxford, which was important in two ways. The first one was that I could just go to Europe. Since doctoral studies in Oxford are not organized in any particular way, I've spent a lot of time in Europe learning languages. But the other thing that was fascinating, and which was important, was that this was 1991, it was the very beginning of the Soros Fellowships, which sends lots of Polish, and Czechs and other Eastern European students to Oxford, so I could make friends with them and in some ways, their friends became my friends and they were my way back into Eastern Europe. So, the simple answer to your question is that I study Eastern Europe because I found it extremely interesting and I still find it extremely interesting. And I don't at all think that it's some obscure part of the world. On the contrary, I think it's a part of the world where many of the most important events of the world history actually played out.

ZT: When I was reading The Reconstruction of Nations, I had the impression that you do more than history. You asked bigger questions like why do ethnic conflicts happen, a core question of political science. So do you try also to tackle these bigger questions with the history of Eastern Europe or are you just driven by the history of Eastern Europe?

TS: Let me take that in a slightly different way. Many of the important theories, normative and predictive about politics, have something to do with Eastern Europe. They either arouse there or were attempted there. The Marxian idea arose in Germany but was attempted in Eastern Europe. The idea of national self-determination, of the sovereign state was also a kind of great experiment, which took place in Central and Eastern Europe between the 1920s and the 1930s. Hitler's idea of colonizing Europe also happened in Eastern Europe. Hitler's idea of a racial reordering of Europe also took part in Eastern Europe. You could also argue that European Integration is most significant in Eastern Europe because of the great enlargement of 2004 and 2007, which made the European Union what it is today. The normative ideas that we all understand, very often were tested in Central and Eastern Europe.

Also, and this is in some sense the origin of Bloodlands, many of the events around which normative political thinking and political theory hover, happen in Eastern Europe. You could say that the Holocaust is a major source of the whole idea of modernity and post-modernity as we understand it or as we misunderstand it because we misunderstand the Holocaust. But a major way that people have thought about politics since 1945 has been to say that the Holocaust happened because of what is called "modernity", therefore we must undertake a critique of modernity. Now I don't address that directly, but I tend to think that if you understand the Holocaust, then that critique of modernity falls apart.

Getting directly to your question, I do think that historians should be aware of what, as you said, the big political science questions are, like: why is there ethnic cleansing, how do party states emerge? These are all very important questions. And I do strive towards some kind of generalization in my work. But I probably stop short of considering that to be theory or theoretical. I do think that historians have a job of correcting political scientists by saying this is an exception, that's an exception, but I don't think that's where our job stops. I think if we do that we're also being lazy. I think we also have duty to try to generalize within the cases that we understand well.


ZT: The next question is about the "atelier of the historian". When reading your books, the number of languages you know amazes one. Usually historians are specialists of one country and know mostly the language of this country. You know most of the languages of the region if I'm not mistaken. You have sources in Russian, German, Polish, Ukrainian, Byelorussian and you're versatile in the languages of other scholarship on the region (English, French, German). Since you invested so much into learning languages, could you explain why it is so important for a historian of the region to know them all? Is it to help to understand the complexity of this history? To go beyond the history of the nation state?

TS: Just to qualify what you've just said, I know Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, but I don't know Hungarian and Lithuanian. There are things that I don't know which would be helpful. But languages help in three interesting ways.

The first of them, and in some sense the most fundamental of them, is that the people that one is writing about, whether you're in the early modern or the modern period, were, if not very often, multilingual themselves. I don't just mean multilingual in the way a Polish historian in the interwar was multilingual, who generally knew German and French and often many other languages. If they were Jewish historians they would know Yiddish and Hebrew, along with German, French, Polish and probably Russian as well. How can you understand these people if you don't yourself work in the same languages? But it is also true for say, a Jewish innkeeper in Pinsk who might not have been particularly literate, but who would have known Byelorussian, Polish, some Russian, Yiddish of course, some Hebrew for reading. So even people who are not educated elites often knew languages. Or consider a Polish peasant in Galicia who has a Ukrainian wife. Those people know at least passively both of those languages and it's very likely that they would understand some Yiddish passively as well. So the whole history of the region up until 1945 is multi-lingual, even if you're just considering the people. I think you can identify with those people if you know better the languages. If you're multilingual you also have an idea of what it is to be multilingual, one language could be the language of the home, another language could be the language of love, another language is the language of school, or of the foreign country about which you have a certain complex, etc. If you learn languages, you can have feeling about what other languages signify and that's a part of a personality, which was, I think, pretty typical in this region for most of its history until 1945.

