Timothy Snyder on History and Memory (Interview - Part II)

By Zbigniew Truchlewski | 13 February 2013

To quote this document: Zbigniew Truchlewski, “Timothy Snyder on History and Memory (Interview - Part II)”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 13 February 2013, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1641, displayed on 06 December 2022


Nouvelle Europe interviewed Prof. Timothy Snyder of Yale University on History and Memory.

Zbigniew Truchlewski (ZT): Do you think that this work you do as a historian, which has an important impact on the memory of these countries, gives you a special responsibility as a historian?

Prof. Timothy Snyder (TS): This is what I meant with the word humanist at the end of Bloodlands. Part of what we're trying to do in history, is that we try to explain. Explaining, although it's not neutral, it can feel like a sort of objective exercise. I think I gave a pretty good explanation of why the Ukrainian famine happened. I think I gave a decent explanation even of how the Holocaust happened. But the problem with explanation is that we are then treating some people as causes and other people as effects. That's all true, but it somehow does not exhaust the reality of what is happening. So the other half of what historians have to do is significance - it is why this does matter. This matters because of the people who died, but it is easy to become abstract or forgetful about human beings who are dead. That means that we have to think about people who were killed as if they were alive. I did feel a certain responsibility to get that point across. I feel a responsibility as a historian in general. What we do is immediately about human beings, in a way that physics is not. I felt it more with Bloodlands, partly because it's more significant than what I have ever done and partly because of this problem of the people who have been killed. When you have been killed you are immediately part of the story of the killers and of other stories, which try to claim you in different ways. All those things are natural and I cannot stop them, nor would it be my right to stop them, but I think that, as a historian, it's my job to write this as a human history.

It's not enough to say that they were killed by the Germans because they were Jewish, because even then you are leaving the meaning of it in the hands of the people who did the killing. You have to think about what it meant for that person to be Jewish, to be a mother, a sister, a friend, or whatever else we can unearth about that person. Only then do they have their own subjectivity in the story as opposed to have been objectified by the way they died and the ways that people have written about them? There is something open and irreducible about individual life. If that person would have not been killed that day, we don't know what she would have done the next day. At the moment of death, rather than being irreducible, people become reducible to all of the other stories that we can tell about them. It's very hard to convey this, the only way to do it, is to write about people so that they look like people.

ZT: We have all these­ debates in Europe about writing a European history. Should we write French-German or German-Polish history books? How should we deal with European history and memory?

TS: Bi-national commissions are very useful because they force historians from different national backgrounds to come into a sort of confrontation, and that can be very useful. I took a minor part in a Polish-Ukrainian commission, which was useful for everyone concerned. The problem for Europe though, is that you cannot create a European history out of a bunch of bi-national commissions for two reasons: one, mathematical, if every country writes such a history with another country, we will end up with too a ridiculous number of bi-national commissions.

The other problem is more serious. It's intellectual. You can usefully solve some problems at the bi-national level – for instance how many Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia and how many of them died. That has been more or less settled by a joint German-Czech exchange. But you cannot solve the broader European question of why there was so much ethnic cleansing or why the cold war started. These bigger questions can only be solved at the European level. I tend to think that there will have to be some way of producing European history, which can then be taught at the elementary and secondary school level, not at the university level because it's too late, we have already become who we are, and the things we take for granted in history which are the most dangerous things, have already been taught to us. So I think that for European integration to continue in the 21st history, there has to be European history, which has to be taught to students, who are between eight and twelve years old.

ZT: There is this paradox that we need a consensus European history, but in Eastern Europe we see a resurgence of historical politics, where we see strategies of historicisation, PiS in Poland, FIDESZ in Hungary. How would you explain this paradox of the resurgence of history at the moment when some wrongly claimed the "end of history"?

TS: The idea that history was over in 1989 was a very foolish idea and an idea that has gotten us in a lot of trouble because it has meant that big powers like the USA can say that we can forget about the past, it does not really matter, everything is new and we are going to make things up as we go along. This has been devastatingly destructive for us as a national society. In that way the end of the cold war was a very bad thing, because we thought that we could not concern ourselves about faraway people and their complicated pasts. Similarly, the related idea that there is no more ideology has been very harmful to us. As long as there was the Soviet Union, we had to engage with its ideology and this ideology came from our civilization, from some of its great thinkers. This keeps you honest in a certain way and it gives you a certain kind of reflectiveness about your own ideas. With the disappearance of the Soviet Union, we've lost the habit of reflecting on our own ideology, we've lost our reference points and therefore, and we've lost the ability to criticize ourselves. So that whole idea of the end of history was a destructive idea, almost an intellectual suicidal idea.

Part of the problem of liberal democracy is that it takes place within a defined community, often national, which will want the truth about the past which is almost impossible to achieve, therefore there will be controversy. That is going to be true even if there were only one Poland so to speak. But there is not one Poland. There is Poland plus Lithuania, plus Ukraine, which means you have the possibility for dispute among the various national communities. And beyond that you have states, which have memory policies, which go beyond their own borders, in different ways, the United States, Israel, the European Union and Russia. All have memory policies, which have to do with things that happened in Eastern Europe. So you have the level of democracy, you have the level of regional relations and you have also the level of international relations.

