Timothy Snyder: American Intellectual Discourse on the Holocaust and Much Else

In his showcasing the Great Famine in Ukraine of 1932-33, we see how Snyder the scholar (and not just Snyder the pundit dealing with current affairs) plays into the hands of those many American ideologists who conflate Stalinism with Communism, Communism with Great Russian imperialism, and Great Russian imperialism with Putinism. Read on…


Timothy Snyder: American Intellectual Discourse on the Holocaust and Much Else


                                   by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



Very few American historians are also public intellectuals. You can count the historian-contributors to The New York Review of Books or to New Republic on your fingers. Like academics generally, they tend to dig deep into the subsoil of their discipline and are content to stay there, safe from risks of missteps in public space that might expose them to opprobrium of their peers in a very conformist society if not to loss of their jobs altogether.  And so they willingly marginalize themselves, staying clear of the country’s intellectual life. That field is left to political scientists, who may or may not be great conceptual thinkers but usually have only a superficial factual knowledge of any point on the globe about which they are writing today.

Yale history professor Timothy Snyder is one of the rare exceptions to this general rule. His 2010 book Bloodlands was pitched to a general audience and conceptual freshness was precisely its greatest strength. The book won him both professional and popular acclaim, academic awards and lecture tours around the world. He has used this success as a platform to hold forth in The New York Review of Books and elsewhere on current events, assuming the role of political scientist with his own scenarios for prognostication. His Neoconservative leanings ensure that he has many defenders in the American political mainstream whatever he happens to say and thus he has been shielded from thinking hard and choosing his words with care even as he moves well outside his core competence.

In my response to his 5 December NYRB article on the way forward for Ukraine¹, I remarked that he has no Fingerspitzengefühl for Russia, that I sniffed a pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian bias in his thinking on today’s events.²  Russia-bashing has become so engrained in American thinking across the board that virtually no one has found fault with the anti-Moscow bias in Snyder.ᶟ

In this essay I go back to Timothy Snyder’s master work, Bloodlands, in search of clues as to why this outstanding academic historian can write very one-sided and wrongheaded essays on current affairs. This has meant looking into Snyder’s scholarly integrity, into where he has done the greatest part of his reading and into his attempt to find relevance for the present in his historical investigations. 

Bloodlands received a great many bouquets from reviewers in the months following its publication and now, three years later, doyens of European history like professor emeritus of Columbia University Istvan Deak continue to hold the book up as unique in its erudition and path-breaking in its vision.⁴ Since the book was written for a wide public, it is entirely understandable that the reviews direct attention principally to the content of the book, rather than to the technical issues of Snyder’s sources, his archival research, his bibliography and the like.⁵  Indeed, what is remarkable about Bloodlands is precisely the organizational concept: the scope of the narrative, the geography delimited, the juxtaposition of the mass killings ordered by Stalin and by Hitler. 

With an eye on both the text and the Notes, some reviewers have correctly remarked that the book is based almost exclusively on secondary sources, that is to say, on the results of research by other scholars using archival (primary) sources which became available following the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. As professionals have noted, Snyder’s own contribution was to break out the new findings of the past 20 years from national silos where they were locked away till now, arriving at novel conclusions about the way the mass killing of one invading side (Stalinist Russia) preconditioned the mass killing of the other side (Nazi Germany) which in turn set the stage for the killings and deportations of the returning party (Soviets).


Insofar as the interconnectedness of events is a fundamental premise of the book, it is very regrettable that the author devotes only 3 pages in the introductory chapter to the Russian-Polish War of 1919-21 and particularly to Pilsudski’s nearly realized ambition of a ‘Sea to Sea Federation’ which set the stage for the eventual re-distribution of Poland between Stalin and Hitler along borders shown in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and hence for the east-west division that features throughout the book. It would also help make sense of Stalin’s special persecution of Poles during the Great Terror, a policy which seems either totally mad or inexplicable as laid out by Snyder. A follow-up to nationalities policies in the Polish governed territories of Western Belarus and Western Ukraine would also be highly beneficial to our understanding the response of local populations to occupying armies in the period 1939-45. However, filling in the missing narrative would be prejudicial to Snyder’s ‘Poles as victims’ approach.

Snyder impresses upon us how shootings over open pits characterized the murders of the Shoah east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line while gassing upon arrival in death factories (rather than lengthy internments in concentration camps) characterized the extermination of Jews and others west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line. Those of us who thought we understood the Holocaust from our visits to Auschwitz or reading of Anne Frank’s Diary find Snyder’s writings open a whole new dimension to the issue.

Reviewers fairly uniformly point to Snyder’s rare linguistic achievements as a partial explanation to this new approach. He ventures where few others would have the skills. He has drawn on literature in French, German, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Ukrainian – bringing a unique richness to his story.