The second thing which is very important is that the history of this region is an imperial history and so you cannot just write it from the center or from the periphery, you have to take into account both of them and that generally means at least two languages. To write seriously about the Cold War in Eastern Europe, you have to know Russian and say Romanian or Polish if you write about those countries, and if you write about the Russian empire, you have to know Russian and Polish as well. So that's another important thing. Empires themselves are also multilingual creatures. They have multilingual personalities.

The third thing is what you've already said, which is also very important, is that a lot of Western historian learn one language, say Polish, and then get into Polish historiography, and they write about it critically. I've done a lot of that myself, and it's valuable. But what I've noticed, and this is the introduction of the Reconstruction of Nations, it that if you just engage a national historiography on its own terms you end up reinforcing that national historiography. You create arguments, which are still within the framework of that national historiography, you cannot really break through, and you cannot really shed a new light on things. You just end up having these interesting arguments with your Polish colleagues.

So the conclusion that I came to was that even if you wanted to understand Polish history, you had to break out of Polish frameworks and to do what you needed, for instance Ukrainian or German. Any other language will do. And that led me to broader conclusions that you'll remember from Bloodlands, which is that when you want to understand a national history, you have to break out of the national framework in order to do that. If you want to understand – to use a non-European example – say, American history as it really was, you have to get into Spanish and French and Native American history, also African-American history. If you don't have some serious engagement with those things, then you end up following this narrative of successful white people. Even if you're critical about that, you need some other point of engagement in order to do something new. So in Eastern Europe, you can't just learn Jewish history or Polish or Russian history, you have to learn some neighboring history, not just as a contrast or as a correction, but as a way to mobilize your own mind towards a kind of continuing engagement.

Zbig: In the Reconstruction of Nations you take a "longue durée" approach to history, while in the Bloodlands you rather focus on the short span of time (around 15 years). Braudel was saying that the choice of temporal and spatial units of analysis shapes the object of study and the factors of explanation. So was this construction of the Bloodlands and the Reconstruction of Nations a conscious approach? Nobody has really approached this region so far in this manner.

TS: It's a semi-conscious approach. When you are a historian, you write books, and you have to finish the book and a book is usually an answer to a question. When you finish the book, you realize that there are certain questions that you could not answer, or maybe couldn't even ask. And a certain way of asking a question has also its limits: it allows you to do certain things but not others. When I started the Reconstruction of Nations, what I thought I was doing was writing a history of national conflicts in the middle of the twentieth century, and in order to explain that national conflict, I was pushed back into the past. So I actually started writing about the twentieth century – and when I began the book I was mainly concerned about the relationship between the forties and the nineties, the actual bloody conflicts and then the politics of reconciliation. But I realized that in order to understand the conflicts, I had to go back to the interwar period, then to the nineteenth century and then eventually the early modern period. So what I ended up doing, was explaining the conflicts not on their own terms, but as a result of much longer developments. Ethnic cleansers have their own version of history while they are doing the ethnic cleansing and then afterwards, when they explain and justify it, they have their own history.

This was one sort of project mainly concerned with Polish-Lithuanian and Polish-Ukrainian relations. I think the longue durée was very helpful for that because without the longue durée you cannot see the irony and the paradoxes of nation building. You can't see how Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationhood are actually quite new. All these modern national ideas are in some sense destructive of the old political heritage, the Commonwealth. You could only see that with the longue durée, if you start with the Commonwealth itself.

