I’ve taken two sets of notes on Timothy Snyder’s ‘On Tyranny’; one set from his original blog post on 15 November 2016. and one from the book that followed. This work is essential reading. I’ve melded those notes together below.
Timothy Snyder is Housum Professor of History at Yale University.
History and Tyranny
History does not repeat, but it does instruct. History can familiarize, and it can warn
In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.
The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.
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. Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people. Communists proposed rule by a disciplined party elite with a monopoly on reason that would guide society toward a certain future according to supposedly fixed laws of history.”
We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the 20th century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.
1. Do not obey in advance.
Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
In early 1938, Adolf Hitler, by then securely in power in Germany, was threatening to annex neighboring Austria. After the Austrian chancellor conceded, it was the Austrians’ anticipatory obedience that decided the fate of Austrian Jews. Local Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets to remove symbols of independent Austria. Crucially, people who were not Nazis looked on with interest and amusement. Nazis who had kept lists of Jewish property stole what they could. Crucially, others who were not Nazis joined in the theft. The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible. At the very beginning, anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation.”
2. Defend institutions.
It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.
So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.
We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks. Don’t assume
3. Beware the one-party state.
The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So 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.
Jefferson probably never said that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” but other Americans of his era certainly did. When we think of this saying today, we imagine our own righteous vigilance directed outward, against misguided and hostile others. We see ourselves as a city on the hill, a stronghold of democracy, looking out for threats that come from abroad. But the sense of the saying was entirely different: that human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end. The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He added that “the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten.
The hero of a David Lodge novel says 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.
The problem of oligarchy—ever more threatening as globalization increases differences in wealth.
The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens. Much needs to be done to fix the gerrymandered system so that each citizen has one equal vote, and so that each vote can be simply counted by a fellow citizen. We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.
4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the 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.
LIFE IS POLITICAL, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.
You might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such symbols include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them.
What happens, asked Havel, if no one plays the game?
5. Remember professional ethics.
When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.”
If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.
6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.
It is impossible to carry out democratic elections, try cases at court, design and enforce laws, or indeed manage any of the other quiet business of government when agencies beyond the state also have access to violence. For just this reason, people and parties who wish to undermine democracy and the rule of law create and fund violent organizations that involve themselves in politics.
What is novel is a president who wishes to maintain, while in office, a personal security force which during his campaign used force against dissenters.
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.
Authoritarian regimes usually include a special riot police force whose task is to disperse citizens who seek to protest, and a secret state police force whose assignments include the murder of dissenters or others designated as enemies. All in all, regular policemen murdered more Jews than the Einsatzgruppen.
without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible.”
8. Stand out.
Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”
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. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.
He noticed how Hitler’s language rejected legitimate opposition: The people always meant some people and not others (the president uses the word in this way), encounters were always struggles (the president says winning), and any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader (or, as the president puts it, libel).
The effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it. More than half a century ago, the classic novels of totalitarianism warned of the domination of screens, the suppression of books, the narrowing of vocabularies, and the associated difficulties of thought. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, firemen find and burn books while most citizens watch interactive television. In George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, books are banned and television is two-way, allowing the government to observe citizens at all times. In 1984, the language of visual media is highly constrained, to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future. One of the regime’s projects is to limit the language.
So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.
For the ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being might suit our moment. Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here is perhaps not a great work of art; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is better. One novel known by millions of young Americans that offers an account of tyranny and resistance is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you or your friends or your children did not read it that way the first time, then it bears reading again.
Some of the political and historical texts that inform the arguments made here are “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (1946); The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer (1947); The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1951); The Rebel by Albert Camus (1951); The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953); “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel (1978); “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” by Leszek Kołakowski (1978); The Uses of Adversity by Timothy Garton Ash (1989); The Burden of Responsibility by Tony Judt (1998); Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning (1992); and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (2014).