What hardly anyone touches upon is the relation between the Bibliography and the text/end notes. Here is where questions about integrity begin to emerge.  The Bibliography opens with a list of the 17 archives which the author apparently visited. Normally such mention would be complemented by comments on what the utility of the given archives was to the given volume. That is missing. Moreover, where another reader found 15 archival citations in the Notes, I found only one note detailing specific funds.⁶

More generally, the Bibliography appears to be greatly inflated, including works which can have had little if any application in the given book. It is unnecessary for the general reader and too little for the specialist reader. All in all, he could have dispensed with both Notes and Bibliography in their present form, providing instead an annotated bibliography.

With respect to the value of linguistic mastery, it would appear from text and notes that only one volume in Russian and one volume in Hebrew had noteworthy value to the author, while a great deal of literature cited is in English, German, Polish and Ukrainian. I say this not to belittle the author’s achievements as a linguist but to bring the whole discussion back down to earth.  It would be reasonable for a scholar needing to consult a book or two in languages he has not mastered to apply some of his research grant to employing appropriate research assistants. For this reason, I conclude that the novelty of the book is due much more to Snyder’s mental agility than to his language skills.

The body of the book is sprinkled with observations that suggest the historian has greater intent than just to set the record straight on what happened when and where and who did it.  The closing chapters are Snyder’s attempt to find greater meaning in history and invite philosophical exchange with his readers, which, to my knowledge, has not taken place precisely because of the technical orientation and skittishness over being drawn out that is typical of most academic historians.

In October 2013, Snyder was awarded the Hannah Arendt Prize (Heinrich Böll Foundation) for Bloodlands. There is great justice in the jury’s decision because many of Arendt’s interests and concerns as philosopher as well as chronicler are also held by Snyder, beginning with her first master work Totalitarianism, which juxtaposed Stalinism and Nazism. I say this in the full knowledge that Snyder disputes key points in Arendt about the interrelatedness of modern society and barbarism, about the banality of evil.  However, he substantiates remarks in her reportage of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, later reissued as Eichmann in Jerusalem, with respect to the complicity of Jewry in the Holocaust considering the role played by the Judenrat and by the Jewish policemen-collaborators in the ghettos.  It was this very point which cost Arendt the respect of her co-religionists and of a great many intellectuals.

Like Arendt, Snyder seems to lack emotional intelligence.  Whether right or wrong about the banality of evil and the insignificance of Adolf Eichmann in the Nazi murder regime, and I think the consensus today is that she was dead wrong on both counts, Arendt in her arrogance and intellectual superiority grievously offended the relatives of victims and invited their invective.

Snyder’s lack of emotional intelligence is evidenced elsewhere. Twice in this book he tells us that the writer and war correspondent Ilya Ehrenburg (and Czech President Edvard Beneš) called the Germans ‘subhuman’ in relation to their mass killing, but that this renders Ehrenburg himself ‘subhuman.’ This is seriously wrong and offensive. At the same time Snyder does no more than report (and not judge) the calls of the Polish government in exile for the United States and Britain to attack Germany’s civilian population and so cut short the mass killings being perpetrated by the Germans in Poland and elsewhere in the East. And were these calls genuinely unheeded by the Allies, as Snyder suggests? After all, how are we to understand the fire-bombing of Dresden and Königsberg if not as Allied warfare intentionally directed against German civilians?


Snyder has positioned himself against any notion of collective guilt of the German nation, but his whole narrative undermines his purpose.  Allow me to draw several conclusions from his writings.

By overturning our traditional understanding of the Holocaust as industrialized killing, Snyder shows us that the evil was perpetrated not by a limited few monsters overseeing camps far from the general population but by tens of thousands of German special police (with the assistance of collaborators from Ukraine and elsewhere in the Bloodlands). Moreover, in the starvation of Leningrad and the starvation practiced against Soviet prisoners of war, the Wehrmacht itself was the main actor.

In the context of our previous view of the Holocaust there was a logic to seeking out the bosses of the camps, pursuing them 50 years and more after the events. But in the new configuration, the crimes were shared by vast numbers of perpetrators.  Add to this his stories about German officers’ wives visiting the Polish territories to acquire fur coats taken from the murdered Jews or the letters that German soldiers on the front sent to their wives describing the murders of children and women in which they took part without qualms. And we have the incredible figures on millions of Slav slave laborers working in the German homeland by the time the war ended. Fact upon fact which Snyder presents show that vast numbers of Germans both on the front and in the rear were aware of the hideous violations of rules of war that the Nazi regime, and its professional army as well, were carrying out in their name.  If this does not constitute collective guilt then what does? Having dropped all of this in our laps, Snyder just walks away. Is he blind to the implications of what he has written, or is he merely kowtowing to American political correctness, whereby to this day the German people and the German officer class are held guilt-free and only the Nazi criminals were at fault?

Finally, we have the question of Holodomor, the great famine in Ukraine in 1932-33 which was artificially created and maintained by Stalin and his henchmen in the context of their collectivization/industrialization drive.  Snyder bravely avoids the pitfall of Ukrainian nationalists and does not call this genocide. However, he has rather arbitrarily chosen this ‘mass murder’ event to open his comparative study of Hitler and Stalin, ignoring the precedents for large scale famines and death in Soviet Ukraine going back to the early 1920s and playing down the contemporaneous deaths from famine in other republics of the Soviet Union.