With Bloodlands, you're right, I did not say that in the book but I said it somewhere else, I did the short "durée", very consciously because I was trying to capture something I thought was exceptional, namely the murder of 14 million people in precisely a very short period of time. I was trying to emphasize that what happened here was rather different than other things that had happened before. The species of national continuity that was used to explain these things did not really work. The history of the pogroms is not sufficient to explain the Holocaust, the history of the Polish uprisings in the nineteenth century is not sufficient for Katyn, the history of Ukrainian exploitation at the hands of landlords is not sufficient for the famine, etc. In a way, I identified the same problem as in the Reconstruction of Nations, namely that the national histories are not sufficient, but the way that I was trying to address it was different. Rather than doing the longue durée for everyone, I tried to concentrate on the short durée but in a non-national way. So rather than doing a critical history of multiple nationalities, I tried to look at the territory, not just as a background, but actually using it as a sort of method and examining all the sorts of relationships that happened on this territory in that place in time.

Now, there's a relationship between the two books. At the end of the Reconstruction of Nations, I thought that there were certain things that the longue durée could not explain. They were precisely the worst episodes of terror. I thought I did a pretty good job at explaining Polish-Lithuanian and Polish-Ukrainian problems, but I don't think I did a good job in the Reconstruction of Nations in explaining the Soviet Terror or the Holocaust. In the Reconstruction, those were just events which happened so to say off-screen and then they caused certain things in Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian history. But I became aware in the Reconstruction of Nations that there was something inadequate about that. Since the Holocaust and the Soviet Terror in large measure happened on those territories, I could not bring them in just as causes, I should also try to explain them as well. In that way, Bloodlands is a kind of answer to Reconstruction of Nations.


Zbig: In the books you write, you alternate between the micro-level, focusing on certain individuals (Kelles-Krauz, Józewski, Wilhelm von Habsburg), and the macro-level (longue durée, large regions). Is there a method here? Why do you alternate micro and macro?

TS: I think doing history at different scales is a way to keep you honest. If you just do biography or micro-history, you can forget about the larger structures. If you just do the history of the largest structures, you can forget about the significance of the individual and the kind of irreducible importance of choices. Doing both is a way not to forget the dilemma of being a historian: you have to take into account, when you think of an individual, everything else which is going on in the world at that time that is forcing itself down on that individual. At the same time you cannot forget that the individual has some capacity to think about the world, to interpret the world and make choices. So there's that.

Part of it is that when I write about the individuals, I write about individuals who had certain visions of the world. Then I can check those visions of the world. The dissertation about Kelles-Krauz was about someone who believed that you could handle the national question in certain ways. He believed that the nations emerged from a certain process of modernization; he believed that you could handle them by way of the nation state with minority rights. Now, you can check those views a little bit against history, and so in some sense you could think of the Reconstruction of Nations as a kind of verification of what Kelles-Krauz thought, about the origins of the nation and how you handle the national problem. I did not put it explicitly that way because it is not very interesting for anyone else except me, but in some sense that's certainly there.

Sketches of a Secret War are a bit different because there I am using an individual to make a larger point about the Eastern character of Polish history, the significance of intellectuals in politics, and the significance of Polish-Soviet relations – which were all subjects, especially the last one, that were more or less forgotten. Even in Poland today, people don't write enough about the 1920s and the 1930s. There's more now, but it's very little compared to the postwar period. Józewski was a way to revive the history of Polish-Soviet relations, the history of the interwar intelligentsia, and also a way to describe the Ukrainian question in a forgotten way, namely not just as an object of Soviet power or Polish power, but as something between them.