There is also a particular problem, which is really interesting for political scientists, and which is about sovereignty. When you join the EU, you do lose sovereignty in some important respects and as a result of that, national leaders tend to be forced back towards the traditional symbolism of sovereignty. We are in this interesting pattern in Eastern Europe, which is that when things go wrong, national leaders say "we cannot do anything, that was just a decision made in Brussels". But at the same time national leaders overemphasize the things about which they can do something, such as history, memory, symbolism. An extreme example of this is the way that Smolensk is discussed in Poland now. Certain people in Poland present it as a violation of Polish sovereignty because of a conspiracy to kill the Polish leadership. And if you go beyond Poland no one has any idea of why this is plausible. You have this disjuncture between the traditional symbols of sovereignty and the reality of sovereignty, and I think this is a real problem for the EU as it exists now, and not just in Eastern Europe. It's true in France as well. The only way to solve this problem would be to move forward so that people believe that the EU is in some sense sovereign. We – you – are in this very weird and untenable half-way house.


ZT: About Bloodlands more precisely: comparing Soviet and Nazi regimes proves to be controversial for different reasons, but you invite the reader to do this in your book nonetheless. What are the good reasons to compare both regimes?

TS: Someone who says you must not compare the Nazis and the Soviets has already compared them. There is a deep moral problem here. Anyone who says that two things are not comparable has already compared them and they're telling you not to. This means that what is involved here is not an intellectual argument but a power claim. What is involved is a taboo where some of us are on one side of the taboo and some of us are on the other side. There is thus a deep moral problem with the incomparability claim.

Second thing, if you don't compare, you're doing away with the history of the region. If you say you can't compare the Nazis and the Soviets, then you have to say that the history of the Poles, Ukrainians and the Jews never happened. Why? Because they all experienced both and it was very significant for them, in different ways, but in terms of how people died and how they survived.

The next thing I would say about this, is that I think that it arises from a fear that I think is not justified. The fear is present, if you compare the Nazis and the Communists, then somehow you going to minimize one or the other. In France it would usually be that you are going to minimize the Nazis. In Poland you would minimize the Soviets, as I had the experience to encounter. But I think the much sounder way to proceed is actually to do the work that enables a comparison. As you know my book is not really a comparison, it's much more a preparation if somebody else wants to compare. If you compare them, then what is different about the Soviets and the Nazis becomes clear. If you don't compare, you have no idea. It's just that someone told you that they were very different. If you do the work, you can say in this respect they were similar and in this respect they were different.

ZT: One concept is very important in the book, it is interaction, interaction between the Soviet and the Nazi regimes. Could you elaborate more on that?

TS: The question of interaction is a question that we have to pose. Once we know that these catastrophes happened in a place where both the Nazis and Soviets were present, it's absurd not to ask about interaction. Once you ask, then you can answer, but it's not simple. In some places where people think there is interaction, it turns out not to be true. Maybe not in France, but in Germany, in the US and in Poland, people think the Germans learnt from the Soviets. That's one of the common theses about interaction. That is not true. The Germans did not really understand the Soviet Union, the Nazis thought that it was run by the Jews. Why would that be a model for them? It was not really a model. That's a thesis that appears in Ernst Nolte and to a certain extent in François Furet, whom I admire enormously in the Le Passé d'une Illusion, but he is wrong. The Germans did not really learn from the Soviets, that is simply not how it happened.

And then there are other places where the interaction matters a great deal, for example the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The way that events transpire after 1939 has a great deal to do with the fact that the Soviet Union destroyed the Baltic States. I would emphasize that it's not only the history of the Baltic States, which is in play here, but the history of the Jews as well. You cannot possibly understand the fate of the Jews in those places without knowing about the Soviet occupation, partly because the Soviets deported and killed a lot of Jews, but also more directly because the way the Holocaust began has everything to do with the Germans dealing with the aftermath of Soviet Occupation. You have to ask about interaction not because it's always there – it is often not there, and sometimes it is where it is not expected to be – but you have to ask about it in order to be able to say where interaction existed.

We have to ask about it because we care about why Ukrainians went through the famine – interaction did not matter there – or why Poles were killed in Katyn – interaction mattered a bit here – or why Byelorussians were killed – here interaction matters a lot. We care about the fate of the civilians in the Warsaw uprising, and interaction matters a lot here as well. And we care about the Holocaust, and here interaction mattered to a certain degree. If we want to understand these things, we have to allow ourselves to ask the relevant questions.

ZT: The chapter on the "Economics of Apocalypse" shows the material sources of these extermination policies. But it puts the reader in a difficult position because one asks: if material interests mattered most, what is the role of political ideology?  

TS: The only way to grasp that is to think of economics as being ideological, and of ideologies as being economic. So there really are economic projects going on here. The Soviets are trying to modernize; the Germans are trying to colonize. One way to understand the book is that Soviet modernization and German colonization are happening in the same place and at almost the same time. ­­­But the way that Soviets think about modernization has to do with their view of the world, that we are all heading towards a certain kind of industrial modernity, you have to catch up with capitalism in order to build socialism. That all depends upon a certain ideological understanding of the world. Likewise, the Nazis think that the way to be a great power is to control lots of territory and this you do by being a master race and preventing all the other populations from functioning and turning them into your slaves. The way you deal with Poles and Ukrainians is that you kill their educated people and you prevent them from being educated and then you just use them however you want. Meanwhile you have to get rid of the Jews because the Jews are a worldwide conspiracy against you. If you do those two things, you can have a colony in the East. Now the colony has an economic purpose. It's to provide food but the mode of getting there, the reason of why you are going to succeed have everything to do with your ideological view of the world. You're right, it's a problem if you think that economics is a kind of neutral science and it's a problem if you think that ideology has nothing to do with economics. A lot of what German historians especially and Soviet historians long before have done was to help us to see that ideology and political economy go hand in hand.

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.