Timothy Snyder is a Yale historian whose scholarly reputation rests on his wide-ranging histories of Central and Eastern Europe. Trained at Oxford, Snyder demonstrated a capacity for research in some 10 languages and a willingness to engage with many different areas of specialization; his colorful prose increased his work’s potential appeal for nonacademic readers, as did his ability to cover large swaths of territory and time. His most important early work, The Reconstruction of Nations, mapped the development of Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Belarusian nationhood from 1569 to 1999, and was met with wide acclaim from academic reviewers.
Capitalizing on his credentials as a historian, over the past decade Snyder has positioned himself as a public intellectual, shifting from academic histories to more popular works, writing for magazines like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, and appearing often on the national and international speaking circuits. His first popular success was 2010’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which set out to tell the story of the millions of people—especially Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles—who were killed between 1933 and 1945 in the area between central Poland and western Russia. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Bloodlands offered a conceptual revision, grouping the victims of Hitler and Stalin together and arguing that the Nazi and Soviet governments spurred each other on to increased violence.
Among academics, Bloodlands was met with much praise but also with substantial criticism. The conflation of Stalinist and Nazi crimes seemed morally righteous to some but grossly reductive to others. The somewhat arbitrary temporal and geographical framework omitted important episodes of political violence in the region; by conflating Nazi and Soviet tactics, Snyder elided important differences between them—most notably that the Nazis explicitly planned to exterminate certain ethnic groups, while Soviet violence was more complex in its aims and methods, and more varied in its results. Snyder was also criticized for focusing on the intentions and actions of a select group of political leaders while giving short shrift to the many other historical forces at play, such as the actions of local governments and populations. Some critics bristled at his use of historical juxtapositions that implied connections without making clear arguments to establish them: for example, Bloodlands’ 1933 starting date, which suggested a link between Hitler’s seizure of power and the Ukrainian famine of that year.
But specialist criticism was drowned out by mainstream praise. The jacket of Snyder’s next book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, featured a blurb from Leon Wieseltier describing the author as “our most distinguished historian of evil,” and also featured praise from Henry Kissinger (whose own evils fall, apparently, beyond Snyder’s purview). Building on Bloodlands’ argument that Nazi and Stalinist violence were mutually catalytic, Black Earth offered an eccentric interpretation of the Holocaust as a phenomenon produced largely by Hitler’s ecological anxieties about food scarcity and by the Nazi and Stalinist destruction of states. For Snyder, Hitler “was not a German nationalist…. He was a zoological anarchist.” That Hitler rose to power by capturing state institutions and that the Holocaust was perpetrated with the help of technology and sophisticated organization at the level of the state did not hamper Snyder’s argument: He views the stability afforded by state institutions more as a source of “moral illumination” than as a potential basis for the legitimation of violence and repression. Black Earth went further than Bloodlands in providing a presentist moral primed for the op-ed pages: Given the threats to the global food supply posed by climate change, Snyder warned, there was a grave risk that a Nazi-like regime would rise.