Timothy Snyder: Judenplatz 1010

A Speech to Europe 2019

14. May 2019
Magazine > Voices > Timothy Snyder: Judenplatz 1010

The European Union was originally the creation of failed or failing European empires, even if it now tends to pose as an assembly of innocent little nation states. Facing up to the responsibility for half a millennium of imperialism is painful, but doing so would allow Europe to recognize its unique and auspicious recovery from empire, argues Timothy Snyder in the speech he delivered for Europe Day 2019 at Judenplatz, Vienna.

My name is Timothy Snyder, I’m an American historian, and I have been asked to deliver a message to Europe. This is the message. You are more than your myths. For those of us on the outside, you are also a source of hope; perhaps the only source of hope for the future. You are more than your myths. We stand here together today on the Judenplatz on the 9th of May 2019. The 9th of May this year is Independence Day in Israel until the sun sets, this is Independence Day in Israel. The 9th of May in Moscow or Kiev or Minsk is the day of victory. Today, in those European cities and others was celebrated, commemorated and remembered the victory over Nazi Germany and its many European allies in the Second World War.

We are gathered here, especially on this day, the 9th of May, to remember the speech of Robert Schuman, the declaration of Robert Schuman, on this day in 1950. When Schuman declared that Europa was not just for Europeans, that Europe was about a peace that could be for the whole world. How can we remember these three things at the same time? How can we remember them sensibly as history, as the kind of history that would guide us into the future? How do we remember the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the beginning of the European project together as one history?

How can we consider the making of the European project 70 years ago while asking is it going to be remade now or is it going to be unmade now? For me as a historian, the answer to that question depends very much on whether you, Europeans, choose myths or whether you, Europeans, choose history. There are two ways to remember. There is one way to remember which leads you back to yourself, to a story about how you were always right, to a story about how you, or people like you were always innocent. That is myth. That is national myth. It prevails almost everywhere and it may well prevail here.

The ERSTE Foundation Tipping Point Talks 2019

A Speech to Europe 2019

Timothy Snyder: Judenplatz 1010

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There is another way of remembering, which is history. History allows you to take what you remember and add it to what others remember, add it to other sources and other perspectives, constantly and critically so that you see for what you are responsible. When Schuman issued his declaration in May 1950, France was in the middle of a colonial war in which 75,000 French soldiers would die. Of those 75,000 French soldiers, the vast majority were not actually French at all by country of origin. France was in the middle of the first of two colonial wars: it would fight after the Second World War continuously for 16 years in colonial wars in Southeast Asia and then in North Africa.

In France in the 1950s and 1960s, the word “l’intégration” did not necessarily mean European integration. L’intégration could mean the responsibility of the French army to integrate Arabs into the French state. After 1961, “l’intégration” meant the possibility that the French would be integrated into the new Algerian state. Why do I say this? Because the myth that you all have, the myth that you all share, the myth of the European Union’s friends and its enemys alike is the myth of a nation state. The Robert Schuman who made the declaration in 1950 was the foreign minister of an empire. France, whether republic or empire by name, had always been an empire throughout the entirety of its history.

You are more than your myths. But in order to be more than your myths, in order to be the hope that the rest of us outside need, one has to come to terms with the history. The idea that Europe is a group of nation states that shows integration, is a fatal, fatal myth.

One could disagree and should disagree about the future of Europe. But if the discussion about the future of Europe is held on the basis of myths about things that never took place, the discussion cannot be a fruitful one. History is about clearing the way and in the next few minutes, I’d like to try to clear the way, or clear away some of the myths so that time can flow sensibly from the past to the present and into the future that we need. So, think with me just for a moment about the countries that founded the European Union, or founded the European project. Germany, West Germany had just been defeated in the most decisive and most catastrophic war of colonialism perhaps ever, certainly in Europe. The war that we remember as the Second World War. Italy likewise had just lost a colonial war in Africa and in the Balkans. The Netherlands lost a colonial war that they fought from 1945 to 1949. Belgium lost the Congo in 1960. France having been defeated both in Indochina and Algeria makes a decisive turn to Europe in the early 1960s. It was Charles de Gaulle who understood that not only the Republic but the entire French state was endangered by the empire. He makes the decisive turn to Europe in 1962. None of the European powers that founded the European project were nation states at the time. None of them had ever been nation states.

