20 Lessons from the 20th Century About How to Defend Democracy from Authoritarianism, According to Yale Historian Timothy Snyder

Image by Rob Kall, via Flickr Com­mons

Tim­o­thy Sny­der, Housum Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, is one of the fore­most schol­ars in the U.S. and Europe on the rise and fall of total­i­tar­i­an­ism dur­ing the 1930s and 40s. Among his long list of appoint­ments and pub­li­ca­tions, he has won mul­ti­ple awards for his recent inter­na­tion­al best­sellers Blood­lands: Europe between Hitler and Stal­in and last year’s Black Earth: The Holo­caust as His­to­ry and Warn­ingThat book in part makes the argu­ment that Nazism wasn’t only a Ger­man nation­al­ist move­ment but had glob­al colo­nial­ist origins—in Rus­sia, Africa, and in the U.S., the nation that pio­neered so many meth­ods of human exter­mi­na­tion, racist dehu­man­iza­tion, and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly-jus­ti­fied land grabs.

The hyper-cap­i­tal­ism por­trayed in the U.S.—even dur­ing the Depression—Snyder writes, fueled Hitler’s imag­i­na­tion, such that he promised Ger­mans “a life com­pa­ra­ble to that of the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” whose “racial­ly pure and uncor­rupt­ed” Ger­man pop­u­la­tion he described as “world class.” Sny­der describes Hitler’s ide­ol­o­gy as a myth of racial­ist strug­gle in which “there are real­ly no val­ues in the world except for the stark real­i­ty that we are born in order to take things from oth­er peo­ple.” Or as we often hear these days, that act­ing in accor­dance with this prin­ci­ple is the “smart” thing to do. Like many far right fig­ures before and after, Hitler aimed to restore a state of nature that for him was a per­pet­u­al state of race war for impe­r­i­al dom­i­nance.

After the Novem­ber elec­tion, Sny­der wrote a pro­file of Hitler, a short piece that made no direct com­par­isons to any con­tem­po­rary fig­ure. But read­ing the facts of the his­tor­i­cal case alarmed most read­ers. A few days lat­er, the his­to­ri­an appeared on a Slate pod­cast to dis­cuss the arti­cle, say­ing that after he sub­mit­ted it, “I real­ized there was more.… there are an awful lot of echoes.” Sny­der admits that his­to­ry doesn’t actu­al­ly repeat itself. But we’re far too quick, he says, to dis­miss that idea as a cliché “and not think about his­to­ry at all. His­to­ry shows a range of pos­si­bil­i­ties.” Sim­i­lar events occur across time under sim­i­lar kinds of con­di­tions. And it is, of course, pos­si­ble to learn from the past.

If you’ve heard oth­er informed analy­sis but haven’t read Snyder’s New York Review of Books columns on fas­cism in Putin’s Rus­sia or the for­mer Yanukovich’s Ukraine, or his long arti­cle “Hitler’s World May Not Be So Far Away,” you may have seen his wide­ly-shared Face­book post mak­ing the rounds. As he argued in The Guardian last Sep­tem­ber, today we may be “too cer­tain we are eth­i­cal­ly supe­ri­or to the Euro­peans of the 1940s.” On Novem­ber, 15, Sny­der wrote on Face­book that “Amer­i­cans are no wis­er than the Euro­peans who saw democ­ra­cy yield to fas­cism, Nazism, or com­mu­nism.” Sny­der has been crit­i­cized for con­flat­ing these regimes, and ris­ing “into the top rungs of pun­dit­dom,” but when it comes to body counts and lev­els of sup­pres­sive malig­nan­cy, it’s hard to argue that Stal­in­ist Rus­sia, any more than Tsarist Rus­sia, was anyone’s idea of a democ­ra­cy.

Rather than mak­ing a his­tor­i­cal case for view­ing the U.S. as exact­ly like one of the total­i­tar­i­an regimes of WWII Europe, Sny­der presents 20 lessons we might learn from those times and use cre­ative­ly in our own where they apply. In my view, fol­low­ing his sug­ges­tions would make us wis­er, more self-aware, proac­tive, respon­si­ble cit­i­zens, what­ev­er lies ahead. Read Snyder’s lessons from his Face­book post below and con­sid­er order­ing his lat­est book On Tyran­ny: Twen­ty Lessons from the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry:

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.

