History Buzz February 2, 2012: Tony Judt & Timothy Snyder: How Historians Can Rewrite the Future — Interview with Timothy Snyder on his new book “Thinking the Twentieth Century”


History Buzz


How Historians Can Rewrite the Future

When the noted and controversial scholar Tony Judt fell fatally ill,Yale professor Timothy Snyder stepped forward to write one last book with him. Here, Snyder recalls the collaboration and the legacy Judt left behind.

Source: The Atlantic, 2-2-12


Left, Tony Judt (John R. Rifkin); right, Timothy Snyder (Ine Gundersveen)

“An intellectual by definition is someone temperamentally inclined to rise periodically to the level of general propositions.” Thus spake the great historian and public intellectual Tony Judt, and this is just one of the memorable lines we are lucky enough to have on record in his last, posthumously published work.

For the last few years of his life, Judt suffered from a disease that left him trapped in his own body, eventually unable to write or walk. Famous among non-academics for his erudite and occasionally controversial essays on current affairs in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, Judt remains a giant in the field of 20th-century history–the author of the definitive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945–and it was one of his colleagues who had the idea to enable one last literary offering to the world.

From January to July of 2009, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder met with Judt for a series of recorded conversations that would let Judt’s voice communicate to the world what his arms and fingers no longer could. Thinking the Twentieth Century, released February 2 from Penguin, is the product of those discussions. The tome covers far more than, as was originally intended, the British-born, Jewish-raised, and Cambridge-educated Judt’s life and work. It is a breathtakingly pithy exploration of some of the great questions of our time, and what it means to be a historian. The alternately joyous and somber ramble touches on the sex lives of French intellectuals, the dangers of the Holocaust museums, and how high schools should teach the history of the Civil War. Observations about the modern media and the English language emerge amidst a provocative reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as we know it today.

Ultimately, the immensely quotable dialogue, whether you agree with the positions or not, is an argument in hard copy that words matter–that, to quote the equally quotable playwright Tom Stoppard, with words “you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos,” and “if you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”

To get a better sense of how this book came into being, and the concerns motivating its authors, we spoke by phone with Timothy Snyder….READ MORE

History Buzz October 11, 2011: Cundill Prize in History at McGill University – Long List Announcement


History Buzz



Source: McGill University Press Release, 10-11-11

World’s largest history book award selects top new must-reads

The jury for the Cundill Prize in History at McGill has announced the six titles that will compete for the world‘s largest non-fiction history book award, which offers the winning author a US$75,000 grand prize.

The Prize, now in its fourth year, accepts published books in English— or translated to English— in the area of history. In addition to the grand prize, two ‗Recognition of Excellence‘ awards of US$10,000 each are granted to the runners-up.

―The award is designed, in part, to welcome outstanding history books that are accessible to the wider public – books that can be read and understood by experts and are appealing to informed readers alike,‖ explained Christopher Manfredi, Dean of Arts at McGill University. ―We seek out potential bestsellers,‖ he added.

The long-list of books was selected from 132 eligible entries submitted by various publishing houses around the world. The five-member jury deliberated a longer list established in September, choosing the following titles as top historical literature:

  • Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf, distributed by Random House of Canada) by Maya Jasanoff;
  • Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age (Metropolitan Books) by Sergio Luzzatto;
  • You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (Cambridge University Press) by Jeremy Popkin;
  • Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford University Press) by Ulinka Rublack;
  • Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books) by Timothy Snyder;
  • The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (Alfred A. Knopf) by Alan Taylor.

*See below for more information.

―Six superb books, whose subjects range from the cultural patterns of the Renaissance as reflected in clothes of the era to the upheaval and dispossession of war [were selected],‖ said Jeffrey Simpson, National Affairs Columnist at The Globe and Mail, who also served as one of the jury members. This year, adds Simpson, four of six of the books touch on themes of military conflict. In addition to Simpson, this year‘s esteemed members of the Cundill jury include Anthony Cary, Executive Director of the Queen’s-Blyth Educational Programs; McGill history professor Catherine Desbarats; Ramachandra Guha, Philippe Roman Chair of International Affairs and History at the London School of Economics; and Stuart Schwartz, Yale University history professor and winner of the 2008 Cundill Prize.

