Interview with Professor Timothy Snyder

Professor Timothy Snyder in Jena.
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.

Why have you come to Jena?
I’m friendly with the people who started the Imre Kertész Kollegium, with WÅ‚odzimierz Borodziej. They and Norbert Frei have been inviting me to come and speak about the book.

The book was published in 2010 in the UK, one year later in Germany and other European countries. There have been vivid discussions about it since then, even in non academic circles. Why do you think the book was that successful? There are a lot of books about the Holocaust, National Socialism and Stalinism around already.
It’s really hard to know why your own book is successful. I can give you some guesses: It’s really not like other books. There are books about the Soviet Union, National Socialism, the Holocaust and certain Soviet crimes. But there isn’t any book embracing both systems, all the people concerned and all the crimes – strange though that seems.
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.

My first impression was that it is quite personal. You name people and you put names on them. Your way of writing is more like story telling, not necessarily like telling history.
The personal helps me a lot, because it’s important to me morally that we understand all the victims as individuals rather than just as parts of a policy or parts of a cruel. It’s also important to me stylistically that the readers see each victim as a person and understand the significance of all the killing. Otherwise it just becomes dry and abstract.
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.

But doesn’t that make it harder to keep a distance between the killing and your personal life? For the reader and for you, too?
I think it is our personal life. It’s personal in a way that I think all history is part of the description about the world we live in. So it’s a mistake to believe that when we read a history book and close the covers then it’s all over for us. It really goes on.

Do you have to think about it when you go to sleep?
There have been other things which were easier for me to write. But I’ve never written anything which I thought was more worthwhile. So when I was working on this, every morning when I got up very early, I had the sense I’m doing something worthwhile. That really makes all the difference.

What made it so important to you, now?
Firstly it is an enormous catastrophe that needs to be described and explained. Right in the middle of European history there are 14 million murders. Even the individual events, the Holocaust, the Soviet Terror, the hunger in Ukraine – they haven’t been very well explained so far. And one of the reasons why they haven’t been explained is that we haven’t seen the connections between them.
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.

By comparing Hitler and Stalin, Stalin gains a lot of weight. I don’t feel that there was so much stress on Stalin and his terror before.
I find this perspective fascinating. I wasn’t aware of it until I started talking about this book. I was in the last Cold War generation. Regardless of your politics, regardless of where you lived in the West – I think everyone had some sense of Soviet Terror.
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 denkt”. 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.

Do you think that as an American you’re in a more objective position?
It’s a hard question to answer. I wouldn’t want to be a historian of my own country. I think it must be very hard, because your commitments are so strong. Even when you think they’re not, they often are. My sympathies are more evenly distributed. I don’t deny my sympathies, my life is in many ways a Jewish life, it’s been a Ukrainian life, a Polish life, a Russian one. But at the end of the day they’re not my places. At the end of the day, when I want to tell someone what to do, it’s the government of the United States.
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.

What about the response to the book in different countries: was it different in America and in Europe?
In one way it’s the same everywhere and then in one way there are variations. The common thing everywhere is that I have trouble with people who are committed to certain kinds of national stories. In the US there’s a certain story about how we entered the 2nd World War, because we’re good and because we stopped the Holocaust, which is all basically nonsense. This book directly challenges that. I make it very clear that one of the reasons why Americans don’t understand the depth of all these horrors is that we didn’t actually liberate any of these places where they happened – whereas the average American thinks that we liberated Auschwitz. And the average American thinks that we went to war to liberate Auschwitz. And I have a certain amount of trouble with other kinds of national stories where people want their nations to be entirely innocent. That’s more an East European problem. Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Poles want to be entirely victims, they don’t want to be anything 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.” 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 this” 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.” I’m saying that you can’t practise national history and give satisfactory answers.

Your book is especially remarkable due to Polish sources which weren’t used before in the Western world.
That’s a really important point. I use Polish sources in this book and they’re important, because much of the killing, close to most of it, happened in Poland. More than half of the Holocaust victims were citizens of Poland, 3.3 million. When one uses Polish sources, one cannot only write the history of Poland. An example: You mentioned the individuals, one of them is Dobcia Kagan, a Jew who left a message on the wall of the Kovel synagogue. Some of those messages were Hebrew, some of them were Yiddish, and some were in Polish. Hers happened to be in Polish which means that by means of Polish language I had easy access to what you could see as a Jewish memory of a German policy.
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.

How important is it for you to have won the prize for European understanding of the Leipzig book fair? What does it mean to you?
That was special in a way. Because one of the goals of this book was to try to write a book of European history a Frenchman and a Latvian as well could recognize as European history; not just would it be accessible to many Europeans, but also provide you with the missing chapter of the whole history of Europe – a chapter without which those people can’t really understand each other and which they won’t be able to take back out again. In that sense the European understanding was particularly important. And of course it was a particular pleasure to win an award in Germany – this is a place where history is taken very seriously and practiced on a very high level. It’s not a place where in general historians from outside Germany are recognized before they are at a very advanced stage in their career. The practice of history in Germany is very hierarchical. You don’t see many historians who are 42 and foreign win big history awards in Germany.

In the context of the European football championship in Poland and Ukraine there are some debates: To set a sign of remembrance the German national team is to perform an act to show their consciousness about history. Dieter Graumann demanded they had to go to Auschwitz. But as their main accommodation is in Gdansk, it would be natural to visit Westerplatte. Why do you think it’s so important for the public to symbolically visit Auschwitz?
Auschwitz is established as a kind of shorthand for the Holocaust as a whole.
But almost as many Jews were killed in Treblinka for example. Many hundreds of thousands were killed in Bełżec and Sobibór and Chełmno 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 Bełżec, 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.” or “I’m going to Poland for the first time, let me visit Majdanek.” 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.