Christians might return to the foundational book, which as ever is very timely. Jesus preached that it “is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. We should be modest, for “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” And of course we must be concerned with what is true and what is false: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
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. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
As observers of totalitarianism such as Victor Klemperer noticed, truth dies in four modes, all of which we have just witnessed.
The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts
The second mode is shamanistic incantation. As Klemperer noted, the fascist style depends upon “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.
The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. The president’s campaign involved the promises of cutting taxes for everyone, eliminating the national debt, and increasing spending on both social policy and national defense
The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims the president made when he said that “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.” When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience.”
there is little here that George Orwell did not capture seven decades ago in his notion of “doublethink.”
Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share.
Post-truth is pre-fascism.
Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.
Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference.
The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant. Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself.
In 1971, contemplating the lies told in the United States about the Vietnam War, the political theorist Hannah Arendt took comfort in the inherent power of facts to overcome falsehoods in a free society: “Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality.” The part about computers is no longer true. In the 2016 presidential election, the two-dimensional world of the internet was more important than the three-dimensional world of human contact. People going door-to-door to canvass encountered the surprised blinking of American citizens who realized that they would have to talk about politics with a flesh-and-blood human being rather than having their views affirmed by their Facebook feeds. Within the two-dimensional internet world, new collectivities have arisen, invisible by the light of day—tribes with distinct worldviews, beholden to manipulations. (And yes, there is a conspiracy that you can find online: It is the one to keep you online, looking for conspiracies.)
Once we subliminally accept that we are watching a reality show rather than thinking about real life, no image can actually hurt the president politically. Reality television must become more dramatic with each episode. If we found a video of the president performing Cossack dances while Vladimir Putin claps, we would probably just demand the same thing with the president wearing a bear suit and holding rubles in his mouth.
Before you deride the “mainstream media,” note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult.
If the main pillar of the system is living a lie,” wrote Havel, “then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living in truth.
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.
You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better
13. Practice corporeal politics.
Power wants your body softening your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends.
Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.
The choice to be in public depends on the ability to maintain a private sphere of life. We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.
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.
What the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by totalitarianism was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life. We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it.
15. Contribute to good causes.
Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. Pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good.
It is gratifying to know that, whatever the course of events, you are helping others to do good. Many we should engage in activities that are of interest to us, our friends, our families. These need not be expressly political: Václav Havel, the Czech dissident thinker, gave the example of brewing good beer.
Insofar as we take pride in these activities, and come to know others who do so as well, we are creating civil society. Sharing in an undertaking teaches us that we can trust people beyond a narrow circle of friends and families, and helps us to recognize authorities from whom we can learn. The capacity for trust and learning can make life seem less chaotic and mysterious, and democratic politics more plausible and attractive.
16. Learn from peers in other countries.
Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends 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.
17. Listen for dangerous words.
Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
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.
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.
For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions.
19. Be a patriot.
Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
What is patriotism? Let us begin with what patriotism is not. It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families. It is not patriotic to discriminate against active-duty members of the armed forces in one’s companies, or to campaign to keep disabled veterans away from one’s property. It is not patriotic to compare one’s search for sexual partners in New York with the military service in Vietnam that one has dodged. It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes, especially when American working families do pay. It is not patriotic to ask those working, taxpaying American families to finance one’s own presidential campaign, and then to spend their contributions in one’s own companies.
It is not patriotic to admire foreign dictators. It is not patriotic to cultivate a relationship with Muammar Gaddafi; or to say that Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin are superior leaders. It is not patriotic to call upon Russia to intervene in an American presidential election. It is not patriotic to cite Russian propaganda at rallies. It is not patriotic to share an adviser with Russian oligarchs. It is not patriotic to solicit foreign policy advice from someone who owns shares in a Russian energy company. It is not patriotic to read a foreign policy speech written by someone on the payroll of a Russian energy company. It is not patriotic to appoint a national security adviser who has taken money from a Russian propaganda organ. It is not patriotic to appoint as secretary of state an oilman with Russian financial interests who is the director of a Russian-American energy company and has received the “Order of Friendship” from Putin.
The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best.
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.