Cornell faculty, students and members of the Cornell community gathered in Lewis Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall on Monday, October 1 to hear Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale University, give a talk entitled, “Thinking the 20th Century.” The lecture was given as part of the Einaudi Center’s Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.
Snyder began his talk by discussing his collaboration with Tony Judt, who worked on as many as three books in the time between his diagnosis of ASL (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and his death in August of 2010. Alluding to the great Polish Eastern European history book “My Century,” which was dictated into a microphone, Snyder proposed that they “talk” a collaborative book that would frame Judt’s thoughts on the post-war period. Snyder described the book as a panoptic of 20th century thinking which was constructed entirely out of what was in Judt’s mind as he battled with the late stages of his disease.
Snyder said that the book encompasses two timelines; that of the early Victorian period and that of Judt’s life beginning in 1948. He identified “East European Liberal” as a crucial chapter which defines how to avoid a “mid-life crisis of an intellectual nature” similar to the one Judt experienced between the post-war breakup of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Snyder went on to explain that in the early 1980s Judt grew tired of the familiar French context and befriended Polish intellectuals who had been exiled in 1968 during an anti-Semitic campaign. Judt found an important connection between his Polish ancestry and these exiled intellectuals.
With “Past Imperfect,” Judt split with the basic approach of French history, which considers the relationship of the people to the state. He borrowed the idea of people working against the state and not with it from his Eastern European friends, and incorporated the concept that rights are not quantified by a study of the state, but by a study of the individual. According to Snyder, the book contends that a history of 20th century ideas should begin in the Victorian era of the 1870s. Cold war liberals took for granted that liberalism was about stability due to the durable alternative provided by the Soviet Union, because “the Soviets plan, therefore we plan.” So long as the Soviet Union existed, so could the ideology of the welfare state.
The final inspiration for Judt’s thoughts came from the notion that the individual’s actions always cut counter to what the state is doing, which was a new concept of liberalism. “What he provides in the book is an account of what new liberalism might be in the next century,” Snyder said. Judt saw pluralism as learning to critically evaluate one’s background and experiences by absorbing others’ experiences on the same timeline. His previous books had assumed a basic idea of progress in the mid-20th century by avoiding the discussion of events that challenged the idea of progress; for example the Second World War and the Holocaust. Judt saw that the only way to be a pluralist was not to have a theme that “sucks everything in,” making being a social critic irrelevant, said Snyder.
In conclusion, Snyder said, “If you’re going to be a public critic in the 21st century, you will not be able to place one scheme over all arguments you make.” He sees Judt’s book as a demonstration of the value of pluralism, the value of books in general (common books read between two authors), the value of conversation (since it was a combination of thoughts between the two authors collaborated over a long period of time), and the value of admiration (namely Snyder’s admiration of Judt).
Snyder then answered questions from the floor. One audience member asked him how Eric Hobsbawm would respond to the book and how he might fit into this conversation. Snyder responded, “Tony and Eric were in a personal relationship for a long time, and Eric did act as Tony’s mentor. Eric is an example of what Tony was not, whose books are structured by the structure that Marxism defines, which represses certain subjects. Tony gave up on schemes while Eric did not. Tony criticized Eric for not issuing a type of mea culpa, being steadfast to his school of thought and not wanting to bend to the intellectuals of the modern day.”
Another audience member asked, “Judt repeatedly mentions that his studies in early childhood of British thinkers fashioned his comeback into liberalism from the far leftist movement later in his life. What do you make of this?” Snyder replied, “Tony always spoke of his situations as he was an outsider looking in, but I think of it all as an aggregation. Part of this project was to see what the hole between these two notions was. What Tony thought was that the historical contingency that brought him a public education and traditional curriculum meant that he strongly identified with English as a message of clarity of expression which allowed him to favor deductive arguments, which is where his liberalism comes through. His education allowed him to weather the occurrences of what happened, for exmaple in 1968.”
The final question focused on how one responds to the call of being a critic. Snyder responded, “The technique of criticism has changed and the types of critics have also changed. With the rise of the social sciences came the rise of general expertise. In places that have dealt with Communism, it has been shown to be much easier to be seen as an intellectual because you’re working against the state and perhaps not with it. Media (i.e., radio and television) completely shifted the focus of criticism as well, in some cases shaping what people would and could say. Tony is an example of how it’s not impossible to be traditional yet still be influential.”
Timothy Snyder received his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1997, where he was a British Marshall Scholar. Before joining the faculty at Yale in 2001, he held fellowships in Paris and Vienna, and an Academy Scholarship at Harvard. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in modern East European political history.
Snyder is the author of five award-winning books, including: Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Harvard Press, 1998); The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (Yale Press, 2003); Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist's Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (Yale Press, 2005); The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of A Habsburg Archduke (Basic Books, 2008). He is also the co-editor of two books: Wall Around the West: State Power and Immigration Controls in Europe and North America (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001) and Stalin and Europe: War, Terror, Domination (forthcoming).
In 2010, he published Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, a history of Nazi and Soviet mass killing on the lands between Berlin and Moscow. It has received a number of honors, including the Leipzig Prize for European Understanding and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award in the Humanities. It was named a book of the year by some dozen publications, has been translated into more than twenty languages, and was a bestseller in four countries.
Most recently he helped Tony Judt to compose a thematic history of political ideas and intellectuals in politics, Thinking the Twentieth Century, published by Penguin in February 2012, and the subject of his Foreign Policy lecture.
The lecture was organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and co-sponsored by the Cornell Institute for European Studies. The Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series features prominent leaders in international affairs who can address topical issues from a variety of perspectives. The Speaker Series is part of the Foreign Policy Initiative at Cornell University led by the Einaudi Center to maximize the intellectual impact of Cornell's outstanding resources in this area.