Timothy Snyder: Babyn Yar and its lessons for modern Ukraine


American historian offers his vision of history lessons on the 75 years since a massive Jewish tragedy.


The war, as such. According to Timothy Snyder, there could not be Babyn Yar and the murder of Ukrainian Jews without such a special kind of war as World War II. “Hitler aimed to conquer Ukraine because it played a very special role in his thinking. When he spoke of a “living space,” he primarily implied Ukraine. Therefore, the war in the West was conducted by entirely different methods than in the East, where it was a war of extermination and colonization,” noted Mr. Snyder.

Ideology. In Hitler’s ideology, Jews and their global conspiracy were the reason why Germany could not be victorious. According to Hitler, Jews were responsible for originating all the obstacles that stood in Germany’s way – communism, capitalism or Christianity, any rules and ethics.

Lawlessness.  To exterminate Jews, they had to be withdrawn from the field of law. With every seizure of another country and destruction of its statehood, the actions against Jews became more radical.

Babyn Yar – a precedent of massacres

Mr. Snyder emphasized that Babyn Yar provided Nazi Germany with the killing method. There was no plan before Babyn Yar. “After Babyn Yar they understood that they can massacre. At the end of September 1941, they had a model: shooting conducted by Germans with the help of local people. This way they exterminated 95% of Jews who were under their control in the occupied territory of the Soviet Union. Auschwitz was later. They just changed the technology with the use of gas chambers. It was just Babyn Yar which showed that the Holocaust is possible,” explained the historian.

Remembrance and oblivion

Mr. Snyder believes that civil society always keep in its memory the past. “Where there is civil society, there are always people who care about history. A functioning civil society is always concerned with the truth about the past. It is very topical for Ukraine today. The commemoration of Babyn Yar demonstrates the functioning of civil society in Ukraine. If it ever disappears, we will see at once because the works about Babyn Yar will disappear,” Mr. Snyder stressed.

According to Timothy Snyder, the Holocaust is universal. It cannot be considered only as part of the history of a country. “Criticism and thorough analysis rather than creation of myths – the best way to build a nation,” noted the expert. He reminded that Metropolitan Sheptytsky asserted that one should help one’s neighbor. That was why people rescued Jews during World War II. “This gives us an idea on what a neighbor is. But it also gives us an idea of ​​what a nation is. If the Holocaust is remembered as a history of someone else, there will not be an inclusive political nation. If it is remembered as a history of interaction, where people behaved better or worse, there is a chance to build a political nation,” emphasized Mr. Snyder.

Holocaust vs Holodomor

The party states were responsible both for the Holocaust and for the Holodomor. Their ideologies called for the creation of the enemy images: Jews and rich peasants respectively. The state policy was directed against defenseless groups. The difference between the two phenomena was that the Holocaust sought to exterminate all Jews, while the Holodomor – to punish rather than exterminate all Ukrainians. “People in the West, and sometimes in Ukraine cannot understand how horrible the Holodomor was not only for victims of forced starvation, but even more for the people who survived. I find it inappropriate to compare these phenomena. We must remember the Holocaust and the Holodomor as they were,” concluded Mr. Snyder.

There is no history of nation states; there is only the history of empires

Ukraine for Hitler and Stalin was just the area that had to be colonized. “Confrontation of German and Soviet army in struggling for Ukraine is the last imperialist war. Imperialism ended with the end of World War II,” the American historian considers. According to him, Europe has learned nothing after the war. They learned later, when they lost their colonies in Asia and Africa. Then they started to think about the creation of the EU. The same is true for Germany, when it lost Ukraine in the Second World War. “The EU is a place where countries go to when they have an “imperial hangover.” This is what the country agreed to, when they realized that the empire is no longer possible,” noted Mr.Snyder.

However, after 1991 there was another narrative for Eastern Europe. “A wonder of the European Union is that it brings together the countries that were previously the metropolitan ones and the countries that were parts of the empire. And they are equal here. Ukraine is a test of whether the former empire part can join the European system. Europe also needs Ukraine. The EU must expand. This is the nature of the European project,” Timothy Snyder believes.

Trump, Putin and post-truth society

Donald Trump, as well as Volodymyr Putin, creates fictitious realities around them. In Russia, it has become a reality for the whole country. But this is a general phenomenon that threatens all. “It is associated with fascism, because it originates from the assertion that there is neither empirical reality nor gradual progress. Instead, there are a “bright future” and shows to the public,” noted Timothy Snyder. According to him, Trump is not a businessman, he is a TV star. But he also makes anti-Semitic and racist statements. “Trump wants to be like Putin because he already has money and power,” he concluded.