During his visit to Estonia, the famous author and professor of Yale University shared his views on the current global agenda in an interview with Hans H. Luik, Estonian media entrepreneur, the founder and major shareholder of the Ekspress Grupp, and Kadri Veermäe, the Estonian journalist and art critic.
Kadri Veermäe: Your book "Black Earth" highlights the way the Eastern Europeans collaborated with the Nazi regime. Can you say did you find out what motivated them?
Snyder: "Black Earth" is not a book about east Europeans or west Europeans. It is a book about people and it has a general thesis about collaboration, which is that how people react to an occupation depends upon what kind of occupation it is.
So the argument that I make is that collaboration in the Holocaust, which is the subject of the book, is much more likely when the state itself has been removed. That is an East European scenario because that's the geopolitics of the world: the Soviets destroyed some states, nazis destroyed some states and they destroyed Poland together.
Answering your question is very hard because I do not know what you mean by collaboration. But my main argument is that people do not respond differently because they're different ethnicities. That is very comfortable for us. We all like to think about ethnicity. We like to say: "Well we are good and Russians are bad or Russians like to say we're good and Estonians are bad" etc.
That is not what my research showed. My research showed that ethnicity does not matter at all. What matters is what the political setup was?
K.V: So it is like Milgram experience?
Snyder: I do not remember that Milgram was controlling for anything, but I think that is basically right that as a broad sociological generalization you know much more about how country A is going to behave if you know exactly what pressure the country A was under.
If you want to think of it as an experiment and it's 1939 and your job is to predict who's going to collaborate if the information you have is information about ethnicity that will be useless to you. But if the information you have is which states are going to be destroyed or what kinds of occupation regimes they're going to be - that information will help you to predict what's going to happen.
K.V: But should we say that directly that it was the young Estonian policemen who killed Jews in Estonia? We tend to say that the Nazi regime was the one that killed Jews in Estonia.
Snyder: We are now moving from sociology to ethics. So I think that it is an ethical mistake for Germans to say that East Europeans collaborated and therefore there would not be Holocaust. But it is also an ethical mistake for East Europeans to say it was all the Germans' fault. "If it had not been for those bad Germans, we would not have done bad things."
I think it is very important from an ethical point of view to take national responsibility. So if you believe you belong to a nation then you probably believe your nation did all kinds of good things as a rule. And so if you believe your nation did all kinds of good things you must understand it can't only have done good things. It must have also done some bad things.
So I think from the point of view of Estonian national ethics, you have to say: yes, those were Estonian policemen who actually carried out those orders. It's also very important to describe that history and not just let it go or let it be overwhelmed by what the Germans and Soviets say.
I mean, this is important for everyone, not just Estonians.
I understand that small nations don't want big nations to bully them and to tell them what to do, but this is not about that. It's about how you become your own nation. If you are suppressing or lying about things that you know not to be true then the next generation suffers from this.
K.V: There has been some discussion in Lithuania about Jonas Noreika: he collaborated with the Nazi regime during the times but right now it is really difficult to assess his role in history. Was he a real hero who was in anti-soviet resistance or was he a collaborator? And how can we assess the role of this kind of individuals? Should we consider them still as heroes?
Snyder: I think the whole discourse of Eastern Europe would benefit from not using the word "hero", which is a very Soviet word which East European nationalists have more or less inherited from the Soviet Union.
I mean, it's ironically the nationalists who are often the least critical about certain Soviet concepts and "hero" is one of them.
Once I say, you're a hero, it's like you're not fully human anymore. So you become a sort of a demi-god. I would submit that it's better not to say that people are heroes, at least give it 200 years or so before you decide if someone is a hero or not.
That whole concept just gets in the way. I mean, these are human beings that we are talking about and it's really not that unusual for people to lead complicated lives.
For me the important thing is to understand the German occupation, to actually understand the Soviet occupation and then to know everything possible about that life or about any other life and then to pass judgments. The problem is that once you start putting up monuments and plaques on buildings, you have committed yourself to things. I think it's better to wait with all of that for quite a long time. People have a hard time admitting they make mistakes and calling people heroes makes it even harder to admit that you've made mistakes.
Hans H. Luik (HHL): Professor, I am observing an interesting loop in a negative sense. Every time it seems that now the levee is going to break and the Russian democratic movement is going to bring down another Berlin Wall or whatever lies there and make their participation heard through the voting and everything. But it's 20 years Putin's been there and they don't ever seem to achieve the critical mass. So what is it? Is it the view of Eternity as you put in your "20 lessons from the 20th Century" or how long are we going to observe this? This is a very sad loop: some optimism and then Putin again.
