Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Yesterday, in a single sitting, I read Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. It’s by far the most useful and engaging examination I’ve read of democratic decline and of the need for resolute resistance against its collapse. Snyder draws his lessons from deep study of the European catastrophes that piled, one atop the other, from 1914 to 1991, a scholarly career that culminated, in 2010, with  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. 

The rise of Donald Trump and the disastrous 2016 election prompted Snyder to undertake this project. However, 2016 is a symptom of a broader and recurrent malaise. Trump is not Hitler, and the Left is quite as capable of destroying democratic institutions as the Right (a point Nicolas Maduro has made again this week in Venezuela).

Still, Snyder has left some reviewers cold. Michael Gove, the perpetually rising star of Britain’s Conservative Party, characterized On Tyranny as an instance of  “Godwin’s law… the principle that, sooner or later in any argument, someone will invoke the Nazis to make their point.”

That’s a misreading of Godwin as well as of Snyder. Mike Godwin, who formulated his “law” in 1994 for a sardonic essay in Wired, originally claimed that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Snyder is not the kind of angry online troll that Godwin had in mind. His invocations of Hitler (along with Stalin, Mussolini and other authoritarians) are not mere rhetorical flourishes called forth by frustrated rage. This is a sober account of a century’s history and its implications.

Snyder is not interested in emotionally-charged simplifications. He does not argue, for instance, that Trump = Hitler. He does claim – rightly, I think – that our current political predicament would be familiar to those liberals who witnessed Weimar’s gradual abandonment by those who were supposed to defend its principles. He very much writes in the spirit of the French philosopher and novelist Julien Benda, whose celebrated 1928 book La Trahison des Clercs (translated as The Treason of the Intellectuals) damned those who, despite their privilege and education, contributed to the early 20th century’s anti-democratic populisms. Snyder draws the parallel: “Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them.”

Yet Snyder is not pessimistic. He is calm, dispassionate, and hopeful. There are things we can do. We can, for instance, return to the classical Roman idea that the study of history is a moral undertaking, not just a narrative or analytical one. “History does not repeat,” he writes, “but it does instruct.” It is from history that we can find resources essential to our collective defense:

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the co-creator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. The Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz thought that such a notion of responsibility worked against loneliness and indifference. History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.

Snyder’s work will, I think, outlast the political moment and its bizarre combination of authoritarian ambition and clownish incompetence.

Meanwhile, here is a summary of Snyder’s twenty lessons:

  1. Do not obey in advance. “Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.”
  2. Defend institutions. “Choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side,” remembering that authoritarians often start by stripping from institutions their  “vitality and function,” hollowing them out so that they “gird the new order rather than resisting it.”
  3. Beware the one-party state. “Support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.” Snyder paraphrases the hero of a David Lodge novel, who remarks that “you don’t know, when you make love for the last time, that you are making love for the last time. Voting is like that. Some of the Germans who voted for the Nazi Party in 1932 no doubt understood that this might be the last meaningfully free election for some time, but most did not.” In particular, he warns against gerrymandering and electronic voting systems. “We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be counted.”
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world. “The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.” Snyder revisits Vaclav Havel’s “parable of the greengrocer who places a sign reading ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ in his shop window.” The grocer doesn’t endorse the idea – he just wants to “withdraw into daily life without trouble from the authorities. When everyone else follows the same logic, the public sphere is covered with signs of loyalty, and resistance becomes unthinkable.” Just so.
  5. Remember professional ethics. Snyder condemns the way that lawyers, doctors, architects, and other powerful professionals cravenly abet authoritarian regimes. He no doubt had in mind those Justice Department attorneys who, during the younger Bush Administration, wrote macabre defenses of torture.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries. “Armed groups first degrade a political order, and then transform it.”
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed. “If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.”
  8. Stand out. “The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.” Obviously, this demands considerable courage.
  9. Be kind to our language. “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.” The best way to start is to “separate yourself from the Internet. Read books.” Snyder provides a list of books that vaccinate us from authoritarian language, some for adults and others for children: George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov; Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lighteness of Being; Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America; J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter; Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich; Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarianism; Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind; Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless;” Leszek Kolakowski’s “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist;” Timothy Garton Ash’s The Uses of Adversity; Tony Judt’s The Burden of Responsibility; Christopher Brownings’s Ordinary Men; and Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. The list reflects Snyder’s Europeanist scholarship. One can easily create a much longer and more varied selection.
  10. Believe in truth. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.” Snyder draws from Victor Klemperer to sum up the four ways would-be totalitarians destroy truth: 1) “open hostility to verifiable reality;” 2) “shamanistic incantation,” and “endless repetition” (i.e., “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary”); 3) “magical thinking [which] requires a blantant abandonment of reason;” 4) “misplaced faith.” On this last point, Snyder cites a German worker who, when Germany was nearly defeated, told Klemperer that “understanding is useless, you have to have faith. I believe in the Führer.
  11. Investigate. The “mainstream media,” he writes, is no longer the mainstream. “It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult.” If we try our own hand at quality journalism, we will find that it demands “traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything, writing and revising drafts, all on a tight and unforgiving schedule.” This, in turn, requires money. “We find it natural that we pay for a plumber or a mechanic, but demand our news for free… We get what we pay for.”
  12. Make eye contact and small talk. “This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.” Under both Nazi and Stalinist regimes, “a smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance.”
  13. Practice corporal politics. “Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.” Online petitions and polls are empty gestures:  “Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets.”
  14. Establish a private life. “Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware on a regular basis. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.”
  15. Contribute to good causes. Snyder argues that charitable work builds civil society. For that reason, authoritarians oppose NGOs and labor unions (and, one might add, those religious institutions deemed independent of government control).
  16. Learn from peers in other countries. “The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports…. Having a passport is not a sign of surrender. On the countrary, it is liberating, since it creates the possibility of new experiences. It allows us to see how other people, sometimes wiser than we, react to similar problems.”
  17. Listen for dangerous words. “Be alert to the use of the words extremism and be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.”
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. “Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
  19. Be a patriot. Snyder’s attention to this point resists easy summary, and is worth reading in full.
  20. Be as courageous as you can. “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” Snyder urges us to reject two mirages: the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity. Again, this discussion deserves a full reading.

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