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Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of history at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna. Snyder’s work has appeared in forty languages and has received a number of prizes. His current book is titled The Road to Unfreedom (2018).

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Richard Tanzer

The same is true for the countries who joined the European Union, the first joiners. The British back in the 1960s understood perfectly well that Europe was the substitute for Empire, for both trade and power. So much of being a historian is telling people things that they once knew. In the 1960s the entire British civil service, almost all the British parliament and almost all the British elite understood that Europe was the substitute for empire. When the Portuguese Empire comes to an end or the Spanish Empire comes to an end in the 1970s, the process is simultaneous. The leaders of changes in Portugal and Spain correctly unite the end of empire, the beginning of democracy and integration with the European Union. These things take place at the same time. The European Union is the creation of failed or failing European empires. After 1989, after the end of the Soviet outer empire, after the end of the Soviet Union, the European Union enlarges still. It enlarges to countries that had been part of that empire. And remarkably, it does something even more profound. Because if we think of the countries that joined the European Union in 1990s and 2000s: this country Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic States, these were countries that were created in 1918 after the First World War. All of them then ceased to exist. The history of nation states in Europe tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

When the European Union enlarges in 1990s and 2000s, what it is doing, is providing a home for the states that were created after the First World War. The European Union is an assembly of two kinds of states: states that used to be at the centre of empires, states that used to be at the periphery of empires. But all of it has to do with empire. It is unusual on Europe Day to mention Algeria, to mention Angola, to mention the Congo, India, Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Mozambique. It’s unusual but it has to be done, because that is where Europe was in these last 70 years. It has been in retreating from these places that Europeans have created the Europe that we understand.

This is important because your myth of Europe, your idea that “you as nation states came together to create Europe”, as opposed to “you as failing empires came together to create Europe” turns your head away, not just from responsibility for empire, but from the scale of your own achievement.

The European story is nice. It’s a nice story that there were nice innocent, small European nation states who in their nice little way realised that economic interests united them. It’s a nice little story but it’s not history. The history of the 20th century is that of European powers, which for the previous 500 years had dominated the world, found themselves forced to pull back to Europe, and there in Europe created something new. Schuman gave his address in 1950, in 1951 in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt spoke of the essence of human freedom being the creation of new things. The European Union is a new thing.

Now, what I have said about memory in myth and history applies even more strongly to the history of the Holocaust as we remember it or as we choose not to remember it. We are standing before a memorial to the Holocaust, specifically a memorial to the 65,000 citizens of Austria who were murdered as Jews: children, women and men, after Austria was destroyed in 1938. In some sense, the monument is familiar. Here we are in Vienna, we can imagine others who lived in Vienna. Here we are in Austria, we think we can perhaps imagine what a German takeover in Austria was like. But if we look carefully at the monument, if we walk around after this lecture and look at the names that are printed at the foot of the monument, the names where the Jews of Austria were actually killed, suddenly things become less familiar. Most of these cities, most of these places are not known to most Austrians for the very good reason that Austrian Jews were not killed in Austria, they were killed very far away. Directly behind me on the far side of the monument is the name Maly Trostinec which is in Belarus. More Austrian Jews, more Jews from this city were killed in that Belarusian locality than anywhere else. Why is that? Why were Austrian Jews killed so far away from home? They were killed so far away from home because of empire, because of the last European attempt to create empire. This is what the Second World War in Europe was.

If we are going to remember today, the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the attempt of recovery, what we have to do is remember the Holocaust and the war as they truly were. We must also not allow ourselves to remember the Holocaust as it fragments into small pieces into our national memories. The national memories are not good enough. The Holocaust was an event on a scale which defies national memory, it was an event in history and it had three basic causes which are essential for both the history but also the future possibility of the European Union. One of these is ecological panic. Ecological panic. Hitler’s argument for why Germany had to become an empire was that time was short, land was limited and that the Germans had to seize what they needed before others could. Hitler said specifically that science and technology will not rescue us, we must take from others. Ecological panic. The second overall source or cause of the Holocaust is dehumanization. The idea that since we must take from others, others are only valuable in so far as they can serve us. The idea that people can quite literally be quantified. After the Jews, the largest victim group in the Second World War of non-combatants were Soviet prisoners of war. Three million of whom were literally killed because it was believed that it cost more to feed them than their labour might be worth.