Later this month, the Award‘s jury will select the three finalists. The grand prize winner will be announced at an awards ceremony to be held in London, England on November 13.

Last year‘s Cundill Prize was awarded to author Diarmaid MacCulloch for A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. As is customary with previous Cundill Prize winners, the British church historian will be giving a public lecture December 1, 2011 at McGill University.

Every year since 2008 the Cundill Prize in History at McGill University selects three finalists of any nationality and from any country, who have published a book determined to have had or is likely to have a profound literary, social and academic impact in the area of history.

The award was established by the late McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill to recognize and promote literary and academic achievement in history. The Cundill Foundation supports a wide range of charities as well as research projects and educational gifts.

For more information: http://www.mcgill.ca/cundillprize

Cundill Prize in History at McGill
c/o McGill Institute for the Study of Canada
McGill University

2011 Cundill Prize Long-List – Book Details from Jeffrey Simpson

As the two-hundredth anniversary looms of the War of 1812, Alan Taylor delivered a sweeping re-interpretation of that conflict. His title, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (Knopf) underscores that the war featured not only cross-border battles but pitted people on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border against themselves. In many ways, the War of 1812 was the last chapter of the American Revolution. Some British officials dreamed that the Americans would come to realize the mistake they had made in violently leaving the Empire; war-minded Americans imagined that north of the border people would eventually come to their sensesand join the Republic. Taylor explores the messy military contours of the conflict, with abiding attention to the tensions within each side to provide a colorful but careful reconstruction of the last war fought along the Canadian-U.S. border.
Some of those who resisted U.S. military ambitions in Canada were Loyalists to the British Crown who had left the United States during or after Britain‘s defeat in the Revolutionary War. Maya Jasanoff traces the travails of the Loyalists in the U.S. during the Revolutionary War, then follows them not just to the British colonies in Canada but to the Caribbean, Britain, Africa and India in a sweeping narrative of loyalty, dispossession, and re-settlement. Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf) judiciously weaves case histories of individuals and families into a broad and compelling story of those for whom the Crown exemplified the right mixture of liberty and order, a conviction that brought about their exile to new lands they did not know, where governments often did not know what to do with them.

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin knew what to do with millions of people who stood in the way of the realization of their evil dreams. They systemically killed millions of people in the Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books), the title of Timothy Snyder‘s compendious account of the horrors wreaked upon the innocent in the vast geographic area from eastern Germany to the western Soviet Union. Starting with the Ukrainian famine and stretching until the end of World War Two, and with archival material drawn from many countries, Snyder paints a grim portrait of the motivations of the horrors‘ perpetrators and the travails and death of the victims. Ambitious in scope, meticulous in research, Bloodlands presents an unforgettable picture of a ghastly time in European history.

Jeremy Popkin‘s You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (Cambridge University Press) delves into part of the Revolution in Saint Dominique (that later became Haiti), an epochal event in the history of slavery. Schooled in the history of Haiti and revolutionary France, Popkin uncovers how events in the two countries were interwoven in the course of the two revolutions. Replete with fascinating characters, French and Haitian, You Are All Free, offers an example of history that drills down into a series of specific events to offer lessons of wider applicability. Particularly fascinating is the role that contingency and chance played in events that from the rear view of mirror of history might have seemed pre-ordained but were anything but.
Padre Pio, an obscure Catholic priest who became a saint, remains even today a controversial, elusive figure in the history of twentieth-century Italy and Catholicism. How was it that this priest from a small parish, who claimed he had been touched by a stigmata (the scars of Christ), became a figure of adulation and scorn throughout Italy and beyond? In Sergio Luzzatto‘s book, Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age (Metropolitan Books), the story of one priest becomes the story of Italy before and after World War Two, as political parties and movements read into him their visions for Italy, and as factions within the Catholic Church used or abused his priestly reputation to fight doctrinal battles. From obscurity to sainthood, the story of Padre Pio remains an arresting, bizarre, telling tale in the hands of a gifted writer.

