Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is a call to action, demystifying the assaults on contemporary democracy through the lessons of history.
Putin, Orbán, Brexit, Trump: Recent world events have made many feel helpless, confused, despondent. An answer: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Concise, clear, and solidly fact based, it distills years of top-level scholarship covering the century’s darkest decades in Europe and the Soviet Union. The result: a user’s manual on how to defend democratic life. At a slim 126 pages, it’s anything but light weight, and may well change your understanding of today’s world.
On Tyranny’s unabashed aim is to ensure that the 1930s, that “low dishonest decade” (W.H. Auden), won’t be repeated. Although nothing is inevitable, nothing can be taken for granted either, least of all the many forms of freedom gained over centuries of social and political struggle. Tyranny, the usurpation of power or the circumvention of law by leaders for their own benefit, is on the rise again in the West.
In the footsteps of George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Václav Havel and other keen observers of authoritarian rule, Timothy Snyder – a leading American historian and public intellectual – takes apart the mechanisms that can fatally weaken a democracy.
Neatly divided into twenty “lessons”, every short, punchy chapter is illustrated with historical examples drawn from post-WWI Italy, Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe all the way to present-day Russia, Ukraine, and the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Step by step, Snyder demonstrates that all of the seemingly mystifying events of the past two years have historical precedents. The expansion of global trade in the late 19th century (along with industrialization) gave rise to widespread fear and uncertainty, much as current globalization (and the digital revolution) has done today. These were exploited “by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people” in Russia and across Europe in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
A scholar of Central and Eastern Europe and the interwar period, Snyder is well-equipped to guide us through the mire of those tragic decades, that provide templates for the debasement of democracy.
The price of obedience
Snyder shows that the greatest enemies of a free society are obedience, that is, “adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation” and “heedless acts of conformity” that cannot be reversed. The path of least resistance invariably led to great suffering, ending in war or civil war. For instance, “the anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible.”
A loss of professional ethics also helps pave the way for tyranny: “Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.” Hitler’s personal lawyer “claimed that law was meant to serve the race.”
Hence making a stand is imperative, from engaging in “forms of ethical conversation” created by professions or taking to the streets so that tyrants can feel the “consequences of their actions in the three-dimensional world”.
“Be ready to say no,” Snyder advises – after all the tyrant’s game is only viable if enough play it or just stand idly by.
It is a fatal mistake to “assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions” – it is precisely what the Bolsheviks in Russia did, and what Hitler did. The latter achieved the consolidation of the Nazi state in less than a year. Snyder advises to “choose an institution you care about – a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union – and take its side.”
In particular, elections can be misused to undermine the democratic process from within and for the long haul, as happened in Germany (1932-1945) and Czechoslovakia (1946-1989), for example. And the state monopoly of violence has to be preserved, for armed groups will degrade the political system: First they “challenge the police and military, then penetrate the police and military, and finally transform the police and military.” Chillingly, Snyder reminds us that the SS began as an organization outside the law, then transcended the law, and finally undid it altogether.
Snyder wrote On Tyranny chiefly for U.S. readers but it is relevant for all those who cherish the freedoms we had come, wrongly as it turns out, to take for granted. Readers in the U.K, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, France and elsewhere will do well to try out the tools described by Snyder to resist the erosion of democracy.
“The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”
Supporting quality journalism is fairly simple: A subscription to a print newspaper or magazine will do the trick – allowing stories to “develop on the page and in our minds,” and you to champion the truth, stay rational and see through conspiracy fantasies. Snyder warns that “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom” and “if nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”
Finally, civilized social norms matter on an everyday basis, beginning with making eye contact and engaging in small talk across social barriers. “If you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.”
By joining an organization that is part of one’s way of life, or by donating to a charity, one helps create civil society. Even the “seemingly non-political activity of civil society” is “an expression and a safeguard of freedom.” This kind of mobilization does work, as electoral setbacks for demagogues in Austria, the Netherlands, France and the U.K. testify.
Fear too is a great weapon. Snyder shows how terror management after the Reichstag fire allowed the Nazis to introduce a state of emergency in 1933 that was to last until the end of WWII. Indeed authoritarians are masters of manipulation, always arguing that an exceptional situation requires exceptional measures (read: going against human rights) – but these are never rolled back. They systematically exploit “real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks” to consolidate their power and bring down democracy. “One moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”
In praise of history
In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama wrote of the “end of history”; with the end of communism, liberal democracy was (soon) to triumph everywhere. This “politics of inevitability,” as Snyder calls it, was an illusion. In fact a reversal of the flow of history has happened, no longer from West to East, but from East to West.
What (would-be) tyrants are proposing around the world is the “politics of eternity,” a “masquerade of history … concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts … longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.” Seduced by a mythicized past, we cannot think about possible futures and are also more easily manipulated.
We must reclaim that terrain, Snyder says. “History can familiarize, and it can warn.” We are able to see patterns and make judgments, “to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it.”
Resistance is easier today
The parallels with post-financial crisis 1930s are striking, but today’s democracies are far more mature, and society more diverse. In those days, ignorance was rife, especially among women. The experiences of Europeans who watched democracy collapse can guide us.
Finally, for all its faults, the digital age makes it a lot harder to withhold information. We can count ourselves lucky that we have many more tools to resist the imposition of tyranny today. Resist, says Snyder, or let liberty perish.
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” Snyder writes. “If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”