Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale. His essay in the September 24, 2015 issue is drawn from his new book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, published in September 2015 by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Random House.
The chronicles of Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, are the opposite of escapism. Her relentlessly consistent interrogation of the experiences of Soviet citizens in the 1970s and 1980s has made her an acute critic of the abuse of memory in contemporary Belarus and especially contemporary Russia.
The crisis of the European Union has two sides. The political crisis is on view in Germany and Greece. But the philosophical crisis is on display in Russia and the eastern borderlands of Ukraine. Since a large number of Ukrainians have been willing to take risks, suffer, and die in the name of Europe—even as the EU itself suffers a grave identity crisis—it makes sense to ask what they think they are working toward.
In speaking of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as good foreign policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has violated both a long Soviet taboo and revised his own prior position that the agreement was “immoral.” What it is about this alliance with Nazi Germany that is so appealing just at the present moment? In fact, Putin’s rehabilitation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact follows other recent moves by Moscow to revive the idea of a division of Eastern Europe between Russia and the West.
On the European left, criticism of the purported fascism of the post-revolutionary government in Ukraine has been de rigeur. It can only be hoped that the Europe’s electoral results will open some eyes. The European left has a real problem, and it is not the Ukrainian far right. It is the European far right, which happens to be popular, and is supported by the Russian far right, which happens to be in power in Moscow.
Ukrainian elections mark the eastern boundary of European democracy, which is why they are so threatening for Moscow. With a regularity that is clearly unwelcome, Ukrainians stand up for their rights. Ukraine has deep problems, which can best be addressed by fresh elections—the presidential ones on Sunday, and hopefully parliamentary elections this fall. Ukrainians should be allowed to get on with it.
Just what does Russian President Vladimir Putin think he is doing in Crimea? The clues are there, in the language of the Kremlin’s non-stop propaganda campaign. The invasion was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would erupt that would change the world.
Whatever course the Russian intervention may take, it is not an attempt to stop a fascist coup, since nothing of the kind has taken place. What has taken place is a popular revolution, with all of the messiness, confusion, and opposition that entails. The young leaders of the Maidan, some of them radical leftists, have risked their lives to oppose a regime that represented, at an extreme, the inequalities that we criticize at home.
Ukraine is not a theater for the historical propaganda of others or a puzzle from which pieces can be removed. It is a major European country whose citizens have important cultural and economic ties with both the European Union and Russia. To set its own course, Ukraine needs normal public debate, the restoration of parliamentary democracy, and workable relations with all of its neighbors.
On paper, Ukraine is now a dictatorship. President Viktor Yanukovych, in having the deputies of his Party of Regions endorse an extraordinary packet of legislation, has arrogated decisive political power to himself. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians spent weeks in the cold demonstrating for basic human rights and a …
President Viktor Yanukovych, in having the deputies of his Party of Regions endorse an extraordinary packet of legislation, has arrogated decisive political power to himself. In procedure and in content the laws “passed” by the Ukrainian parliament this week contravene the most basic rights of modern constitutional democracies: to speech, assembly, and representation.
Asked about the turmoil in Ukraine, Alexander Orlov, the Russian Ambassador to France, declared: “Russians and Ukrainians are one nation. It’s like the Bretons and the Normans in France. You can’t separate them.” In denying the existence of a Ukrainian nation, he was echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in Ukraine have few options. They cannot force their own officials to sign a trade agreement with the EU. No elections are on the horizon, and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has no interest in calling them—unless a deal can be struck. But the Ukrainian constitution may offer a way out.
Herschel Grynszpan shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris on November 7, 1938. The Nazis claimed that the young man was an agent of the international Jewish conspiracy. In fact, he was a confused and angry teenager who, like thousands of European Jews in late 1938, was unwanted both in Poland, where he was a citizen, and in Germany, which he knew as home.
After the iron curtain descended, what Winston Churchill in 1946 could still call the “famous cities” of Eastern Europe came to seem oriental and mysterious. East and West became different worlds, divided by military alliances, economic systems, and ideologies. Those who sought ways through and around the iron curtain had …
The Holocaust can be seen, among many other things, as the final catastrophe accompanying the breakdown of what some historians call the first globalization, the expansions of world trade of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It collapsed in three stages: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Its fatal flaw was its dependence upon European empire.
A specter is haunting the Republican National Convention—the specter of ideology. The novelist Ayn Rand (1905–1982) and the economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992) are the house deities of many American libertarians, much of the Tea Party, and Paul Ryan in particular. The irony of today is that these two thinkers relied on some of the same underlying assumptions as the Marxism they were trying to defeat. The paradoxical result is a Republican Party ticket that embraces outdated ideology, taking some of the worst from the twentieth century and presenting it as a plan for the twenty-first.
In the decade between 1932 and 1942 some eleven million people in the Soviet Union starved to death, first as a result of Soviet policy, then as a result of German policy. For Hitler, as for Stalin, Ukraine was the center of a magical economy: there the rules of traditional economics could be broken and the way opened to a new world.
