Historian Timothy Snyder on the Ukraine War and Germany’s Role

“If the Ukrainians hadn’t resisted the Russian army, the Germans would not have had a year to discuss the ‘Zeitenwende’ or tank deliveries.”

Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder, born in 1969, teaches at Yale University. His book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” became a bestseller in 2010. His lecture on the emergence of modern Ukraine drew more than 1 million views on YouTube. He is one of the best and most argumentative experts on Ukrainian history.

A cult of force: Kremlin Wall in Moscow on March 18, 2015 Foto: Alexander Utkin

American historian Timothy Snyder gave a long interview to the leading German outlet “Der Spiegel”. This article is devoted to the war in Ukraine, namely the role of Germany in it. Snyder pointed out that Putin has chosen a rather effective tactic in relation to Berlin, constantly reminding the Germans of their role in World War II. Like, “if they take part in the war now, they will actually repeat the shameful behavior of the Nazis”, while in fact, Russia is acting like the Third Reich in WW2. 

And how about Ukraine then and now, which is currently a victim that pays one of the highest prices for victory – and in the 1940s, its population suffered from the war much more than the Russian population. However, the Germans are only beginning to realize this, spending a lot of time and resources on public discussion. Also, Germany has not yet come to the point that Berlin must atone for the past not so much to Russia as to Ukraine, which was completely occupied by the Reich. “Olaf Scholz [at the start of the full-scale invasion] rightly said that Germany was in a period of zeitenweide, a paradigm shift. But, unfortunately, it was not supported by actions. After all, in reality, Berlin should be the leading supplier of weapons to Ukraine [and not the USA],” says Snyder. He appeals to Scholz’s statement that the European Union is a geopolitical entity and one of the world’s centers of influence. Germany, as the most powerful economy of the EU, is the core of this entity. “And it would be sad if this new superpower were to lose its first war”, – Snyder concluded.

Here is the full interview:

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Snyder, is it already possible after one year to classify Russia’s war against Ukraine historically?

Snyder: Yes. The great question in European history is: empire or integration. For the last 75 years, important European states have shifted from the former to the latter. What is often forgotten is that the transition is usually defeat in an imperial war. European imperial powers have to lose wars in order to move on to some kind of new stage. Just as Germany lost World War II in 1945, France lost the Algerian War in 1962 and Portugal and Spain lost their African colonies, so Russia must lose in Ukraine to transform itself from an empire into something else.

DER SPIEGEL: Vladimir Putin himself has repeatedly used historical arguments to legitimize this war. They are absurd, but they make World War II the point of reference. What is his intention?

Snyder: In Russia, his intention is to build a cult of innocence: No matter what we do, it must be justified, because we are always the righteous victim. Of course, this contradicts the actual history of the Second World War, in which Stalin chose to ally with Hitler, and in which Ukrainians actually suffered more than Russians, by any measure. Putin is also seeking to exploit the historical memory of Germans. He wants to trigger the German reflex that Russians must be victims and Germans must be aggressors. The point is to give Germans an excuse for looking away and doing nothing. Russia attacked Ukraine claiming that it was defending itself as it had defended itself against the Nazis starting in 1941. Even if Germans are not convinced by this, Putin’s bold claim is meant to immobilize Germans by forcing them to debate one another. As Germans accept the debate on Putin’s terms, they can miss the obvious point: If we care about the comparison, we have to note right away that it is Putin’s Russia that is behaving more like Germany in 1941: Moscow, like Berlin then, claims that a neighboring people and state do not exist; Moscow, like Berlin then, is fighting a war of aggression; Moscow, like Berlin then, is carrying out eugenic, deportation, and mass killing policies. If Russia is behaving as the Germans did in 1941, then the Germans now have a second chance to respond to fascism. Will they take that second chance?

DER SPIEGEL: Shortly after it broke out, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the war as a “Zeitenwende ,” a turning point. Was that not a clear statement about the meaning of the conflict?

Snyder: The war is a turning point. The question is whether Germans observe it as a turning point or whether they make the turn themselves. I think Germany is somewhere in-between. Some of Scholz’s formulations have been quite brilliant, as when he said that the European Union is the antithesis of imperialism and autocracy, also his notion of the European Union as geopolitical. The danger in Germany though is that such words are sometimes confused with the actions that they would require. Germany should take the lead in a geopolitically self-confident Europe and make the Ukrainian cause its own. You do not create a geopolitical Europe by losing your first war. So far, Europe is still too dependent on the United States on security matters. To change that, Germany has to say: This is our war and we’re not going to lose it. And I don’t quite see that. It should be the German arms industry that has retooled to arm Ukraine.