Snyder: What I try to do is to learn from Russians because Russians have experienced an extreme form of things that are present in the West as well and very often you can get clues from Russia what might be happening.
I don't think things are going to get better anytime soon in Russia. But I will also know that things are getting worse in my own country. Following the right kinds of Russians can help you figure out where things are going to go.
If the question is why are things going badly in Russia then I think it has a lot more to do with 21st-century problems than it does with ancient Russian problems. It is very hard to have a democracy when one person has 60 billion dollars. It is hard to have democracy in a poor country which is dominated by exports of raw materials. It's hard to have democracy if a single oligarchical clan gets control of those resources, which is true in Russia.
It's very hard then to have democracy because democracy depends upon the decentralization of wealth and of political potential.
As long as we have a world hydrocarbon economy, it is going to be hard for the Russian system to change.
HHL: I am smiling since as you know the US is the biggest exporter of petrol and gas.
Snyder: And it has not been very good for our democracy.
K.V: Are you worried if you see in which direction the US is going to Should you be worried? Maybe it is a natural process.
Snyder: Natural processes worry me a lot. Erosion is a natural process, so are meteor strikes.
"Worry" wouldn't be the right word. I think democracy is something that you work for and you lose. It's a big problem with Americans that they are exceptionalists and they think: "Well, you know, we just are democratic whatever happens means either nothing or it will be somehow automatically corrected."
I don't think so. I think that democracy is exceptional. I think it's unusual. I think you have to be able to take risks for it, at least small risks, or else it goes away.
If the question is: do I think the United States could cease being a democracy, then I'll say that the US is a very flawed democracy. I mean constitutionally our democracy is much worse than yours because we have this ancient Constitution which has a lot of flaws built into it and it didn't anticipate a lot of 21st-century possibilities. So we are very far from being a democracy now and things are generally getting worse and they've been getting worse for the whole century basically.
K.V: What do you think will happen with Donald Trump's impeachment?
Snyder: Oh, he will be impeached but Europeans need to know that impeachment is an accusation, it is not a conviction. So he will be impeached. I would be very surprised if he's not impeached but the real question is whether he would be convicted. I think it is unlikely but not impossible.
It will depend on Senate Republicans. If Senate Republicans decide for whatever reason they have had enough of him, they can just hold a secret ballot. If they hold a secret ballot, they probably would vote to convict them. They are all afraid though: Trump is very popular not in the country, but he is very popular among Republican core voters. Republicans are behaving in my view in a very cowardly and unpatriotic way, but they do have something to be afraid of: they're afraid of losing their seats.
If they vote secretly though, they might vote to convict him because there's no one in Washington who actually believes he's not guilty. Everyone knows he is guilty.
HHL: To continue with topics connected to us, I would like to ask: Who was Edward Snowden? Is he rather a traitor or a whistleblower? I would like to explain in some words. What happened in Estonia after his revelations: our liberal politicians, as well as the security community, tended to tell the audience that this is all happening all the time, we knew it. After that I observer the leader of a Senate commission saying that we did not have a clue what was the scope of NSA's illegal activities: spying after Angele Merkel and Dilma Rousseff.
Then Edward Lucas who was our colleague here 25 years ago wrote a brochure on Snowden as a traitor being hired by Russians. Do you have any evidence of that? How do you see Edward Snowden? How are his activities going to be tackled after 200 years?
Snyder: I have no evidence that no one else has and I don't know anything about Snowden that I haven't read in the press. I will tell you my view: if he wanted to be considered a hero he had to stay in the United States and face consequences, right?
So if he wanted to be remembered in 200 years as a hero, then he should have published what he wanted in the US and then stayed and faced prosecution or whatever it was going to be. If you don't take any risks, nobody's going to remember you as a hero in 200 years.
What I don't like about Snowden is that he ran away. That's the main thing that I don't like, it makes me suspicious.
HHL: But Russia was not his country of choice.
Snyder: Who knows.
HHL: He was applying for visas elsewhere like Europe.
Snyder: Yes, well, who would not but we just do not know. Right?
It could be that he knew he would go to Russia, but then he preferred other places. Who would not? But I do not have any knowledge about that.
His impact would have been much greater if he had stayed and been tried for something in the US and then spoken during his trial.