But biography is also very useful as it gives you a beginning, it gives you an end, it gives you a kind of form. The Red Prince is supposed to be a larger history of families where brothers chose different nationalities and I still want to write a book about this topic. This is a way to see how much nationality is in fact structural and how much of it is individual. Because if you and I are brothers, and you end up Byelorussian and I end up Lithuanian, we have everything in common and yet we make different choices. From that point of view, Wilhelm von Habsburg seemed so interesting that I ended up making a biography about him and that's just the adventure of the research and the materials that you find.

Bloodlands is a big, macro book because it contains the questions, which I felt was my responsibility to try to answer. In that sense it's a different book, much less personal than the other books, or if it's personal, it's more personal in an intellectual way. It's about the questions that East European historians and the historians of Europe in general have to answer and could now try to answer because of all of the research being and all of the sources being opened in the East in the last twenty years.

So yes there is a relationship between micro and macro, and then you'll see that, even in Bloodlands, I do try to make a point making sure that we remember that everyone to whom these events happened is an individual. That's the significance of history.

Zbig: It's very tricky to establish this relationship between historical processes and the individual level. For instance in Bloodlands, during the period covered, 14 million people died, which means that on each page of the book on average, the reader has to deal with 35 000 dead. It's so abstract that the reader almost becomes indifferent to this number. How do you deal with this as a historian?

TS: The primary way of dealing with this is that by recognizing it as a problem, as you've just done. We can't really process those big numbers. You cannot imagine 14 million grains of sand, or 14 million birds or 14 million molecules of water. Most of us are not capable of doing this. But on the other hand, we are capable of identifying ourselves with an individual, who is both positive and negative, because we can overwrite the importance of a particular individual, or we can think that a particular individual is all that matters in a story. In some sense, the story of Anne Frank, important though it is, can also minimize the Holocaust, because we can think of the Holocaust as something that happened to middle aged West Europeans with whom we can identify and who kept diaries, as opposed to what happened to this broad mass of people in Eastern Europe and who were shot.

The other part of the problem is that killing people turns them into numbers. For instance, at this massacre at Sandy Hook, the school, which is about 25 miles from here, I can tell you that there were 26 school children who were killed. I cannot tell you all their names and what they were like. But the murder created the number 26. Just like the Holocaust created six million. The killers create the numbers, but then what we remember is the numbers. And the numbers are not neutral. In some sense they are the creation of other individuals and those numbers have a power, which continues long after the deed.

In a sense you are fighting against an epistemic problem, which is what you can see and what you cannot see. And you are also fighting against a moral problem, that there is a kind of spectral weight to these numbers, which is the inheritance we have from the crimes. There is no way to reconcile this. In the writing, you can only make it clear to the reader that this is something that we are all struggling with. I did my best to make sure that I portrayed some individuals whose fate there were sources to describe, whose fate was in some sense representative, and not exceptional.

So the people I write about are people who died as opposed to people who lived. I think that's a big bias and big problem is that in general we write about the people who survived Auschwitz. But Jews who survived Auschwitz are a very small minority. I tried to use sources from people who died, which made it all the more difficult, but that was possible. I tried to use sources of people who died in a representative way, which is important, at Treblinka or in the Ukrainian famine. And I also tried to make sure that the people whom I wrote about more or less represented proportionally the groups I was writing about. It's not perfect but it's more or less there. Jews from Byelarus, Jews from Poland, Ukrainians, Poles during the Terror. I try to represent the groups but I try to have more people in the groups that were bigger, roughly. That's what I did but I would not like to say that this solved the problem, because I don't think the problem can be solved. It can only be recognized and the most you can do is to bring the reader into this recognition.

Timothy Snyder is Housum Professor of History at Yale. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, his books include Thinking the Twentieth Century (Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder) (Penguin, 2012), Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010), The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of A Habsburg Archduke (Basic Books, 2008), Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist's Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (Yale University Press, 2005), The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (Yale University Press, 2003), Wall Around the West: State Power and Immigration Controls in Europe and North America (co-edited with Peter Andreas) (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000) and Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Harvard University Press, 1998).

Further reading

Photos: © Timothy Snyder; © Yale par Zbigniew Truchlewski.