“We easily forget how fascism works,” writes the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the distinguished Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, this week in “The Battle in Ukraine Means Everything: Fascism Returns to the Country It Once Destroyed,” an impassioned, eloquent essay in The New Republic.
We also easily forget how intellectual observers work in reporting to us on complex developments abroad that few of us could hope to parse without their help. Snyder means not only to instruct and enlighten readers of that magazine and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where a version of the essay appeared. He wants to awaken the West to oppose and indeed to defeat Vladimir Putin’s efforts to lock Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence (or even its direct sovereignty, as Putin has already done in Crimea), as well as into its anti-Western “Eurasian” political and economic imperium – Russia’s answer to what Putin considers a decadent European Union.
A note below Snyder’s essay announces that he and his New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier have “planned a congress of international and Ukrainian intellectuals to meet May 16 to 19 in Kiev under the heading Ukraine: Thinking Together.” So his essay is meant to rouse Europe and the United States to stop Putin in a confrontation that for Snyder is as fateful as that of fascism and Communism in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 or — as he argues explicitly — of Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939, when both were preparing to crush Poland and extend their respective empires.
Snyder notes rightly that Stalin’s anti-fascist rhetoric was as opportunistic as his signing of the 1939 pact with the fascist Hitler. But Stalin did fight German and Italian fascism in the Spanish proxy war, even as he was also crushing the democratic left within the anti-fascist ranks there, as Orwell, another great intellectual witness, reported in Homage to Catalonia when few on the left wanted to hear it.
So the historical precedents are ambiguous. Surely Putin’s Russia is more intimately opportunistic and brutal toward Ukraine than Stalin’s Russia was toward Spain. Snyder insists that Putin’s motives are as imperialist and even fascist as Stalin’s. He notes that Putin is even courting right-wing nationalist politicians in western Europe who prefer his bold aggression, at least from a distance, to what they see as Brussels’ militarily weak, culturally dissolute, bureaucratic suppression of their own nationalist yearnings.
Since few of us can second-guess reports grounded in scholarship and experience as exhaustive as Snyder’s, we’re as beholden to him in trying to understand Ukraine as we often are to other knowledgeable witnesses elsewhere. Sometimes they’re fatefully wrong, as were Paul Berman and Fouad Ajami in claiming to reveal truths about Islamicism and Iraq that necessitated armed intervention. Sometimes they’re protecting their own intellectual turf and predilections as vigorously as they are the peoples they’re claiming to champion.
But, just as often, intellectual witnesses are indispensably right, as were Jonathan Schell in Viet Nam and Timothy Garton Ash in Eastern Europe in 1989. Is Snyder one of them? His account is invaluable in peeling back layers of duplicity surrounding others’ claims about who are the fascists and who are the democrats in Ukraine and about whether being a Russian speaker necessarily means being a Russia supporter. But an historian who is trying to make history may become a little apocalyptic and wishful, and while Snyder is surely right to remind us that most Ukrainian nationalists aren’t fascists, as Putin claims, that doesn’t make them as democratic and freedom-loving as Snyder keeps telling us.
He reminds us that Ukraine was “at the center of the policy that Stalin called ‘internal colonization,’ the exploitation of peasants within the Soviet Union rather than distant colonial peoples; it was also at the center of Hitler’s plans for an external colonization.” Like Poland, it was trapped between two huge powers, and no one can discount the consequences of being thus caught and, in effect, raped by both aggressors.
But neither can one discount the truth that some of those consequences may include perversity and derangement. Snyder notes conscientiously that “Ukrainian nationalists,” hoping to win independence from Stalin, “tried political collaboration with Germany in 1941” and that hundreds of them joined “in the German invasion of the USSR as scouts and translators, and some of them helped the Germans organize pogroms of Jews.” In fact, many Eastern Europeans who’d been languishing under Soviet rule welcomed German invaders in 1941, only to be bitterly disillusioned. Snyder notes that tens of thousands more were in the Red Army itself and fought the Nazis all the way to Berlin.
But he also reports that some Ukrainians “established a Ukrainian Insurgent Army whose task was to somehow defeat the Soviets after the Soviets had defeated the Germans” and that, “Along the way,” the Ukrainian Insurgent Army “undertook a massive and murderous ethnic-cleansing of Poles in 1943, killing at the same time a number of Jews who had been hiding with Poles. This was not in any sense collaboration with the Germans, but rather the murderous part of what its leaders saw as a national revolution.”
This seems an important testimony to perversity and derangement that sometimes accompany an aggrieved nationalism, but Snyder writes that “The political collaboration and the uprising of Ukrainian nationalists were, all in all, a minor element in the history of the German occupation. As a result of the war, something like six million people were killed on the territory of today’s Ukraine, including about 1.5 million Jews. Throughout occupied Soviet Ukraine, local people collaborated with the Germans, as they did throughout the occupied Soviet Union and indeed throughout occupied Europe….”
So he is acknowledging but downplaying the truth that more than a few Ukrainians participated in the murder of defenseless Jews and Poles, sometimes in collaboration with German exterminators and sometimes in a nationalist frenzy of their own. He also acknowledges that although 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence from Russia in 1991, their state failed so badly to control a fragmented kleptocracy that after 2010 the government of Viktor Yanokovych fell into Putin’s arms and imposed Russian-style authoritarianism in return for subsidies.
Snyder tells us that Yanokovych’s capitulation provoked thousands of decent, democratic Ukrainians to overthrow him at last and to affirm liberal democracy as they had in 1991. But if anyone knows the difference between demanding national independence and affirming liberal democracy, Snyder should, and I hope I’m not detecting something wishful in his devotion to Ukraine’s democratic revolutions and his estimation of its world-historical importance:
“Ukraine has no history without Europe, but Europe also has no history without Ukraine. Ukraine has no future without Europe, but Europe also has no future without Ukraine. Throughout the centuries, the history of Ukraine has revealed the turning points in the history of Europe. Of course, which way things will turn still depends, at least for a little while, on the Europeans.”
If indeed it does, then Snyder’s claim that Ukraine “has revealed the turning points in the history of Europe” stops short of convincing me that Ukraine can ever actually make those turning points turn. He has helped us to see through Putin and his apologists’ claims that Ukrainian fascism is the villain in this ongoing struggle and to recognize that the real danger to a democratic Europe is Putin’s aggrieved, aggressive, and suppurating Russia. But I worry that Snyder’s passion compromises his insistence that Ukraine is really the pivot on which Europe’s destiny turns.