The Bleak Prophecy of Timothy Snyder
The Yale historian warns about the risk of totalitarianism under Trump. That’s great for selling books — but scholars are alarmed.
Two days later, at a book event at the New School, another superfan buzzed with excitement. Holding a
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Two days later, at a book event at the New School, another superfan buzzed with excitement. Holding a New Yorker tote and a thermos of tea, he told me he had discovered the author’s books earlier in the year and had systematically devoured them.
The cause of all this excitement wasn’t Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, or even an academic-turned-self-help-guru like Daniel Gilbert or Adam Grant. Rather, it was Timothy Snyder, a serious-minded Yale professor and historian of the Holocaust.
The expectant chatter falls away quickly when Snyder appears. His deeply recessed eyes give him a permanently careworn expression, and his loose-fitting suits and shirts contribute to a sense of dishevelment held at bay in the name of civic duty. But even if Snyder’s mien is less Robert Langdon than Mr. Peabody by way of Droopy Dog, his audience hangs on his every word. For many of them, Snyder holds the key to understanding the present.
He is in New York to promote The Road to Unfreedom (Tim Duggan Books, 2018), his chronicle of the rise of authoritarianism, and juggling a labyrinthine schedule compiled by his two assistants and publicist. He’s doing two to three events a day, and, when I share a cab with him after one of his talks, he frets about the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil and what it portends for the state of democracy worldwide. Mostly, though, he stares out the window, desperate for a nap. Promoting a book is usually a sprint, but Snyder has been running a marathon for close to 10 years now, and it doesn’t look like he’ll get to rest any time soon.
Not yet 50, Snyder has already ascended to a level of cultural influence and political currency rarely reached by academics. He is perhaps the most visible living interpreter of the Holocaust, Stalinism, and totalitarian violence writ large. He’s been on The Daily Show, Real Time With Bill Maher, Amanpour, and countless C-Span panels. He’s received orders of merit from three countries and published multiple bestsellers. His previous book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), spent over a year on the New York Times best-seller list and has sold nearly 500,000 copies in the U.S. Last February, he presented a copy to the pope.
In short, Snyder has captured a mood. If you’re a liberal freaked out by Trump, Snyder is the dark prophet you’ve been waiting for. If you tend to believe that the worst might happen, Snyder is here to confirm your fears.
Beware the one-party state.
Yet he’s also stoked an increasingly vocal backlash. Scholars have accused him of “distortions” and a “pro-Polish bias.” As he has become our unofficial prophet of totalitarianism, a broader unease has set in — historians are famously uncomfortable with the art of prediction. Forecasting tends to act as a distorting lens, projecting the concerns of the present onto conflicts of the past that were waged along very different lines. Prophecy is also prone to being facile; it’s easy to cherry-pick examples and to downplay some crises while lending a false gravity to situations that might not warrant it.
In The Nation, Sophie Pinkham called The Road to Unfreedom “the apotheosis of a certain paranoid style that has emerged among liberals in Trump’s wake.” Snyder’s relentless hammering at Trump’s connection to Russia and the dangers Putin poses has raised doubts even among those inclined to be sympathetic to his overall reading of the crises confronting democracies. “There’s a certain danger in politics in crying wolf too many times,” says the Princeton historian David A. Bell. “You start to alienate the people you’re trying to persuade.”
His interest in Eastern Europe deepened thanks to a class he took with Thomas Simons Jr., who went on to become U.S. ambassador to Poland. Snyder won a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford and published his first article on the contradictions of economic shock therapy in Poland. He received a Ph.D. from Oxford and, after several fellowships, settled down to teach at Yale.
Three of his early books were similar. Each is a case study, rooted in the biography of a single, minor figure from the region: a Polish aristocrat, an artist turned politician, a minor Habsburg prince. Despite the marginality of his subjects, Snyder used their stories to brilliantly illuminate key themes: the plasticity of nationhood, the contingency of political decisions, and the critical role of intelligence agencies in shaping the course of global events.
Another book, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus 1569-1999 (Yale University Press, 2003), concerns the afterlives of a country that’s been mostly forgotten: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a multiethnic, multilingual confederation that managed to keep an incredibly diverse territory together for two centuries with a minimum of violence.
