Beware the destruction of the state! An interview with Timothy Snyder

In his recent book Black Earth, the historian Timothy Snyder analyses the Holocaust in terms of the destruction of the state. This allows him to compare the roles of the Nazi and Soviet regimes in causing the Holocaust, despite their different ideologies and intentions. In interview with the Slovenian journal Razpotja, Snyder explains this argument and its implications for contemporary conflicts in Europe and beyond. 

Luka Lisjak Gabrijelcic, Timothy Snyder

How does your latest book on the holocaust, Black Earth, relate to your previous monograph, Bloodlandsin which you attempted to write a comprehensive history of those territories in eastern Europe that suffered what you call a 'double occupation', by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union?

The point of Bloodlands was that we hadn't noticed a major event in European history: the fact 13 million civilians – civilians and prisoners of war, not soldiers on active duty! – were murdered for political reasons in a rather confined space over a short period of time. The question of the book was: 'How this could have happened?' We have some history of Soviet terror, of the Holocaust, of the Ukrainian famine, of the German reprisals against the civilians. But all of these crimes happened in the same places in a short time span, so why not treat them as a single event and see if they can be unified under a meaningful narrative. The point was to get over the limitations of national history which stresses some events, leaving out others entirely. Instead of focusing on single nations, I look at the territory where these killings took place.

The other thing that I was keen to do was to overcome what I see as an artificial separation between Nazi German and Soviet history. Of course these were different systems, but it so happens that the territory where both were most lethal was the same. There must have been some places where they interacted, and the only way to answer that question is to look at the territory, rather than the systems.

My aim was to provide a perspective which would enable us to see one single, large event that starts in 1939 and ends in 1945. I wanted to tell a story that includes the experiences of the victims, the perpetrators, all the peoples involved, and the two major systems. Having done that, it's perfectly legitimate to ask what would be an appropriate interpretation of the greatest of these crimes, the Holocaust.

Bloodlands was a horizontal project, describing the historical experiences from the territorial perspective, Black Earth is a vertical one: I singled one of these events, and tried to explain it.

Despite your innovative approach, the starting point of your explanation is surprisingly traditional: you begin with Hitler's worldview. You stress what is something of a historiographical commonplace: that Hitler was not just a radical nationalist, but an idiosyncratic racial naturalist.

The problem with explaining the Holocaust, and maybe German crimes in WWII in general, on the basis of Hitler's worldview is that it doesn't make much sense within the context of German history. Hitler's worldview had relatively little to do with Germany, centred as it was around a much larger vision for Eurasia. What I want to say is: 'yes, the ideology matters tremendously, but we don't see how it matters until we follow German power beyond the borders of Germany'. I take Hitler's ideas seriously. In this sense you're right in saying that it's a very old fashioned book. What is new is that I try to see its implications in areas where German sources can't tell us the whole story – because they're written in Russian, Yiddish, Polish and other East European languages – and see how this ideology was brought into being in the places where it really mattered.

By placing the history of the Holocaust so deeply in the context of the struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, don't you fear of being accused of revisionism?

I don't want to reduce the Holocaust to a side event of the friction between two empires. The Holocaust is the result of Hitler's understanding of history as a struggle between races, and the transformation of the German state into an instrument to destroy other states and to create a world without Jews. The Soviet Union comes in the picture because, by following its own, very different aims, it also destroys states. In 1940, the Soviet Union destroys the three Baltic States – and it is no coincidence the Holocaust starts in these areas. The story is not about a grand encounter of empires, but about the micro-stories of double occupation.

State destruction, I say in the book, gets you very far. When Germany destroys Austria in 1938, things are possible in Vienna that were not possible in Germany. When Czechoslovakia is destroyed in 1939, Jews suffer a level of persecution that was not possible in Germany. When Germany invades Poland in 1939, this persecution can be taken to a level not possible elsewhere. But even at that point, the Holocaust is not yet possible. It becomes possible when German power moves into areas where the Soviet Union has recently destroyed the states, with their legal and social structures.

I want to be clear about this: it's not that Stalin intended the Holocaust, it's that the Soviets had very violently disrupted political institutions in certain places. When the Germans in turn destroyed the Soviet institutions, that created the local conditions that made the Holocaust possible. It was in these areas that the Germans learned, for the first time, that the total annihilation of the Jews could be carried out.

Although you quote Hannah Arendt only sporadically, many of your arguments seem to draw from her analyses of totalitarianism – especially her argument that Nazism, unlike Fascism, aimed at abolishing the state and replacing it with an unprecedented system of racial domination.

The entire book owes a lot to Hannah Arendt. Everyone who works on these subjects engages with Arendt in a way or another. I do it by taking her ideas further. The type of speculative history she writes is bound to get certain things wrong; what I try to do is to see where she was right in the light of things that we have learnt since the 1950s.

There are four ways in which I find her very important for my studies. The first is the way she treats ideology. People tend to prefer coherence over factuality. If Hitler tells a story according to which human beings are basically in nature and Jews have disrupted nature, and if we eliminate the Jews, nature will return – that is a story which is not true, but it's coherent. Anything that happens can be made to fit into that story. This understanding of ideology as a machine that can absorb the facts is very important.

The second way is the way in which she understands totalitarianism. What Arendt means by totalitarianism is not the overpowering state: it's the complete breakdown between the public and the private. This doesn't necessarily involve administration and bureaucracy: it is primarily about the overwhelming pressure on the individual. As I pointed out in Bloodlands, this overwhelming pressure is most acute where the two systems encounter each other. It happens in places like Vilnius or Riga in the summer of 1941 more than anywhere else.

The third thing is her discussion of imperialism. I think she was right that at the end of the nineteenth century something very important happens with the notion of empire. This was basically an intuition of hers – her main sources were the novels of Joseph Conrad – but I think she was right in her guess that the racialization of empire has a crucial role in the genesis of totalitarianism. Hitler, and not only him, looks at what is happening in Africa, and to some extent in America, and applies to Europe, in a very crude and simplified way, the notion of racial empire. She is right in stressing that this could not have happened without the colonial experience in Africa.

The fourth, and maybe the most important point is her argument about how the Holocaust could have happened. In order to kill a person, you have to kill the juridical person first – you need to remove the law from the person you are killing. I think she is fundamentally right about that. She saw how the juridical person was being killed, step by step. The entire historiography of the holocaust, from Raul Hilberg onward, has followed this insight. Hitler comes to power in 1933, the Nuremberg laws are promulgated in 1935, followed by the Aryanization of Jewish property, which peaks in 1938. It's presented as a sort of gradual, step-by-step process within Germany itself. What I'm trying to show is that this is not the real prehistory of the Holocaust: this was not the main way in which the Holocaust took place. The main way to kill the law in the person... to kill the state.

Exactly. Hannah Arendt doesn't see that, because she's German. She's a West European Jew, and so are her friends. What the Nazis learnt in the East, however, is that if you take the law away entirely, then things are possible that would not have been possible otherwise. So I'm taking Arendt's insight, which I find correct, and radicalizing it.

You present the destruction of the Soviet state structures in the summer of 1941 as the crucial step leading from persecution of Jews to their annihilation.

Here, I wanted to be careful. It's very difficult to avoid a certain ideological trap. One cliché goes: 'The Nazis and Soviets were alike'. No, they were not: their ideologies were very different. This would be the sort of things you hear from the right. From the left, on the other hand, one hears: 'You can't compare the Nazis and the Soviets at all, that's a very dangerous relativization!' That's historical nonsense. Almost everyone in Eastern Europe experienced both types of regimes, in one way or another. Slovenia in one way, Estonia in a very different way, Smolensk in its own way. But the inhabitants of all these areas had an experience that involved both the Stalinist and the Nazi regime. If you say we can't talk about these two systems together, you are saying that the historical experience shared by 150 million people has to disappear from the discussion. That's ridiculous.

Because of all these political implications, one has to be very careful about how one puts the argument. I'm trying to explain the consequence of the destruction of the Soviet state structures within a larger sociological argument about state destruction, where Austria is step one, Czechoslovakia is step two, Poland is step three. But what is special about the occupied areas of the Soviet Union is that a vast portion of them were subject to a double state destruction.

In Austria, German policies were already much more radical than they were in Germany. In Poland, the Germans were able to destroy the state by force, murder its elite, eliminate the entire Polish civil code and even claim that the Polish state never existed as a legal entity, which was a very radical thing to do. This enabled the creation of entities such as the ghetto, but not quite the Holocaust, yet. Again, I'm not saying that the Soviet Union paved the way to the Holocaust on purpose. I am saying, however, that it was very good at destroying states. It was better than Germany. In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Soviets were enormously efficient: the elites were eliminated, either deported or killed, the legal code went. The Soviets also said that, legally, these states never existed, going so far as to prosecute people for having served in the state apparatus before 1940. And they got rid of property rights almost literally overnight, something that took the Germans years to accomplish.

This was crucial in the dynamics of the Holocaust, right?

Yes, but we must understand that these Soviet measures were not targeted at the Jews as Jews. However, they had consequences when the Germans arrived. The fact that property rights did not exist means that when the Germans entered, the Latvians and Lithuanians started saying, 'that was my shop, that was my house', and if the Jews said, 'no, it was mine', they would suffer immediate consequences. By destroying all forms of institutional protection, the Soviets had, unintentionally, made it much easier for the Germans to persecute Jews on a much larger scale than before.

And then, there is the political psychology... read more:

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