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

On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder has done a service for anyone who cares about the future of democracy.

Best known for Bloodlands, on Hitler and Stalin’s mass murders, and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning , On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Century of the Twentieth Century distills a historian’s wisdom about resisting tyranny and applies them to the rise of the Trump administration. It is an alarming and important tract that we would do well to heed.

Snyder’s first lesson is “Do Not Obey in Advance”. On the rise of the Nazis and the communists in Czechoslovakia in 1946, he notes:

Because enough people in both cases voluntarily extended their services to the new leaders, Nazis and communists alike realized that they could move quickly toward full regime change. The first heedless acts of conformity could not then be reversed (18).
Tyrants need willing functionaries to carry out their agenda. What’s more worrisome is that functionaries do not just follow orders as is sometimes suggested: instead, they have actively promoted the tyrant’s agenda. By doing what they anticipate the tyrant wants, the reveal to the regime just how far it can go.

Not obeying in advance is related to Lesson Four: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World. Snyder writes:

In Austria in 1938, people who had not previously been Nazis began to wear swastika pins. What might seem like a gesture of pride can be a source of exclusion. In the Europe of the 1930s and ‘40s, some people chose to wear swastikas, and then others had to wear yellow stars (35).

To illustrate, Synder turns to Václav Havel:

When the dissident thinker Václav Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless” three decades later, in 1978, he was explaining the continuity of an oppressive regime in whose goals and ideology few people still believed. He offered a parable of a greengrocer who places a sign reading “Workers of the world, unite!” in his shop window.
            It is not that the man actually endorses the content of this quotation from The Communist Manifesto. He places the sign in his window so that he can 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. As Havel put it:
We have seen that the real meaning of the greengrocer’s slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, the real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar: the greengrocer declares his loyalty in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place (36-7).
The phrase “accepting appearances as reality” is key and relates to Lesson Ten: Believe in Truth. Snyder follows Victor Klemperer in observing that truth dies in four modes: 1) open hostility to verifiable reality; 2) shamanistic incantation, “‘endless repetition’ designed to make the fictional possible and the criminal desirable” (67); 3) magical thinking – the open embrace of contradiction; and 4) misplaced faith. We have seen the first three of these modes in Trump’s declarations and the fourth in the faith of his followers. Synder points out that “Post-truth is pre-fascism (71).”
How do we resist post-truth? Lesson Nine tells us to “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. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books (59).”
Trump and his team have been very successful in seizing the news cycle with outrageous pronouncements, causing even those that disagree to repeat him. This allows him to set the terms of debate and to exhaust critics in refuting him. (Which are promptly dismissed by his followers as “fake news”.) The way out of this cycle is to use language as precisely and accurately as possible. The best way to learn how to do this is to break away from the news cycle in favor of reading difficult books that force us to reflect.
Perhaps the greatest risk we face is the failure of our institutions to provide checks and balances. The Republic Congress so far has seemed unwilling to do this. The judiciary, so far, has resisted, as have some career bureaucrats. This has not been taken kindly. Trump’s twitter attacks telling his followers to blame the judges for any future terror attack sets the stage of destroying resistance. Snyder writes:
The most intelligent of the Nazis, the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, explained in clear language the essence of fascist governance. The way to destroy all rules, he explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety (100).
The phrase “fake safety” is important: there is no such thing as perfect security, at least in a world where we are able to have lives worth living. Nonetheless, authoritarians are always eager to have us trade away our freedom for the illusion of safety. The most notorious example is the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933 that Hitler used “to institute a regime of terror that killed millions of people and changed the world.” (105)
What makes tyranny attractive to many people in the twenty-first century? One of the principal reasons for the rise of the far-right in Europe – and now in the United States – is that many people have not learned or have mislearned history. They do not understand the dangers of authoritarianism and racism and thus fall for propaganda that is transparent to anyone who has studied its antecedents.
One of the tragedies of the US K-12 school system is that few Americans have a firm grasp of world (or even American) history. Figures such as Trump are only possible in a vacuum provided by historical ignorance. This allows for pseudo-intellectuals such as Steven Bannon to seize upon conspiratorial jeremiads and attract followers, rather than ridicule. Democracy depends on education and a populace that does not understand its origins and its institutions is vulnerable to authoritarianism.
Snyder warns against two twin dangers, teleology and the politics of eternity. Teleology sees history as inevitably moving forward toward a certain goal – communism, liberal democracy, neo-liberal market “freedom”. The politics of eternity reaches back to a mythological state – e.g., when American was “great”. Actually studying history is the antidote to both:
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 cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. The Polish poet Czesław 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 (125).
On Tyranny is a book to be read and pondered, then passed along to a friend or colleague.

Here is Snyder’s full list of lessons:

1. Do not obey in advance.
2. Defend institutions.
3. Beware the one-party state.
4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
5. Remember professional ethics.
6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
8. Stand out.
9. Be kind to our language.
10. Believe in truth.
11. Investigate.
12. Make eye contact and small talk.
13. Practice corporeal politics.
14. Establish a private life.
15. Contribute to good causes.
16. Learn from peers in other countries.
17. Listen for dangerous words.
18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
19. Be a patriot.
20. Be as courageous as you can.


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