DER SPIEGEL: Does Germany have a special historical responsibility to Ukraine?

Snyder: First of all, Germany has a current responsibility: It is simply the nearest major power. Even without any of the history, its interests and duties would be absolutely clear. But yes, of course: there is a triple historical responsibility. First, because Germany waged a colonial war from 1941 to 1945 to control Ukraine, something that many Germans are only just now realizing. Second, because Germany, in large part because Germans suppressed that colonial history, has tended not to take Ukraine seriously as a state and as a nation. In other words, an unexamined colonial history has reproduced itself as a domestic discourse in which only Russia is present and as a foreign policy in which Russia has priority. The third source of responsibility is more recent. The absurd German notion that you could have a purely economic relationship with Russia is one of the direct causes of this war. The fact that Nord Stream 2 was still being built despite Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and that it was being built around Ukraine, made the invasion more likely.

Russian servicemen take part in the Victory Day military parade in the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, 09 May 2022. EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV

“If we aren’t allowed to talk about Hitler, then we are also making other aspects and categories that are analytically indispensable taboo.”

DER SPIEGEL: You have repeatedly called Putin’s Russia a fascist state. The term is controversial.

Snyder: I am happy to defend it. But first I want to say that, whether or not we agree that Russia is fascist, we have before us an illegal war of aggression complete with documented atrocities on a truly horrifying scale. I would hate for anyone to conclude we have to agree about fascism before we do anything to stop that. In any event, I have used the term as a historian for years because there is an intellectual tradition of Russian fascism that Putin is obviously influenced by, such as that of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, whom he has quoted repeatedly in speeches for almost 20 years, most recently in September. There are also structural features. First, in Russia, will is placed over reason. Second, a cult of force and an indifference to the law prevails. Third, Putin stands above the institutions as leader – there are no real parties, there is no succession plan, and all institutions exist through or in relation to Putin. The fourth fascist characteristic is the propagation of conspiracy theories. Putin claims that the West wants to destroy Russia, and Russian propaganda broadcasts constantly use clearly fascist formulations. Fifth, we have the dehumanization of others, whether it be by anti-Semitism, by the slur that they are Nazis or the claim that they are Satanists. Rather than evaluate those claims for their factual value, it would be better to understand them as fascist hate speech. Sixth, we should add to that the genocidal practices of filtration camps, executions of local leaders and deportations.

Hero worship: A man with a portrait of Stalin at a May 9, 2022, parade in Moscow
 Foto: Andrej Krementschouk 

DER SPIEGEL: Australian historian Christopher Clark rejected comparisons between Hitler and Putin in an interview with DER SPIEGEL. He said these serve only to mobilize emotions. Is it not similar when people describe Russia as a fascist state?

Snyder: Let’s start by asking who might make such comparisons. It is most often the Ukrainians themselves who offer such a juxtaposition. And they are not doing so because they are trying to do anything with our emotions. If we think historically, we might grant that Ukrainians are entitled to such formulations, because they, unlike the rest of us, have experience with both wars in their family histories. It is very important to me that we do not get distracted in our own discussions about what is politically correct to the point that we fail to listen to those who are actually suffering. There is also a serious methodological point here. If we aren’t allowed to talk about Hitler, then we are also making taboo other aspects and categories that are analytically indispensable. I say there is an historical phenomenon called fascism and there is Russian fascism.

DER SPIEGEL: In your books, you warn that terrible things like a new Hitler or a new Holocaust are possible again today. Is history repeating itself?

Snyder: In “Black Earth,” published eight years ago, I warned of another Russian invasion of Ukraine and of associated resource conflicts. It is possible to make predictions. But not because history repeats itself. We have agency, we can decide. But those who know the history are better equipped to see both the dangers and opportunities. History shows that things that we don’t think are possible might well be. It also shows us that there can be better alternatives. The historical significance of the 21st century is also that it could be awful, considering climate change and other global threats, but it could also be wonderful. A lot depends on the decisions we make. This war is part of that: The Ukrainians are basically giving us a chance to turn this century in the right direction.

DER SPIEGEL: Do Putin’s objectives go beyond Ukraine?

Snyder: Putin is pursuing practical goals as well as ideological ones in Ukraine. The practical side is that he’s governing an oligarchic Russia which can’t be reformed as long as he is in power. Ukraine is extremely important for Putin because if democracy were to work there, it would look better than Russia. And that would be a real problem for Putin. Given that he can’t make things better in Russia, he tries to make the West look worse, beginning in Ukraine, in the minds of Russians, but also in reality. That’s why he supported Brexit and Donald Trump and fueled scandals in Germany.