Today, the fashion industry is all around us, but fashion before the Renaissance remained at the margin of society. With supreme skill, and with the help of superb illustrations, Ulinka Rublack takes us back to the emerging role that clothes, accessories and fashion played in the societies of Renaissance Europe. Her book, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford University Press), demonstrates that clothes can indeed make history and history can be about clothes. What people wore, what images they made for themselves, how they created different looks, all shaped the identity of women and men, and of the societies they inhabited. For those with a taste for cultural history, Rublack has provided a gourmet spread.

Timothy Snyder: Neglecting the Lithuanian Holocaust


History Buzz

Source: NY Review of Books, 7-25-11


The desecrated memorial stone to the Jews murdered in 1941 at the Ponary Forest, Vilnius, Lithuania, July 2011. The graffiti reads “Hitler was right.”

In early July the words “Hitler was right” were painted on the memorial stone to the 72,000 Jews who were murdered at the Ponary Forest near Vilnius in Lithuania. On another monument close by, a vulgar reference was made to the compensation the Lithuanian government has made to the descendants of murdered Jews. No one seems to have noticed.

Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, was known for centuries as the “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” because of its centrality to medieval and early modern Jewish thought and politics. In the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews settled in Vilnius in considerable numbers from both west and east. Over centuries, Jews prospered under a regime that permitted them local autonomy. During the waning of the Commonwealth in the eighteenth century, Vilnius was home to scholars such as Elijah ben Solomon, the “Gaon of Vilne,” the great opponent of the Hasidic movement.

In the nineteenth century Vilnius was home to the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, in the Russian Empire. After World War I the city was incorporated by Poland, though it was claimed by Lithuania as its capital. There were far more Poles than Lithuanians in the city, but there were about as many Jews as Poles, roughly eighty thousand each in the 1920s. In interwar Vilnius, tensions between Poles and Jews and between Poles and Lithuanians were high, but relations between Lithuanians and Jews were relatively peaceful.

In 1939, as the World War II began, the Jews, Poles, and Lithuanians of Vilnius fell under Soviet power. By the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, eastern Poland (including Vilnius) came within the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviets in 1939 gave Vilnius to Lithuania, then annexed the whole country in 1940. The NKVD, the Soviet secret police, then set about deporting Lithuania’s political and social elites—about 21,000 people in all, including many Jews. Thousands more were shot in NKVD prisons. This level of wartime terror was unprecedented, and its first perpetrators were Soviets rather then Nazis. We remember, for example, that the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara saved several thousand Jews by issuing them transit visas from Lithuania in 1940; what is often overlooked is that these Jews were fleeing not the Holocaust, which had not yet begun, but the threat of Soviet deportations.

Meanwhile, the Germans prepared to betray their Soviet allies. Part of their planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union was the recruitment of local nationalists, who would help them spread their anti-Semitic message: Nazi rule was liberation from Soviet crimes, which were in fact the fault of local Jews. During the first few weeks of the German invasion, which first touched Lithuania and other lands that the Soviets had just annexed, local peoples took part in a few hundred extremely violent pogroms, killing some 24,000 Jews…READ MORE

Timothy Snyder: Hitler’s, Stalin’s bloodlands instructive history

Source: Ken Osborne, the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 22, 2011 H7

Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin By Timothy Snyder, Basic Books, 524 pages, $36

BETWEEN 1933 and 1945, more than 14 million people in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and western Russia were killed, not for anything they did but simply for who they were.

Their political beliefs were suspect, they were the wrong religion or nationality or social class, they were too educated, or were simply judged to be in the way.

This mind-numbing figure does not include the millions of soldiers killed in combat on the eastern front during the Second World War. It describes only non-combatants who were killed as the result of decisions knowingly made by Nazi and Soviet policy makers.

This is why Yale University historian Timothy Snyder calls his comprehensive analysis of this European catastrophe Bloodlands.

