Renowned Yale Prof. Timothy Snyder drew upon his totalitarianism and European history expertise to warn of Vladimir Putin’s efforts invoke World War 2 to rationalize his invasion of Ukraine.
Synder is widely acclaimed for his 2017 book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, which went viral after Donald Trump’s election. He is also the author of the 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America and the 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, among others.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Snyder noted, “The European Union was an answer to war, a promise that the Second World War would not be followed by a third. That’s what everyone will tell you, from schoolchildren to prime ministers.”
“The situation today is disconcertingly similar to that at the outset of World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin now speaks of Ukraine as an artificial state and nation. In 1938 and 1939, Adolf Hitler spoke in just the same way about Germany’s neighbors. Putin prepared the way for his invasion with a litany of imaginary atrocities supposedly suffered by compatriots across the border. Hitler was the pioneer of atrocity talk as a pretext to aggression. He used such lies to absorb Austria, destroy Czechoslovakia, and invade Poland,” Snyder wrote.
Snyder warned how Putin is now invoking the law.
“One way to treat this legacy is to rehabilitate it, as Putin is now doing. Even as memory laws and extraordinary censorship prevent any comparison from reaching the mainstream, Putin is plagiarizing the worst speeches of the period. It is not only that he claims that Ukraine is an artificial state and nation and has launched a war on that basis. He also draws the same conclusion as German and Soviet leaders: Any sign that the supposedly nonexistent nation exists must be eliminated. This means not just murdering the leadership but hunting down anyone deemed to represent the nation. Ukrainians today are fighting because they believe that this is what Russian occupation means,” he explained.
Snyder, who speaks five languages and reads five more, focused on Putin’s claim the invasion was necessary for the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine.
“Russian memory laws emphasize the centrality of the Nuremberg tribunals, because at these trials the Soviets (along with the Allies) judged German crimes. The point in Kremlin propaganda today is that only others commit crimes and that Russians always have the right to judge them. Russians are forever innocent, regardless of what they actually do. They have the right to judge others, even when others have done nothing. When Putin invokes World War II, he is promising a sham Nuremberg,” he warned.
But Snyder ended on a hopeful note that the crisis could provide the European Union the opportunity to renew Europe and help bring the war to an end.
“EU heads of state and government will meet Thursday in Versailles, France. There, they have a chance to do something historic: to honor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request and offer Ukraine EU membership negotiations. This would renew the essential tradition of integration as the answer to war in a way that speaks to present circumstances. Such a promise would offer Ukrainians a brighter future, a sense of meaning to their sacrifice and suffering now. When the circumstances allow for peace negotiations, it will make it easier for them to stop fighting, because they will have already won something important,” he wrote. “Such a chance only comes once in a political lifetime. Here’s hoping that they take it.”
Watch Snyder’s lecture “Ukrainian History as World History 1917-2017:
Timothy Snyder: Ukrainian History as World History 1917-2017