© ERSTE Stiftung / APA-Fotoservice / Richard Tanzer
A Speech to Europe | Timothy Snyder: Judenplatz 1010. Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Richard Tanzer

The third fundamental cause of this very special, atrocious empire, the German Empire, the Empire of Germany and its allies, Austria and others, is state destruction. By destroying Austria, by destroying Czechoslovakia, by destroying Poland, the Baltic states, by trying to destroy the Soviet Union, the Germans and their allies created a zone in Europe were there were no states, and no laws, and where things were possible which would not have been possible otherwise. This is what empires do. They don’t recognise others as citizens, they do not recognise other states, they create zones where horror is possible.

Now, the Jews are at the centre of all of this. The Jews are blamed by Hitler for believing that science might provide us all with answers for the ecological crisis. The Jews are blamed by Hitler for claiming that humans should recognise other humans according to a principle of solidarity. Christian mercy, socialism, the rule of law, for Hitler it was all the same. Jews were to blame if humans recognised humans as other humans, as opposed to members of a race. And of course, in this country and everywhere else, when the state was destroyed it was the Jews who suffered most and it was the Jews who suffered first.

When I say you are more than your myth, you’ll have gathered this, I mean that you are more terrible than your myth. I mean that you are more powerful than your myth. I mean that the myth that you have, diverts you not only from seeing the scale of European responsibility for the past but it also diverts you from the scale of European responsibility for the future. It is very easy to say, though it is important to say, that Europeans have not fully understood the scale of the Holocaust and associated crimes. It is very easy to say, and others have said it before me like Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire or Hannah Arendt that the Holocaust is part of a larger history of European empire. It’s important to say that.

What’s harder to see is that this is not just about ethics, it’s also about power. Europeans have disempowered themselves, you have disempowered yourselves by getting your past wrong. If you want to know how this looks in another place, look at the United States of America. The current predicament of the United States is a direct result of our getting our imperial past wrong. You are not far away from us, but you still have a chance to do better. The reason why getting the past right is so important is not just ethical, it is also a matter of power. Your little implausible national myths allow you not to see that you once ruled the world. And your little implausible national myths allow you not to see that the European Union is the one successful answer to the most important question in the history of the modern world, indeed the one central question, which is: what to do after empire. What to do with empire? There are two bad answers or two answers with limitations – make nation states or have some more empire. The European Union is the only new fruitful, productive answer to that question. And that is why my message is that you are more than your myths, you are also a source of hope to us, to us who are on the outside. Because if you are on the outside, and of course I speak from a relatively privileged position as an American, if you are on the outside, there is one thing that is clear about the world that is not clear here on the inside. Which is that it is still an imperial world.

You have created a huge zone of exception in a very positive sense. You have created the largest economy in the history of the world, you have created the series of contiguous functioning welfare state and democracies. There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world. Outside of here, there is still empire. And outside of here, the three motives that I mentioned, the fundamental motives of empire and of especially atrocious empire that was the Holocaust are still present.

Please consider them with me: ecological panic, dehumanization and state destruction. Ecological panic is all around us. We are facing a situation of very real and pressing ecological distress, most obviously in the form of global warming. And we are also facing political parties and leaders who tell us that the science of this is not true or doubtful or that we should wait. And strikingly, strikingly, the very same people who tell us that global warming is not a problem, or that we can wait, or that the science is not true, are the same people who tell us that the refugees are our enemies, and that migrants are our enemies, and that same races are different than others.

I would not dream of telling you as Europeans who to vote for in the coming European elections. But I will say this as an American: do not vote for the party that denies global warming, because the party that denies global warming is telling you three things about itself. It is telling you that it will lie about everything, it is telling you that it does not care about the fate of your children and grandchildren and it is telling you that it is the creature of hydrocarbon oligarchs. And if you are in Europe, they are not even your hydrocarbon oligarchs. And of course, the deeper irony is that the same parties who tell you Europeans that global warming is not a problem, are the ones that tell you that migrants are a problem. If you don’t do anything about global warming, there will be uncontrolled migration because global warming affects the global South much more than the global North. That’s ecological panic. And the European Union is one of the few entities in the world that is doing something about it.