The other thing which I do not like is the notion that only the Americans did it [spying]. That's totally ridiculous. The Germans do this, the British do this as well. If the Estonian government could do it the Estonian government would also try to do it. The Russians certainly try to do it and the Chinese, of course, try to do this kind of thing. The Americans may have had greater capability, but the idea that only Americans spy on foreign leaders is absurd. That is completely absurd. They might have had the greater technical capability at a certain point in history. But the idea that only Americans have the idea to tap Angela Merkel's phone is ridiculous.
KV: You are going to discuss in Tallinn how to win nationalism back from populists but maybe they can just keep it. What do you think?
Snyder: Nationalism is one of those words like populism where no one really knows what it means. My idea about the nation is that the nation is a perfectly legitimate part of someone's way of being in the world.
I am from a place. I was educated in a state. I identify with a country. But I also have friends in other countries and I care about those places and to some degree, I care about the world. There are layers to my notion of myself.
The question for me with the nation is: does the nation help you to think bigger or does it make you think smaller? For me, there's a difference between patriotism and nationalism. A patriot manages to think about the whole country and thinking about the whole country helps you think about Europe and then about the world.
But if thinking about the country makes you think: "well, I am going to think about my enemies inside the country and I am going to crush them." Then the nation is making you think smaller. Then for me, you are a nationalist in the negative sense of the word.
Another way that I think about it is related to the future. If you really care about the nation, then you care about the nation's future. So do you have a policy for the future or are you just talking about how you were always innocent?
And so that is a sign that maybe you do not really care about the country that much if all you're doing is talking about the past. I understand there are good reasons to talk about the past sometimes but if that is all you do then maybe you do not care so much about the nation because the nation cannot live in the past. The nation can only live in the future. If the nation exists at all it only exists in the future.
KV: If you see in Germany, like Pegida shouting "Wir sind das Volk" and activities from Alternative für Deutschland, how do you perceive it? One can do it for sure but should one use this kind of concept from the past?
Snyder: I think it is important to have serious conversations about problems in the present because if you do not do it then you end up having those kinds of conversations.
So there are some issues like immigration, for example, that is a question. You have to have an open conversation about what kind of immigration you want and try to have a consensus because if you do not have an open conversation about it, then the issue gets hijacked.
One of the reasons, not the only reason, but one of the reasons why Trump can resort to this basically fascist "build the wall ", "we are us, they are them", "we are good, they are rapists."
One of the reasons he can do this is because we didn't manage to have a serious conversation about immigration and pass laws about it. That is not the only reason, that it's one of the reasons.
But no, I do not think Germans should be talking about how "Wir sind das Volk" and I don't think Americans should be talking about "America first" and making white supremacist symbols in public. Nor should Estonians.
I think that the past does not have to be a source of taboos, past serves as a warning on how things can go.
One of the things which were characteristic of the 21st century is that all these people on the far-right do these things and then they say oh, but we are just kidding. Like they do these things and then they say but we do not take any responsibility for doing them. "We are just joking, right? We are just trying to make you react to us."
It is even worse because, in addition to endorsing some of the worst things in the past, you are also failing to take responsibility for what you are doing.
HHL: Do you approve a point of view that Alternative für Deutschland having been provoked exactly by Angela Merkel's Willkommen-politics. And the other part of this question would be: you were talking that we have to address serious issues like immigration. What is your pick on Social Democrats Thilo Sarrazin's view, that there are immigrants from Korea, China, Baltics, Poland to Germany who adopt the culture? And there are immigrants who tend to come from Muslim countries who do not adopt the culture, schooling system and constitutional values of women and men being equal, of Allah not being higher than Buddhist gods and Jesus Christ, etc.
Snyder: This in a way goes back to your question about collaboration in the Holocaust.
I am very skeptical of generalizations about groups partly because you can generally find an exception. Muslims in the US are considerably better integrated than a number of European groups. They are spread all around the country and they are generally middle-class and much less likely shoot people than white Protestants are for example in my country.
So I am skeptical of that because over the long run this is probably not true and also partly because I think the real question on immigration is not what they are like. The real question of immigration is what we are like.
If you ask about Merkel, I think Merkel was virtuous in the sense that she was trying to undo a bad history in the past.
The question was not whether those Muslims could be integrated or whether they are good people. The question is what Germans are capable of doing: not what you are capable of saying, what you are capable of doing.
