Edward Delman: In your book, you offer a portrait of Hitler as a brilliant tactician, but one who operated on the basis of a truly warped worldview based around racial struggle. Just so we can lay the framework: What would you say were the basic principles of Hitler’s worldview, and what did that mean for how he viewed the idea of nation-states, or ethics, and other universalist principles we assume as given?
Timothy Snyder: So what Hitler does is he inverts; he reverses the whole way we think about ethics, and for that matter the whole way we think about science. What Hitler says is that abstract thought—whether it’s normative or whether it’s scientific—is inherently Jewish. There is in fact no way of thinking about the world, says Hitler, which allows us to see human beings as human beings. Any idea which allows us to see each other as human beings—whether it’s a social contract; whether it’s a legal contract; whether it’s working-class solidarity; whether it’s Christianity—all these ideas come from Jews. And so for people to be people, for people to return to their essence, for them to represent their race, as Hitler sees things, you have to strip away all those ideas. And the only way to strip away all those ideas is to eradicate the Jews. And if you eradicate the Jews, then the world snaps back into what Hitler sees as its primeval, correct state: Races struggles against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try and take land….
Delman: We all think of Hitler as the prototypical nationalist, and being one who utilized nationalism and was a fervent nationalist in his own right, but according to you, Hitler doesn’t believe in the state as an institution. He thinks it’s an abstraction, possibly even a Jewish invention. He only believes in the race. So, in your view, what was Hitler’s relationship with the German nation-state?
Snyder: … [I]f we think that Hitler was just a nationalist, but more so, or just an authoritarian, but more so, we’re missing the capacity for evil completely. If Hitler had just been a German nationalist who wanted to rule over Germans—if he was just an authoritarian who wanted to have a strong state—the Holocaust could not have happened. The Holocaust could happen because he was neither of those things. He wasn’t really a nationalist. He was a kind of racial anarchist who thought that the only good in the world was for races to compete, and so he thought that the Germans would probably win in a racial competition, but he wasn’t sure. And as far as he was concerned, if the Germans lost, that was also alright. And that’s just not a view that a nationalist can hold. I think a nationalist cannot sacrifice his entire people on the altar of the idea that there has to be racial competition, which is what Hitler did, and that’s what made him different from a Romanian nationalist, or a Hungarian nationalist, or what have you. At the end of the war, Hitler said, ‘Well the Germans lost, that just shows the Russians are stronger. So be it. That’s the verdict of nature.’ I don’t think a nationalist would say that.
Snyder’s previous book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, was the subject of a fascinating conversation that he had with Albert Mohler, which you can find here.