“If the Ukrainians hadn’t resisted the Russian army, the Germans would not have had a year to discuss the ‘Zeitenwende’ or tank deliveries.”

DER SPIEGEL: If anything, the war has brought the West closer together – NATO is stronger and there are no major cracks in the EU so far. If Putin’s goal was to weaken the West, then he didn’t achieve it.

Snyder: Putin really must have thought Ukraine would fall in three days. If that had happened, we would have had a completely different year. We would be asking ourselves today why dictatorships work better than democracies, and how the Russians and the Chinese will rule the world. That things didn’t turn out that way is due to the Ukrainians. So, before we talk about the West, we should talk about how the Ukrainians defended themselves. If the Ukrainians hadn’t resisted the Russian army, the Germans would not have had a year to discuss the “Zeitenwende” or tank deliveries. Western cohesion hinges on the Ukrainians winning. And Ukraine only wins if the West coheres in actions – especially in the rapid delivery of weapons – and not just in words.

DER SPIEGEL: You make it sound like there is no alternative to a Ukrainian victory.

Snyder: There is no alternative for the West. The Ukrainians are doing what they can, but they need much more help than they’re getting. The ratio of talk to tanks is very high. What the West needs to do with its new unity is win the war, and think about how it wants to shape the period after. Victory for Ukraine means a new story about victory in and for Europe. It seems to me that the EU needs a new narrative. World War II opened an historic window in which Europe could focus on the economy, and the U.S. could worry about the military and the existential challenge of the Cold War. Now, we are facing a similar challenge. By helping Ukraine to win this war, Europeans can say they are against aggression and cruelty and for an integration in which states support each other.

DER SPIEGEL: In Germany, many fear an escalation of the conflict, a world war or a nuclear strike. Do you not share that concern?

Snyder: No, I’m ashamed by that entire discussion. Fear of nuclear war is primarily about our own security. In these circumstances, when whole Ukrainian cities have been destroyed, such a worry is pathetic. It is simply embarrassing that the hypothetical prospect of the use of nuclear weapons is placed at the center of the discussion, even though unimaginable atrocities have long been taking place in Ukraine. We simply cannot allow ourselves to get talked into that position that Russia has the power to do anything it wants at any time simply because it has nuclear weapons. Giving in to nuclear blackmail means more nuclear blackmail. On top of that: If Putin were to use nuclear weapons, it would be Ukraine that would face the brunt of them. And the Ukrainians have made very clear that what they want is to be armed. I don’t think there’s going to be a nuclear war, because the point of nuclear weapons is not to use them. If Putin were to use them, other countries would start building nuclear weapons – and then Russia would no longer have the claim to being a superpower. We also have to take into account that even Russia’s allies keep telling Moscow not to use nuclear weapons, that Russia’s leaders do not want to be remembered as pariahs, and that the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would not win the war. But there is another very important point. What we tend to forget in these emotional discussions is that Ukrainian resistance has minimized the likelihood of nuclear war for decades to come. A NATO-Russia confrontation has become very unlikely given NATO’s strength and the weakness of the Russian army. Beijing will also need to think twice now about any plans to attack Taiwan. So, a nuclear war in Asia is also less likely than it was a year ago. Ukrainian resistance has made us far more secure, and it would be much better if we would start with that. The nuclear topic frames the whole debate the wrong way, which is what Putin wants. He wants us to start by thinking: “We are afraid, should we really do something?” Whereas we should be thinking: “Ukrainian resistance has made the world safer, and the Ukrainians must win to ensure that safety.”

DER SPIEGEL: If nuclear weapons as a last resort are eliminated, what might a way out of the war look like for Putin?

Snyder: He wouldn’t actually win the war by using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, to be clear. I don’t think there will be as clear an ending as we would like: that the Russians will lose and admit it. The ending will be more like that of the American campaigns in Afghanistan or Iraq, or like the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Putin might fall; they always do at some point. If he wants to stay in power, he will declare victory when defeated. Perhaps he will say the West attacked Russia and that the NATO attack was stopped in Ukraine. You can hide a lot of defeats behind a story like that. For the war to end, we need to help Ukraine survive the next Russian mobilization. And then we need to do all we can to make sure Ukraine has a very decisive battlefield victory this year. We need to supply them with as many weapons as we can to save lives on both sides and get Moscow to back down faster. The only way to protect lives on both sides is to end this war, and the only way to end it is to help Ukraine win.