Germans are making fun of that Wir schaffen das. But when she said that it was meant morally and I understand where she was coming from. But I think you can overdo it in every country and she overdid it.
Does that mean that Estonia should have zero refugees or that Poland and the Czech Republic and Hungary? The refugees you have could fit in this hotel and then some of your politicians make a huge deal out of it.
So the fact that 1 million was too much for Germany does not mean that zero is the right number for the Baltics? No, I don't' think so.
I am not really that interested in hearing how Muslims can never assimilate because I am a historian and I know that for hundreds of years it was the Muslims who brought culture to this continent and not the other way around. I mean algebra is called algebra for a reason, algorithms are called algorithms for a reason - that is an Arabic word.
My basic answer is: we have to be realistic about us and the answer is not zero. The answer is not building a wall because when you build a wall all you are doing is you're saying we are right. They are wrong. And that is always going to poison your politics.
HHL: What should - if anything - be done with Facebook? We had a conference here in spring where Nassim Talib was presenting. He told that Facebook should be broken into several pieces while some say that then it would be impossible for Facebook to take the fight from Chinese giants like TikTok and the others. Zuckerberg has not shown the willingness to come along. So what about that?
Snyder: I would like to start in a slightly more general way.
I think there was a point where no one knew what the political consequences of Facebook would be but now we do know. The political consequences of Facebook are that it drives out actual journalism because journalism becomes too expensive. Plagiarism is free and the invention of fiction is almost free. Whereas journalism is expensive. You have to pay someone to go and report a story and that costs money.
And Facebook has had devastating effects on journalism in the US and then the other effect related is polarization because the algorithm to Facebook is designed to find your weaknesses: the things that you like or the things that you are afraid of. And then gives you like a pulse - pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, fear, pleasure, pleasure, fear, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, fear. It trains us into being different kinds of political beings than we were before.
This is what we know, it is all established. Since we know it we have to do something about it. You can do things about it on the platform itself. So if you run a newspaper rules are about what a newspaper is. A newspaper cannot be just a picture of a newspaper. It is not a newspaper if it is just a picture of someone wearing clothes or driving cars.
There are rules about what newspapers are just like there are rules about anything. There is no rule what a social platform is but there could be. There could be consumer regulation which says that if you run a social platform that features any news at all, you have to give people the option of whether they prefer to receive more news or prefer to receive more news that was reported by humans.
It might be this law which says people should always be given a choice because if people were given that choice they would choose.
That is part of the issue. I think another way to look at it is economics. If a factory pollutes the air that is a negative externality. You internalize the externality by making them pay a certain amount. Facebook pollutes people's brains – we are all stupider thanks to Facebook. And so that is a negative externality. You can try to correct that by taxing the advertising and using that to support journalism or public education.
Fundamentally, I think that Facebook is too big and I do not care about Tik-Tok. I do not care about China, just let them be doomed in its own Chinese way.
Facebook is too big. It should be broken up and while we are on the subject Google and Amazon should also be broken up.
These companies are just too big. They meet all the classic criteria from a century ago of why companies should be broken up. Friedrich Hayek who all the Libertarians like to quote said monopolies are just as bad as Central planning. If Amazon continues the way it is now is going to the only company in the world. That does mean that Jeff Bezos is s a bad person or Zuckerberg. It is not about people it is about entities taking up too much space in the economy so Facebook should obviously be broken up.
KV: What is your next book going to be about and what kind of fiction books to read right now?
Snyder: I no not read a lot of fiction books, I read mystery novels and French and German as a sort of escapism. But what I am reading now is a lot of math and science and I am reading a lot of natural history: the history of the earth, history of science because I find that that is a pleasant contrast to everyday life. Also, it helps me to think, to get away from these human overly discursive subjects. I find it is nice to think about math and science a little bit.
So that is what I have been reading it when I go to bed: math and science.
My next book is going to be about freedom. It is about how we could be free. So the last couple of books have been about how you defend what you have and how do you diagnose what the problem is.
I am now trying to write a book about what things would be like if they were much better than they are. Because things could be much better than they are right now. Technology and wealth that we have could be used in a different way.
We are in an odd situation where we have so much. We have a lot of knowledge and we have a lot of money but we are not actually using it according to any set of values.
I like to think that although the bad scenario and the very bad scenarios are possible, they are not inevitable. So what I have been trying to think about is how you sketch out a future that seems attractive enough to draw politics on its way.