He argues that the deaths he describes were the result of competing Nazi and Soviet ideologies reinforced by the mutual tensions that existed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

For the Nazis, Eastern Europe and the western Soviet republics were to be the basis of a new German empire, emptied of their inhabitants and peopled by Germans, embodying Nazi principles and providing food and raw materials for the fatherland.

For the Soviets, control of Eastern Europe provided defence in depth and security for their vulnerable western borders in the war with capitalism that Stalin believed was inevitable….

Snyder’s decision to put aside the brutalized nature of combat on the Eastern front and the resulting millions of military deaths between 1941 and 1945 detracts from the grim story he has to tell. Life and death in the bloodlands were even more horrifying than he describes.

Even so, Bloodlands deserves to be read. It is instructive history in every sense of the word.

Top Young Historians: 1 – Timothy Snyder


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

1: Timothy Snyder, 11-7-05

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Professor of History, Yale University (Fall 2006)
Area of Research: East European history
Education: Ph.D., University of Oxford, 1997
Major Publications: Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (Yale University Press, 2005); The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (Yale University Press, 2003); and Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Harvard University Press, 1998); Co-editor of Wall Around the West: State Power and Immigration Controls in Europe and North America (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). Timothy Snyder JPG Snyder has one book currently in progress; Brotherlands: A Family History of the Slavic, German, and Jewish Nations.
Awards: Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe was awarded the Oskar Halecki Prize for Outstanding Work of Polish or East European History from the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences. The Reconstruction of Nations won the American Historical Association’s 2003 George Louis Beer Prize. Postdoctoral fellowships include; The American Council of Learned Societies, Harvard University; IREX fellow at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw; and The Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University.

Personal Anecdote

“The Stolen Dissertation” (C) Timothy Snyder, 2005

Someone (I know who) stole all of my dissertation research in New Haven, Connecticut, in May 1993.

I had been living for months in Poland, visiting libraries and archives, accumulating files on a Macintosh laptop that I carried with me everyhere in a black leather backpack. My digs in Warsaw were in a skanky dormitory which boasted more standing than running water, and had rusty locks on the doors. Every night I slept with my backpack by my head, lest someone should break in to steal the computer.

My brother Phil was graduating from Yale that spring, so I flew back for the ceremony, bringing with me all the possessions that mattered: the computer, my backup disks, and a Banana Republic weekend jacket, all in the black backpack. As I was helping to move Phil’s things to the family van, I noticed that my backpack had disappeared from his room. Feeling safe with family in my own country, I had let down my guard! Phil and I ran off in the two most likely directions, on the New Haven streets that he knew pretty well, looking for someone carrying a black backpack. My youngest brother Mike called the police.

When the police came, they asked my mother whether she wanted to prosecute the thief or recover the backpack. She chose the latter. The police officer then drove my mother to a pawn shop. Though scarcely twenty minutes had passed since the theft, my computer was there on a shelf. “Oh,” said my mother to the proprietor, “how much do you want for that computer?” He said he had paid $50 for it. Then she asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have a backpack, would you?” The proprietor produced mine from under the counter, saying that someone who owed him $20 had given it to him as payment. Then my mother looked him up and down. “Nice coat,” said she. He said she could have it for another $20. My mother redeemed my scholarly future (and my Banana Republic weekend jacket) for ninety bucks in a pawn shop.

When I came back from running around New Haven, breathless and upset, I found my mother and the police officer standing outside Phil’s room, the officer holding the computer. “Can you identify this?” he asked. I told him that the hard disk drive was named “nosic,” a Polish verb for carry. This seemed to suffice. By then my family and I were ready to leave, really ready to leave. We piled into my parents’ big Chevrolet van. When the side door had slammed shut, my father began to wonder aloud about the arrangement between the police and the pawn shops. We had something to think about.

What does this teach us about young historians — besides that they should back up their data in separate places and never keep all of the copies in one backpack that might be stolen and sold for quick money to buy crack? As I was running around New Haven that day, there were two sounds in my head. One was that of my feet pounding the pavement. The other was that of an inner voice, already reconciling me with reality. It said: “that research took three years to do; but I bet I could redo it in two years.” If I had lost the research for good, I probably would have started again — but then the dissertation would have been different, based on another review of the sources, written by an older and altered person. Many other changes in life would no doubt have followed that one.