Snyder wrote Reconstruction of Nations as the former Yugoslavia descended into war, in part to understand how a multiethnic polity can transition to statehood with little bloodshed. The book ends on a particularly buoyant note. Snyder hails the eastern expansion of the European Union as “a wise and noble policy,” one sure to continue into the future and to bring Ukraine — and eventually, perhaps Russia — into the European orbit.
Then Snyder’s work took a darker turn. He became less interested in the possibilities of European integration than concerned by the possibility of civilizational collapse. By 2009 he had tenure and was writing frequently for the New York Review of Books. He had married Marci Shore, a fellow Yale historian of Eastern Europe. Her work on predominantly Jewish intellectuals in pre-war Poland profoundly influenced how Snyder viewed the region. It taught him to pay more attention to the social basis behind political ideals, and the outsize role small, tight-knit groups of thinkers can have in shaping a nation’s politics and culture. He began to think about “what’s missing from the field” and cast about for a way to “use our languages and knowledge of territory to talk about the Holocaust.”
Snyder himself is a polyglot; as his website proudly attests, he speaks five languages and reads in 10. His linguistic flexibility allowed him to draw on scholarship done in Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and several other languages. This let Snyder shift his scope of inquiry away from the inner workings of the Third Reich and occupation of Western Europe, traditionally the focus of Anglophone scholarship of the Holocaust, toward an account of the lived experience of the war in the East.
The result was Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010), which cemented his status as his generation’s leading interpreter of 20th-century Europe. The “bloodlands” are a place: a zone of territory stretching from Estonia in the north to the Crimea in the south and encompassing most of what is today Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and the Baltic Republics. The thing that gives this space coherence is not just bloodshed, but occupation. This is where “the malice of the Nazi and Soviet regimes overlapped and interacted,” Snyder writes. This is where people experienced the most extreme versions of both Hitler’s and Stalin’s attempts to forge a new world on racial or class lines. Bloodlands was the first of Snyder’s books not based mainly on primary sources.
It’s sometimes said in history departments that the best books are the ones you don’t have to read, since their titles redraw the field on their own (think The Making of the English Working Class, Peasants Into Frenchmen). By that standard, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin succeeds in spades. It pushes the study of World War II from the West to the East: from Vichy to Belarus; from Germany to occupied Poland; from Auschwitz to Treblinka, Belzec, and the massacre site of Babi Yar in Ukraine. It also takes the history of mass killing out of its various national contexts and puts them all in contact: Ukrainian deaths from famine in the Holodomor, Polish deaths during Stalin’s Great Purge, Soviet deaths from starvation in German camps, and, of course, the Holocaust itself.
Listen for dangerous words.
Alongside the many arguments Snyder undertakes in Bloodlands is a polemic against the major currents of Holocaust scholarship, especially those inherited from Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt, both of whom argued that Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews revealed a deep societal dysfunction. Against them, Snyder claims that “Europe’s epoch of mass killing is overtheorized and misunderstood.” He argues that it’s wrong to focus on the camps when so much of the Holocaust was committed out in the open, and also that the proportion of a nation’s Jews that survived was not a result of the intensity of native anti-Semitism, but the degree to which the institutions of the state survived.
Bloodlands received rapturous reviews. Christopher Browning called it “stunning”; Tony Judt said it was “path-breaking,” “the most important book to appear on this subject for decades.” Snyder also received the Lithuanian Diplomacy Star, a Polish Officer’s Cross, and an Estonian Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana (Third Class). Over and over on his Bloodlands book tour (he gave over 100 public lectures), people asked him about the deeper reason for the Holocaust. His next book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Tim Duggan Books, 2015), was his attempt at a response.
Black Earth reinterprets the Holocaust through the prism of ecology (rather than geography, as in Bloodlands). And rather surprisingly, it rests in large part on a reading of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Snyder takes Hitler’s demands for lebensraum, or living-space, at face value, and argues that at the root of Germany’s war of conquest was a Darwinian vision, sharpened by the experience of near-starvation by many Germans during the First World War. Black Earth goes on to warn about food shortages and agricultural problems in Bolivia, Indonesia, Yemen, and elsewhere. “The planet is changing in ways that might make Hitlerian descriptions of life, space, and time more plausible,” Snyder concludes, referring to climate change.
Criticism of Snyder began to trickle out after the publication of Bloodlands, but it reached a crescendo with Black Earth. In the Financial Times, Columbia’s Mark Mazower questioned Black Earth’s warning about future ecological catastrophe, which, he wrote, “ends up convincing neither as history nor as exhortation.” Omer Bartov, a historian of the Holocaust at Brown, sharply questioned Snyder’s belief that the origin of the Holocaust lay chiefly in Hitler’s personal obsessions. Black Earth, Bartov declared in The Chronicle Review, was “a good example of how not to write a history of the Holocaust.”
Believe in truth.
These days, Snyder talks much less frequently about Eastern Europe, or the Holocaust, than he once did. He speaks most often about freedom and tyranny. During his New York book tour, he appeared on a panel about fascism with the Columbia journalism professor Jelani Cobb and Jason Stanley, a philosopher (and friend) from Yale. (Sample question from a 9-year-old boy in the audience: “How long do we have before Trump becomes a full-on dictator?”)
Before the event, Snyder and I sat at an outdoor table at the New School. How did he navigate the transition from academic historian to secular prophet, I wondered? Snyder said that while working on Black Earth in 2013 he felt “a sense of desperation, of racing against time.” The feeling began during pro-democracy protests in Ukraine. Observing Russia’s widespread and effective use of disinformation gave him a presentiment, he said, “that bad things are coming.”
The bad thing came on November 8, 2016. Immediately after Trump’s election, students at Yale started writing Snyder to ask him what to expect. He began writing On Tyranny on a plane trip to Sweden. He completed it very quickly and put it on Facebook, where it got 15 million shares. “I was going to do it as an e-book for 99 cents,” he explained. Then his editor told him, “Add some history, and we’ve got a book.”
Some of the lessons, like “Do not obey in advance” and “Beware of the one-party state,” are rooted in the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany. Others, like “Be a patriot” and “Be as courageous as you can,” strike a note of Tom Paine-ish Americanism. Others still (“Establish a private life,” “Make eye contact and small talk”) seem like very basic mental hygiene.
The book has received unusually scathing reviews. Marlene Laruelle, a political scientist specializing in Russian nationalism at George Washington University, accused Snyder of “distortions, inaccuracies, and selective interpretations,” especially in his account of Russian actions and intentions. She also faulted Snyder for his “egregious exaggeration” of the importance of the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin in shaping Russian foreign policy.
David A. Bell says that Snyder’s “fixation on 1933 and the rise of fascism with Trump makes comparison a bit too [easy] between American circumstances and European circumstances.” Bell also cautions against Snyder’s dark forebodings. There are many ways a democracy can go wrong, Bell says, without the result necessarily being the fall of the Weimar Republic.
Samuel Moyn, Snyder’s colleague at Yale, echoed Bell’s caution when we spoke earlier this spring: “Crying wolf doesn’t help, even if it may not hurt — unless it is a distraction from self-examination.”
Snyder bristles when I mention these criticisms. For him, Russia isn’t a distraction; it’s a potent threat to democracy. “Russia obviously interfered in U.S. elections,” he says: To think otherwise is to “deny truth.”
In each of his last three books, Snyder has developed the thesis that our current relationship to history is seriously out of whack. In his mind, most Americans are caught between the belief that nothing can change, which he calls “the politics of inevitability,” and the notion that we need to return to a mythical past, whether it’s the New Deal or the pre-Civil Rights South, a tendency he calls the “politics of eternity.”
But there is also a risk in seeing events through a single historical lens. “There are many different roads to unfreedom,” Bell says. “Just because Trump says certain things, doesn’t mean we’re going down the same path.” Bell’s comments reflect a widespread belief by historians that argument by analogy is often sloppy.
Snyder has become one of the leading historians of his generation by detailing the devastation of the mid-20th century. His single-minded focus on the possibility that such disasters will reoccur — while great for selling books — may leave him blind to how much of our current political life still hinges on the pettier planes of corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence. And if the great disaster ever arrives, there still may be a case for not reacting too rashly. After all, the 18th lesson in On Tyranny is “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.”