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Stanford Humanities Center Fellow Q&A: Norman Naimark

Stanford historian Norman Naimark has researched and published extensively on European politics, the Soviet Union and Europe in the postwar period, and ethnic cleansing and genocide. 

In 2016-17, he is the Donald Andrews Whittier Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, where he is working on a book-length study of the interaction between Stalin’s policies in Europe, European politics, and beginnings of the Cold War.

Naimark is Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of East European Studies in the History Department and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Here, Naimark shares with the Humanities Center some insights into his recent work.

What draws you to the period between the close of World War II and before the Cold War is conventionally thought to begin? What, to your mind, is significant about those years?
The immediate postwar period in Europe is fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, human societies had to recover from the worst war in modern history. Over sixty million people were killed. Tens of millions more were wounded and in one way or another traumatized. The numbers of displaced, expelled, and interned similarly reached into the tens of millions. Cultures and societies were in the process of being reconstructed and reconstituted, sometimes with very little to build on. At the same time, the options for politics ranged from the extreme right to the extreme left. Meanwhile, Europe was subject to an increasingly antagonistic geopolitical struggle between the victors, principally the Soviet Union and the United States. What this meant is that the future of the continent in some fashion was up for grabs. I find that this history of open possibilities as Europe faced the future contains an unusually challenging set of problems for the scholar to explore and understand.
What contribution will your forthcoming book make to the scholarship on Europe and the Soviet Union during the postwar era?
In general, the scholarship on the postwar period focuses on the division of the continent between the Soviets and the Americans. It is as if the iron curtain comes down across Europe as soon as the war is over in May 1945. Then the story is one of Sovietization on one side of the East-West border and Americanization and democratization on the other. I think that this story, while ultimately having a lot of truth to it, does not go far enough in dealing with potential alternative developments on the continent and with numerous places — I develop these in a series of seven case studies — where different kinds of solutions are embraced. I hope my study will demonstrate that European “agency” was more important than traditionally portrayed in Cold War historiography and that there was considerably more diversity in the political solutions found to pressures from the Soviet Union, in particular. I am fascinated, for example, by the emergence from the darkness of the war of a bevy of talented and dedicated politicians, usually Christian democrats or social democrats, but even sometimes communists, who find the courage and wherewithal to challenge Soviet dictates and represent the best instincts of their people, both those recently liberated or defeated.
Crafting a history requires ample time in the archives, and all the more so for the Cold War, when state documents proliferated. Where did you conduct your research? What methods or principles inform your approach to historical inquiry? What challenges, if any, have you encountered while researching for this book project?
I have used documents from the archives of the victors in the war, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain. Work in the Stalin and Molotov archives in Moscow has been the most fruitful when it comes to trying to understand Soviet motivations and actions on the continent. Where possible, and where the language problems are not overwhelming (like, for example, in the Finnish and Albanian cases), I also have used documents from European archives to get a better sense of local and national politics after the war. The Hoover Institution, one should not forget, is one of the richest archives in the world on the postwar period. There are amazing document collections there that I have been able to use that illuminate a variety of aspects of the postwar world. There are also relatively new online collections of documents from all over the world. The work of the historian has been markedly enriched by the ability to access online archival documents.
As I mentioned, I am working on a series of case studies that explore in-depth the three-corner relationship between Soviet intentions, European actions on the ground, and the dynamics of the Cold War that I think explain the emergence of the new Europe. My idea is to add something to the historiography of each of these cases, while building an overarching picture of of Soviet intentions and European development in this period. Probably the biggest challenge of the study is being able to master the history, historiography, and document base of each of the cases. I also need to provide a central narrative for the reader, one that will address the larger questions posed by the study, while making sure that each of the cases is rendered with sufficient attention to its distinctiveness and peculiarities.
What have you found in your research that accounts for Stalin’s willingness to negotiate with and even appease western powers in the mid- to late 1940s? How, if at all, had he changed since the infamous purges of the 1930s?
Stalin plays a major role in my study. His challenges after the war were new ones. The terror, the purges, and the killing in the 1930s above all were about his maniacal need to eliminate alleged enemies and mold the Soviet people into willing adherents of his policies. There are repressions after the war, too, but generally he emerges from the war as the unchallenged ruler of the Soviet Union, even though the country lost a mind-boggling 27 million people during the conflagration. The question is rather how Stalin will respond to his new power in Europe and the world, to having emerged as the principal victor in the war, and to having his armies in Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna, not to mention Manchuria and Iran. He could not control the Americans or British; not only that, they were growing increasingly hostile to his aims. The Europeans also struggled to achieve their sovereignty. In these circumstances, as I argue in my work, Stalin was ready to negotiate and deal cooly and dispassionately with the Western powers (and with European populations) in order to accomplish his goals. But at home, he was every bit the fierce despot and ideologue that he had been before the war. He was older, sometimes sick, and took frequent rest “vacations” to his dacha in Sochi. But he remained fully the tyrant and chief arbiter of Soviet interests at home and abroad.
Of the incidents and episodes included in the book project, which do you find the most illuminating? Why?
I guess I find all of the incidents and episodes in the study illuminating. Maybe the best way to answer the question is to focus on a case that is better known to the American public, and that is the Berlin Blockade, 1948-49. The usual story is one of the Soviets cutting off all supplies to Berlin to starve out the city and freeze its inhabitants (there were actually plenty of holes in the Blockade) and of the Americans coming to the rescue with the ingenious method of the Berlin Airlift. It was ingenious to decide not to provoke war (though we now know that the Soviets had no intention of fighting at all) and to supply the part of the city occupied by the Western Allies by air. But what is often missing in this well-known narrative is the quite remarkable behavior of the Germans themselves in the Western zones. First of all, they resisted Soviet blandishments to receive food and coal allotments in the eastern part of the city that the Soviets controlled in exchange for simply signing up for these distributions, despite the fact that they were hungry and very cold. Led by the elected mayor of Berlin, the Social Democrat Ernst Reuter, Berliners demonstrated in huge numbers, calling on the Western powers not to abandon them, which was not out of the question, and to see their plight — little food, less coal, and virtually no electricity — as a struggle for freedom. In short, during the blockade Germans living in the Western parts of Berlin transformed themselves from being an apolitical, depressed, bedraggled, and politically indifferent defeated population to being West Berliners who demanded to live in a democracy. Stalin’s aims were defeated; he had miscalculated; and he withdrew the blockade. Stalin had been sure the Germans would force the Western Allies out, even if they did not leave on their own. They did not and instead “West Berlin” was created.