On balance, taken by itself, Bloodlands provides no easy pointers for why Snyder behaves as he does in his role as public intellectual, though by its ‘big picture’ approach to his subject matter it predicts that he will seek to direct public discourse and not just record it.   A pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian predisposition arises, quite naturally, from his strongest foreign languages, from where he has done most of his reading (as evidenced by his Notes) and from whom he may engage in exchanges outside the libraries or archives. That is only human, but it nonetheless bears stressing. In his showcasing the Holodomor, we see how Snyder the scholar (as distinct from Snyder the pundit dealing with current affairs) plays into the hands of those many American ideologists who conflate Stalinism with Communism, Communism with Great Russian imperialism, and Great Russian imperialism with Putinism.

Of course, Bloodlands cannot be taken by itself. It is part of an opus that several reviewers have justly called extraordinarily prolific.  Snyder is clearly a man on the make, a scholar who positions himself in the midst of politically sensitive and high-visibility issues.  Could his role model be someone like historian turned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger or Michael McFaul, who parlayed his bookshelf of writings into the highest government positions?  Or will Snyder be content to play the role of guru like another academic with ‘big picture’ concepts, Francis Fukuyama?  Time will tell. In either case one can be sure that veritas will be the first victim in his writings and public pronouncements as his most recent publications in NYRB show clearly.


¹http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2013/12/10/rebuttal-to-timothy-snyder-s-essay-on-ukraine-in-the-new-yor-1120865.html. The  Snyder essay to which I was responding was “A Way Out for Ukraine?” NYRB, 5 December 2013    

²The anti-Russian bias comes out even more clearly in his contribution to NYRB a week later, on 13 December: “Ukraine: Putin’s Denial.” Snyder has picked the raisins from a fruitcake, by which I mean that he has selected quotes from the highly diverse Russian media to prove alleged Russian imperialism. His bouquet to Carl Bildt, Europe’s leading Neocon politician, is eloquent testimony to where Snyder stands on the political spectrum and reciprocates for Bildt’s tweeted bouquet to him a week earlier.

ᶟTo illustrate my point, I draw the reader’s attention to two articles which appeared in the 17 December 2013 online weekly edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. One, “Gas Politics After Ukraine,” by Brenda Shaffer is anti-Kremlin in outlook, celebrating the planned Azerbaijan pipeline  bringing Shah Deniz field gas to Southern Europe and taking market share from Gazprom; it received a total of two reader comments, one of them mine.  The other, “Is There One Ukraine? The Problem With Ukrainian Nationalism,” by Orlando Figes, described the divided country in terms which readers deemed to reflect the view from Moscow; the hapless author reaped 124 comments, nearly all of them viciously attacking his scholarly credentials and personal qualities.

⁴See Deak’s initial, lengthy review “The Charnel Continent,” New Republic, 2 December 2010 and his recent reference to Bloodlands in “Could Stalin Have Been Stopped?” NYRB, 21 March 2013.

⁵A nice summary of many of these remarks on content by established authorities in the field can be found in “Timothy Snyder et ses critiques,”  15 February 2013, Jacques Semelin, www.laviedesidees.fr. 

As usual a very good proxy for Vox Populi on Snyder’s book is the readers’ reviews section of the book entry within www.amazon.com . Bloodlands enjoys a remarkable 4.5 star (out of the maximum 5-star) rating in the 227 customer reviews posted as of mid-December 2013.

However, a couple of “2-star” ratings were submitted by readers who count as full professionals. I have in mind firstly an unusually serious review by Lynn D. Gordon (Professor Emerita of History, Un. of Rochester) who after questioning what is really new in Snyder’s book directs attention to the very few notes linked to archival sources. And a very impressive critique in the Amazon list was posted by T. Kunikov, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins who is completing a dissertation on Soviet military history. Kunikov points to serious flaws in Snyder’s passages dealing with diplomatic history. In particular, Kunikov delivers a body blow to the notion that Stalin’s Russia was ever an ‘ally’ of Hitler or that joint military parades ever took place after the respective armies entered Poland. He also calls into question Snyder’s explanation of the famine in Ukraine of 1932-33, a central argument of Snyder’s thesis. And Kunikov points to the confusion in the Notes section making it difficult to understand clearly which ideas in a given paragraph came from which sources.  It is a pity that within the structure of the readers’ comments section Snyder was not given the opportunity to respond to these fundamental criticisms. Meanwhile a vitriolic critique of Bloodlands in the blogosphere seeks to destroy Snyder’s credibility as scholar by disputing the accuracy of the Notes, while also attacking ‘falsifications’ of Soviet history that amount to ‘an apology for the Ukrainian nationalists Nazi collaboration’: http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/research/timothy_snyder_protest_0412.html.  

⁶Page 500, note 34, Vintage paperback edition, 2011.

And on the subject of the Notes, it is very regrettable and works against Snyder’s integrity ranking that he does not use Notes to at least mention some of the raging historiographical debates over the Holodomor and other selected issues.


                                                                                  * * * * *




 G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013