Interview with Professor Timothy Snyder
Professor Timothy Snyder in Jena. Foto: Steffen Elsner.
Am 2. Mai war Timothy Snyder zu Gast im Kolloquium des Imre-Kertész-Kollegs. Er ist Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte an der Yale University und veröffentlichte 2010 sein Buch „Bloodlands – Europe Between Hitler and Stalin“. Darin konstruiert er einen historischen Raum, der Polen, das Baltikum, Weißrussland, die Ukraine und Westrussland umfasst. Zwischen den 1930er Jahren und 1945 wurden 14 Millionen Menschen ermordet – im Holocaust, weiteren Genoziden und forcierten Hungerkatastrophen. Für sein Werk wurde Snyder auf der diesjährigen Leipziger Buchmesse mit dem Preis für Europäische Verständigung ausgezeichnet. Für Akrützel nahm er sich vor dem Kolloquium Zeit.
Das Interview erschien in einer ins Deutsche übersetzten und gekürzten Fassung in der Akrützel-Ausgabe 307.
And then the method is different and captures people’s attention. I start from an observation: 14 million people were killed in a certain time, in a certain place. That premise, I think precisely because it’s so undeniable and so powerful, catches people’s attention.
And then a lot of it has to do with the writing: I tried very hard to make sure this was a book people could have access into regardless of whether they are Polish or Jewish or American or German and regardless of whether they were interested in the specialized debates or not.
In general, any academic writing can be well written. I’d say that historians have a duty to write quite well. What we’re supposed to be doing is communicating with other people. It’s much easier to write in such a way that only you and your colleagues and your friends can understand. Germany and other countries have these perverse positivistic traditions: people think it’s easy to write well and hard to write badly, but they’re wrong.
Another reason is an example of a kind of historical responsibility. Normally what East European historians do is write about one country or another. But the really big events, including the biggest one, the Holocaust, can slip through, because they don’t really fit into one country’s history. What I thought was that East European historians have a responsibility to explain the things beyond the individual nations.
And then there’s this opportunity: 1989. After ’89 we have had access to sources not only about the communist world, but also about National Socialism, because that’s where the Germans killed.
Then there is a fourth reason: I spent much of my adult life in these places, with people who in one way or another were connected to those events. These family histories are in some way the histories I’m writing here. That experience made certain parts of the story natural, intuitive to me in a way which hasn’t been articulated in a scholarly way before. For example, that all of this happened in places where both the Soviets and the Germans were. That’s totally intuitive in Minsk or Warsaw. People might not speak about it, but everyone knows that it’s true. Whereas in the former West-Germany and America, France, Britain that’s not understandable at all.
The instinct thing that has happened in your generation is that the history of the Holocaust has remained and clarified itself (which is a very good thing). But the history of the Soviet Union in a strange way has faded into the background. This is something I was surprised to learn. Because in the 80s people still did know about what happened in the 30s.
The irony is that we now know a lot more about it. We know the details, we have access to records. The Stalinism that I’m presenting here is a much more precise and documented thing than we had in the 80s. The state of research about Stalinism is now comparable – it’s not the same, but it’s comparable – to the state of research about National Socialism. That’s one of the reasons why you can bring it all together.
I think it’s very important for us to be able not to see this as a kind of zero sum game. I think we all ought to see: “Das Bild ist größer als man denktâ€. We have to be able to not see all of this as a political competition, but rather just to try to understand it as history uncompetitively, peacefully and objectively. That’s what I was trying to do here.
I don’t think that it’s being an American per se. I think if anything, it’s being simultaneously an outsider and an insider. I have enough commitment, language, friendship and so on that I’m inside – but I can leave and go somewhere else.
The point is that everywhere I have problems with people who are more committed to a sort of national understanding of history, so there’s this kind of nationalist international. All these people don’t realize that they’re the same.
The hardest place has probably been Germany. That’s because national history in Germany has a particular character which says – in a way it’s very virtuous and very praiseworthy: “We want to take responsibility for the whole thing, for the Holocaust, for everything. And we already understand it, we figured it out.â€ I understand the first impulse. But it’s actually impossible to figure it out on the basis of German sources alone. There’s a strange alliance in Germany between the virtuous, often left-wing tendency to say “We’re responsible, we want to own thisâ€ and the very right-wing way of practicing history which says “We can own this by way of our national history using only German sources.â€ I’m saying that you can’t practise national history and give satisfactory answers.
It’s extremely important to see the Germans not from their own point of view – and you can’t do that unless you’re using other languages. Of course, I do use German sources as well, there are magnificent books about the whole thing and I owe a lot to German historiography. But I also use Russian and Yiddish and Ukrainian. Each language you can use creates geometrical possibilities for seeing the whole thing. So I regret each language I don’t know. I regret I don’t know Lithuanian, I’m sure if I did I could see much more.
But almost as many Jews were killed in Treblinka for example. Many hundreds of thousands were killed in BeÅ‚Å¼ec and SobibÃ³r and CheÅ‚mno and places which are much less known. I think Auschwitz has survived as a symbol, very unusually, because it was also a camp. That means that there were people like Primo Levi who at Monowitz, one of the three parts of Auschwitz, can remember the rest of it for us. There are very few people who can remember Treblinka or BeÅ‚Å¼ec, because there are almost no survivors. So ironically people remember Auschwitz, because there were relatively many survivors.
If the German national team has to go somewhere, I don’t see why they couldn’t go to CheÅ‚mno or why they couldn’t go to Westerplatte. I find it a little bit artificial to say that every time someone goes to Poland they have to go to Auschwitz. It would be a nice thing if these German players individually had the thought “I’m going to Poland for the first time, let me visit Warsaw ghetto.â€ or “I’m going to Poland for the first time, let me visit Majdanek.â€ But I also think it can seem a little bit artificial to take a whole group of people and lead them into a place. Then you ask yourself: what is this actually meaning to them? Is this something they’ve individually decided to do by themselves? I would be much more touched to know that the second-string fullback decided to make a trip on his own instead of the whole team having it on its agenda.