State destruction today. Some of the states that have fallen apart, have fallen apart because of ecological problems, at least in part. The things that look like uncontrolled flows of refugees or migrants from Europe have to do with the weakness of states in places like Rwanda, or the Sudan, or more recently in Syria. States are also destroyed because great powers decide, mindlessly or otherwise, to destroy them, as with the American invasion of Iraq, or as with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What is not visible inside the European Union but is so clear from the outside is that the European Union strengthens the European state. This entire debate that you have inside the European Union about sovereignty makes no sense. There have never been so many European states lined up next to each other, ever. The reason why they are so strong internally and externally is the European Union. The European Union makes the states stronger internally by making the welfare state more easy here than elsewhere. And again, as an American this is something I would like to report, one does notice the difference. The European Union also protects the state externally because the European Union is the most powerful buffer against the forces of globalisation that exists in the world. If you want to feel the difference leave the European Union. That is a rhetorical statement. Do not leave the European Union!

Where I want to close and where I want to leave you, is with the third motive. Ecological collapse, state destruction, and the third motive is dehumanization. And here I need you to think with me a bit. We named this lecture, we named this event Judenplatz 1010 for a reason. For three reasons. We want you to think with these numbers, 1010, about the Holocaust itself. To my left is the name: Treblinka. Jews were sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka because they were judged to be less productive workers. It was judged that the calories they consumed were worth more than the work they produced. This is an artefact of the industrial world, judging us just as labour, judging us just as objects who carry out physical work. The human rights tradition has an answer to that, it says: at Treblinka, 780,863 human beings, individual human beings were murdered. And that we must recall each of them not as quantity but as quality. That we can start from the end, those three people at the end, a family of three, three friends. And imagine the victims not as part of a large group, a faceless group, but as individual human beings. That the difference between 1 and 0 is not a quantity, the difference between 1 and 0 is a difference of quality. That each victim, like each of us is an irreducibly different human being.

© ERSTE Stiftung / APA-Fotoservice / Richard Tanzer
A Speech to Europe | Timothy Snyder: Judenplatz 1010. Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Richard Tanzer

But now we find ourselves in a different place were human rights are challenged in a different way. We find ourselves in conditions of hard to perceive but nevertheless very real digital empire, where there are powers we don’t see, using techniques that we don’t quite understand, following laws that are not human laws, laws which are not made by states. We can see this faintly from the examples, from the way that China evaluates its citizens according to a point system, from the way that Silicon Valley makes available to people around the world tools of manipulation, from the way that the Russian Federation intervenes in other people’s elections. You in Europe have the tools, the intellectual tools to handle this. Frantz Fanon criticizing imperialism in Algeria makes the point that we are not about how but about why. He is also making a point for us in the 21st century. What the digital world does is it reduces us to our most predictable and simplest responses, it turns us to caricatures of ourselves, turns us into instruments of faraway commercial and political entities that we can’t even see. It turns us into how creatures instead of why creatures. Or consider the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski who said: remember, humanity itself is a human category. If the decisions are not being made by humans, we can’t expect that the category of humanity will be with us. Or consider the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin who said that when you believe a lie you are turned into an object. But what if the lie that you believe in is told to you by an object? Can we expect the object to feel morally responsible? You have the tools, you need the time. Simone Weil said: What we need is warm silence, and what we get is icy tumult. You can have the warm silence if you choose, the European Union, unlike any other entity in the world, has made positive progress towards digital human rights. What I’d like to point out is that only the European Union can do it, for this reason: if you happen to live in a country, even a big, important country like the United States, where an important decision, let’s say a referendum or presidential election is decided by, or visible influenced by a digital campaign, the people who win are never going to investigate. This is already the world that we are living in, where political systems that you know and respect, like the British or the American cannot investigate themselves, because it has already happened to them. Only the European Union can do it, because it’s not a national political system. What can it do? Four things. There are at least four ways that the European Union can protect – I’ll call it: – humanity. Because there is only really one us and them: humanity is the us. The first is, anti-monopoly. The American companies are too big and the American state hasn’t been able to handle it. The second is, education. The German philosopher, Edith Stein – who taught philosophy in Germany for just as long as she could until that became impossible –, the German philosopher Edith Stein who was killed at Auschwitz, which is here to my right, said that there is an objective connection between education and humanity. Should we really, in Germany, or Austria, or Poland, or elsewhere were this is being contemplated, should we really entrust the education of our children to things that are not human? Should that happen? Perhaps we should wait in Europe. Perhaps we shouldn’t do exactly what the Americans do, perhaps we should just not put the tablets in the classroom, at all, ever.