The European crisis, which we process from headline to headline as a matter of currencies and bailouts, is really a test of large-scale democratic capitalism. The hope was that a debt crisis, when it came, would by necessity produce a unified fiscal policy. But fiscal policy is at the very core of a democratic system, and the EU is not yet democratic. Instead, the German government has indulged its population in the dangerous fantasy that European imitation of German austerity would solve the problem. As a result, domestic politics in Germany and on the European periphery threatens to undo the European system. To resolve the crisis German leaders must persuade Germans and other Europeans to take the bold step of supporting a functioning European democracy. Here is how to do it.
Ukraine has long been a borderland between greater powers. What is different about the present moment is that it is now an independent state, and that it has become a borderland between two authentically different approaches to foreign relations. The European Union has no interest in admitting Ukraine as it is today, but might be interested in admitting the orderly, lawful eastern neighbor it might one day become. Russia has no interest in the rule of law in Ukraine, but is happy to exert influence upon its territory as part of its efforts to control the distribution of natural resources and reassert its power in the post-Soviet space.
Lincoln, Lawrence, and Norman are among America’s most attractive cities, where the opportunity for social advancement provided by big state universities are sources of local pride. Like most of the big college towns in the middle of the country, they have the art shops, the bookstores, and the cafés that coastal people say they miss in American life. What they do not have is presence. If you watch the national news on television, you see two kinds of American places: the kind where things are happening, and the kind where things have already happened. CNN and Fox speculate about the present in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles (and during campaign season, in “battleground” or swing states like Iowa and Ohio). Everywhere else in the country, things do happen, but always without warning—and rarely with anyone to witness them.
In modern times, the Habsburg crownland of Galicia became one of the most mythicized and tragic parts of Europe. But for Empress Maria Theresia von Habsburg-Lothringen it was an accidental acquisition. In 1772, when she seized most of the territories she would name “Galicia” from the waning Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, her …
The notion that the federal government ought to be starved of resources is not patriotism: it is right-wing anarchism, which corrodes not only the American state but the American nation. America is defined by its middle classes, and these are ceasing to exist. Belonging to the middle classes means that, without enormous wealth, you do not need to be concerned about the security of your pension, the quality of your children’s education, and the reliability of your family’s health care. At this point few people in Clinton County, Ohio can say (despite some good public schools) that they are worried about none of these.
In Anders Breivik’s manifesto, the ostensibly Christian defeat of the Ottoman armies at Vienna in 1683 is the central historical event. He imagines a European rebirth in 2083, four hundred years later, and names the Polish king Jan Sobieski, whose troops were crucial to raising the Ottoman siege, as one of his heroes. Breivik thinks Europe today is again under siege from Muslims, and that Europeans must resort to “atrocious, but necessary” violence to defend it. It is unsurprising that what Breivik has to say about European history is trivial. But since the reference to Vienna has largely passed without criticism, it is worth recalling for a moment what actually happened in 1683.
In early July the words “Hitler was right” were painted on the memorial stone to the 72,000 Jews who were murdered at the Ponary Forest near Vilnius in Lithuania. On another monument close by, a vulgar reference was made to the compensation the Lithuanian government has made to the descendants of murdered Jews. No one seems to have noticed.
It is fruitless to reduce the manifold evil of the Holocaust to a single cause. Ideology, charisma, conformism, hatred, greed, and war were all very important, but each was related to the others and all mattered within rapidly changing historical circumstances. In his profound study Holocaust, Peter Longerich puts forward an analysis that includes all these factors and shows how politics or, as he puts it, Politik, set them all in motion.
Who was worse, Hitler or Stalin? In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire …
In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people—tens of millions, it was often claimed—in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes—quality versus quantity—has set the ground rules for the politics of memory.
Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus’s sad capital, is one of the most terrifying public spaces in Europe. It is nothing but concrete, steel, glass and fearsome horizons—no benches, shelter, or anything for people who might wish to do something so normal as to assemble and speak together. Where anything vertical rises from the ground, it bears a video camera, ensuring that any gathering can be observed by the Belarusian KGB. And yet, when Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory by an improbably large absolute majority in the presidential elections on December 19, people came, in the tens of thousands, to protest the official results.
Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, opening this month in New York twenty-five years after its original release, is one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. As it begins, Simon Srebnik, a Polish Jew who was one of two survivors of Chełmno, returns to the death facility at Lanzmann’s request, and sings a song of his boyhood—about a white house, a house that is no longer—in the language of a country that was his homeland as it was of millions of Jews for centuries, a Poland made wretched by war. Mordechai Podchlebnik, the other survivor of Chełmno, in another conversation with Lanzmann, remembers human smoke against blue skies. The work of the stationary gas chambers began in German-occupied Poland on December 8, 1941. Here is the beginning of Lanzmann’s nine-hour reconstruction of the Holocaust, and in commencing with the faces and voices of Chełmno’s survivors, he has chosen well. Using no historical footage, Lanzmann instead elicits the detailed horror of mass death by asphyxiation at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz from his own conversations with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders.