The Corner


Big Questions with a Big Prof

Timothy Snyder (Wikimedia)

Timothy Snyder is a historian, a professor at Yale. He works on Eastern Europe, Russia, the Holocaust, and still other areas of concern, or interest. He spends a lot of time thinking about democracy and its foes. I have done a Q&A podcast with him, here.

I used to talk with Bernard Lewis about his “moment.” (The late, great Lewis was a scholar of the Middle East.) After 9/11, everyone wanted to talk with him. Everyone wanted to know what he knew. To a degree, people today want to know what Snyder knows. “History has come back with a vengeance,” you hear.

Yes, and it never really leaves.

Among Tim Snyder’s books are Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin; On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century; and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. A reader may not like everything in these books (and a listener may not like everything in the podcast we’ve done). But all of us can learn from Snyder — a lot.

In the new Q&A, we talk about his growing up in Ohio. And his education at Brown and Oxford. And his choice of Eastern Europe as an object of study.

He did not set out to be a historian of Eastern Europe. He thought he would learn Russian, get a law degree, and become an arms controller. But the Soviet empire crumbled and Eastern Europe had a chance to be reborn, it seemed. Young Snyder wanted to run around the region, learn the languages, and find out all he could.

In our podcast, we talk about patriotism and nationalism, as everyone is. What is the difference between the two? What does the difference matter? Furthermore, some people say that there can be “illiberal democracy.” Can there be?

Naturally, we get into Europe and Putin. Many nationalist-populist parties in Europe are allies of Putin. Some have formal friendship-and-cooperation agreements with him.

Among the many interesting points that Snyder makes is this: The enemies of liberal democracy in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s were awful people, of course: Nazis and Communists. But they had ideas. Visions and goals. They wanted to shape the world in particular ways.

Today, enemies of liberal democracy tend not to have ideas, visions, or goals. They just want to “burn it down.” They are nihilists and destroyers.

Later this month, the European Games are being held in Belarus, which I think is an outrage. Belarus is a dictatorship. For years, Alexander Lukashenko has been called “the last dictator in Europe.”

Snyder makes a wry remark: It might turn out that Lukashenko was merely ahead of the curve.

The professor is superb on the subject of Putin — absolutely superb. He explains him in historical terms and yet other ones. Putin is a product of the Soviet system, for sure, says Snyder. But he is a product of a particular time in Soviet history: the 1970s. People had stopped believing in anything, including Communism. They were just cynical. “Might makes right”; “money makes might”; etc.

Well, one thing they did believe: Everyone was out to get them.

The idea took hold that there was no truth. The very idea of truth was laughable. Snyder cites a recent book, by Peter Pomerantsev: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. I myself think of an article by Sir Roger Scruton, from June 2017, on the “post-truth age.” Let me quote a paragraph:

The concept of truth has been the victim of massive cyber-attacks in recent decades, and it has not yet recovered. The most recent attack has come from social media, which have turned the Internet into one great seething cauldron of opinions, most of them anonymous, in which every kind of malice and fantasy swamps the still small voice of humanity and truth.

Snyder says that, once you destroy belief in truth — even the simple idea that some things are true and some things are not — you destroy liberal democracy, whose institutions depend heavily on trust.

At the end of our podcast, he and I talk about the European Union and Germany (as separate subjects and a joint one). I myself have a little trepidation about a resurgent Germany, especially untethered to a European union. I am not alone (even if others are quiet about it).

Anyway, Timothy Snyder is someone to learn from, as I say, and about important, even urgent subjects. When you have a moment — or more like an hour — that podcast, again, is here.


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