Much hung on that absurd moment. Yet how easy it is to make a coherent narrative of my academic career without it! Brown, Oxford, eastern Europe, Yale, scholarships, books, awards — what need for the detail of a transaction in a New Haven pawn shop to tell the story? That tawdry event makes the official story possible, then the official story returns the favor by excluding the tawdry event.

The recovery of my research was one those turning points, free of intentions and grandeur, easily forgotten later, invisible to everyone but those closest to the events, and visible then only if those present are ready to be surprised. (My mother, the heroine of this story, actually filmed the thief on a video camera, but did not realize this at the time, since in her mind she was filming Phil’s graduation day.) It is a great pleasure and necessity, I think, that in our work we get close enough to the sources to see such things, that we learn to catch and release these little contingencies. They are out of the reach of our teachers, our theories, and our hypotheses — but they are there, in our sources, and in our work, when the work is done well, when the story is told right.


Quotes by Timothy Snyder

  •  The Polish painter composed himself in his cell. It was September 1953, and thus far Henryk Józewski was pleased with his performance in communist prison. After thirteen years underground, resisting Hitler’s and Stalin’s occupations of his country, Józewski had been arrested by the security forces of communist Poland that March. — Timothy Snyder in “Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine”

Quotes About Timothy Snyder

  • “Strikingly new, original, and readable. This book will no doubt force everyone in the field to rethink Ukrainian, Polish, and Soviet history during the interwar period.” — Hiroaki Kuromiya, Indiana University reviewing “Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine”
  • “Another thrilling and erudite book on the intricate history of East European borderlands by Timothy Snyder, a master of the genre.” — Jan Gross, Princeton University reviewing “Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine”
  • “Timothy Snyder draws on his immense knowledge of Europe’s borderlands to describe in fascinating detail the shifting alliances and antagonisms—nationalist, ethnic, religious, cultural, ideological—among their 20th century peoples, as reflected in the extraordinary career of Henryk Jozewski, Polish artist, spy, military and political leader in promotingcooperation between Poles and Ukrainians.” — Samuel P. Huntington, Harvard University reviewing “Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine”
  • “[A] compelling book. . . . It is hard not to see this eminently 20th-century story as a biography for a new century. . . . Józewkis’s . . . views are described and analyzed by Snyder with a deft and persuasive blend of empathy and historical detachment.” — Mark Mazower, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History reviewing “Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine”
  • “In this extraordinary volume, Tim Snyder (an American historian with his own simultaneous passions for border regions and confusing bits of history) has found out a few other stories worth telling as well.” — Anne Applebaum, The Spectator reviewing “Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine”
  • “A work of profound scholarship and considerable importance.” — Timothy Garton Ash, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford on The Reconstruction of Nations
  • Timothy Snyder’s style is a welcome reminder that history writing can be—indeed, ought to be—a literary pursuit.” — Charles King, Times Literary Supplement on The Reconstruction of Nations
  • “In my honest opinion, Hist283 had but one weakness: it was too short. The professor is incredible, the material never fails to engage, and the history itself includes so many troubled times that it prompts great discussion sections. I have little to say about the faults of this course, but the strengths would take pages to illustrate. One of the best courses at Yale.”…
    “This class was terrific, maybe the best class I’ve taken at Yale.”…
    “East Central Europe” was a phenomenal class. Prof. Snyder is a dynamic, energetic, and truly inspiring lecturer.”…
    “This is quite simply the best history course I have taken at Yale. It was interesting, well-balanced, and extremely well-taught.”…
    “Professor Snyder is the best lecturer I have heard at Yale. He does not grandstand, nor does he read his lectures. They are delivered simply and clearly, but the intellectual rigor with which he teaches is phenomenal.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Saturday, November 5, 2005 at 5:40 PM

%d bloggers like this: