Monday, September 11, 2017

Taking bad ideas seriously: How to read Hitler and Ilyin? SIMAS ČELUTKA interviews TIMOTHY SNYDER

SC: Reading your book Black Earth and your article on Ivan Ilyin, what struck me was a very close and attentive reading of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Ivan Ilyin’s writings. You treat their ideas very seriously. It’s especially unusual with regards to Hitler, whose Mein Kampf is not extensively studied among historians – most of them concentrate almost exclusively on his actions, but not his thinking. In my view, the seriousness with which you take ideas makes your scholarship as a historian exceptional and refreshing. Henry Kissinger noted this by claiming that Black Earth is partly a book of history, and partly a book of political theory. What is your take on the relationship between ideas and actions, words and deeds?

TS: First of all, there’s a danger in separating intellectual and political history, where intellectual historians are concerned with ideas that are interesting, and political historians are not concerned with ideas at all. Often ideas that are most significant are bad ideas, i.e. ideas that are not interesting in and of themselves, but nevertheless exert psychological, sociological, and political power. And we don’t have to go all the way back to Hitler to see an example of this. In our own societies, we know perfectly well at least a few ideas that are significant, although they may not be good ideas. An intellectual historian 80 years from now may not be concerned with them, but they are nevertheless powerful.

That said, to understand Mein Kampf  I think you have to have a certain amount of intellectual history background to realize how Hitler is working from Biblical traditions, from traditions of Victorian science, Darwinism etc. Not so much because he needs to be classified as a thinker, but in order to see and comprehend how Mein Kampf makes sense, how it holds together. You’re right, it is very unusual to spend as much time on Mein Kampf as I do at the beginning of Black Earth. I put it at the beginning of my book because Black Earth is a book about the Holocaust of the Jews, and the history of the Holocaust of the Jews has to be understood as a realization of a particular worldview. The worldview, a vision of the world without Jews, is stated in Mein Kampf, and is realized in the history of Germany and also in the history of German actions towards states and societies beyond Germany. I don’t think you can understand the Holocaust without analysing the worldview.

There are many ways you can make this argument. One is the classical question of the different forms of extermination policies applied to Jews and Slavs.  If one ignores the ideology one easily falls into questions of comparison rather than questions of origins.  The difference between how Germany treats the Slavs and how it treats the Jews is ideological – it goes back to the difference between colonizing the Slavs and a world without the Jews. You can have massively murderous policies towards both groups of people, but at the end of the day there is a difference, and the difference is ideological. Slavs were to be colonized and Jews were to be removed from the planet because Slavs were seen as an inferior race whereas Jews were seen as a non-race that prevented the racial struggle from getting underway.

Or, in a case of my own central argument, I am saying that the Holocaust happened because of a certain kind of politically generated anarchy, in the course of which German power was used to get rid of traditional political institutions, and that created an environment that made mass killing in these stateless zones possible. It is easier for me to see that when I read Mein Kampf and realize that Hitler is not a German nationalist, that he is not a state-builder. Instead, he is someone who is trying to restore the world to its natural condition of being which is precisely a competition among races. Competition among races is not a political-institutional idea, it’s some other kind of idea. And so then it’s easier to see the German campaign in the East with its destruction of institutions as a normal part of the destructive process. If you ignore the ideas and start from the premise that it’s all about institutions and what institutions do, you cannot understand the destruction of other institutions as part of the argument.

SC: What about Ivan Ilyin and his ideas? Despite the fact that Vladimir Putin has brought Ilyin’s ideas into high politics and justified his foreign policy quoting Ilyin’s writings, Western observers are yet to discover this author. You, on the other hand, have read a lot of him lately and have written about him. Why are you taking Ilyin’s writings so seriously?

TS: I’m trying to show respect. Not moral respect necessarily, but intellectual respect. .. read more:


Snyder's article on Ivan Ilyin: According to Ilyin, the purpose of politics is to overcome individuality, and establish a “living totality” of the nation. Writing in the 1920s and ’30s after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, when he became a leading emigré ideologue of the anti-Communist White Russians, Ilyin looked on Mussolini and Hitler as exemplary leaders who were saving Europe by dissolving democracy. His 1927 article “On Russian Fascism” was addressed to “My White brothers, the fascists.” Later, in the 1940s and ’50s, he provided the outlines for a constitution of a fascist Holy Russia governed by a “national dictator” who would be “inspired by the spirit of totality.”