Third, factuality. The way the digital world works is that it spins ever fewer facts ever thinner into ever broader phantasies. The best way to react to this is to produce more facts. Facts don’t come out of the air, out of the ground, they are created by journalists who are the heroes of our time. A European Union which cares about the future will be a European Union which makes it easier to become a journalist.

The fourth is sovereignty. The big question is always: where do the populists come from? It’s easier to answer that question if you realize that populists are in fact the digitalists. Populism assumes that there are people somewhere behind it. But isn’t it strange or interesting that all of these new populist parties are the same ones who have been so effective in using digital techniques? And isn’t it interesting that they are the same ones that attack the European Union using digital techniques? And isn’t it interesting that there is always an overlap between these populists and the denial of global warming, and some questionable attitudes about the state? Isn’t it interesting how this all hangs together?

Isn’t it interesting that you have enemies? And isn’t it interesting that your enemies are always the defenders of a completely untenable status quo? Isn’t it interesting that your enemies are the imperialists of an already exhausted Earth? Isn’t it interesting that you have enemies? Why do you have enemies? You have enemies because you have a future. And have you noticed that what your enemies do is take that future away? Have you noticed how the future has almost disappeared from the horizon of politics? This is not an accident. And have you noticed that your enemies – all of them, the Russian ones, the American ones, the Chinese ones, the ones whose sponsorship we don’t yet know – have you noticed that they always attack you at your weakest point, which is your myth? They always attack you at your weakest point which is your idea that you have nation states and can go back to them. That is always what they go for. They see your weakness even if you don’t see it yourself. That is where they always go. And so, this is where I’m going to conclude. You are responsible, you Europeans for where memory goes. Memory can go into reassuring myth in which you are small, in which you are innocent and in which you have very little responsibility for the past or for the future. Or memory can go into history in which you ran the world for half a millennium, created something new in the second half of the 20th century and now bare particular responsibility for how things turn out in the 21st. In the three critical questions, of ecological panic, state destruction, and humanization the European Union has more power than any other entity at this particular moment in time. So, you can follow the myth if you like, or you can follow the history which leads into a future which is not certain but which at least is real. The myth will lead you into comfort, and fragmentation, and humiliation. The history will lead to pain, but it will also lead to power.

We are standing on what is today called the Judenplatz. Hundreds of years ago the Jews themselves called it the Schulhof. And indeed, there is a school here, just to my right and just to your left. In that school, there are children who are related to the people who were killed in the places that are named on this monument. And in that school, there are children who come from the places that are named in this monument. Schuman spoke of a living Europe: “Une Europe organisée et vivante.” He spoke of a living Europe. He spoke of a Europe that would create, “Une Europe créateur”. What I hope and what I ask is that when we think of these last 70 years, we only think of them as flowing into the next 70 years. That if we remember this, we must remember this in a way which leads to that, in a way which leads to school and children and the generations to come. Schuman spoke of Europe providing peace not for itself but for the rest of the world. And for a non-European, such as myself, to be asked to speak to Europeans, this seems to be especially significant. You are more than your myths. For those of us on the outside, you are also a source of hope about the future.

Thank you for joining me on Judenplatz 1010.

(Snyder continues:)

Ich kann nur reden, Sie müssen es schaffen.

This is the transcript of a speech by Timothy Snyder which he gave on the occasion of Europe Day and as part of the official programme of the Wiener Festwochen on 9 May 2019 in Vienna. It is the second event in a series of four Tipping Point Talks in 2019, ERSTE Foundation’s contribution to the 200th anniversary of the savings bank idea in Austria.

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