2. Defend an insti­tu­tion. Fol­low the courts or the media, or a court or a news­pa­per. Do not speak of “our insti­tu­tions” unless you are mak­ing them yours by act­ing on their behalf. Insti­tu­tions don’t pro­tect them­selves. They go down like domi­noes unless each is defend­ed from the begin­ning.

3. Recall pro­fes­sion­al ethics. When the lead­ers of state set a neg­a­tive exam­ple, pro­fes­sion­al com­mit­ments to just prac­tice become much more impor­tant. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state with­out lawyers, and it is hard to have show tri­als with­out judges.

4. When lis­ten­ing to politi­cians, dis­tin­guish cer­tain words. Look out for the expan­sive use of “ter­ror­ism” and “extrem­ism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “excep­tion” and “emer­gency.” Be angry about the treach­er­ous use of patri­ot­ic vocab­u­lary.

5. Be calm when the unthink­able arrives. When the ter­ror­ist attack comes, remem­ber that all author­i­tar­i­ans at all times either await or plan such events in order to con­sol­i­date pow­er. Think of the Reich­stag fire. The sud­den dis­as­ter that requires the end of the bal­ance of pow­er, the end of oppo­si­tion par­ties, and so on, is the old­est trick in the Hit­ler­ian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. 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. (Don’t use the inter­net before bed. Charge your gad­gets away from your bed­room, and read.) What to read? Per­haps “The Pow­er of the Pow­er­less” by Václav Hav­el, 1984 by George Orwell, The Cap­tive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism by Han­nah Arendt, or Noth­ing is True and Every­thing is Pos­si­ble by Peter Pomer­ant­sev.

7. Stand out. Some­one has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to fol­low along. It can feel strange to do or say some­thing dif­fer­ent. But with­out that unease, there is no free­dom. And the moment you set an exam­ple, the spell of the sta­tus quo is bro­ken, and oth­ers will fol­low.

8. 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.

9. Inves­ti­gate. 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 your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that inves­ti­gate for­eign pro­pa­gan­da push­es.

10. Prac­tice cor­po­re­al pol­i­tics. Pow­er wants your body soft­en­ing in 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.

11. Make eye con­tact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your sur­round­ings, break down unnec­es­sary social bar­ri­ers, and come to 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.

12. Take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the face of the world. 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.

13. Hin­der the one-par­ty state. The par­ties that took over states were once some­thing else. They exploit­ed a his­tor­i­cal moment to make polit­i­cal life impos­si­ble for their rivals. Vote in local and state elec­tions while you can.

14. Give reg­u­lar­ly to good caus­es, if you can. Pick a char­i­ty and set up auto­pay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is sup­port­ing civ­il soci­ety help­ing oth­ers doing some­thing good.

15. Estab­lish a pri­vate life. Nas­ti­er rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your com­put­er of mal­ware. 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. Author­i­tar­i­an­ism works as a black­mail state, look­ing for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from oth­ers in oth­er coun­tries. Keep up your friend­ships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present dif­fi­cul­ties here are an ele­ment of a gen­er­al trend. And no coun­try is going to find a solu­tion by itself. Make sure you and your fam­i­ly have pass­ports.

17. Watch out for the para­mil­i­taries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the sys­tem start wear­ing uni­forms and march­ing around with torch­es and pic­tures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader para­mil­i­tary and the offi­cial police and mil­i­tary inter­min­gle, the game is over.

18. Be reflec­tive if you must be armed. If you car­ry a weapon in pub­lic ser­vice, 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. (If you do not know what this means, con­tact the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um and ask about train­ing in pro­fes­sion­al ethics.)

19. Be as coura­geous as you can. If none of us is pre­pared to die for free­dom, then all of us will die in unfree­dom.

20. Be a patri­ot. The incom­ing pres­i­dent is not. Set a good exam­ple of what Amer­i­ca means for the gen­er­a­tions to come. They will need it.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Fas­cism: Rick Steves’ Doc­u­men­tary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

Watch “Don’t Be a Suck­er!,” the 1947 US Gov­ern­ment Anti-Hatred Film That’s Rel­e­vant Again in 2016

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Karen Coyle says:

    3.a Library Bill of Rights. Point IV:
    IV. Libraries should coop­er­ate with all per­sons and groups con­cerned with resist­ing abridg­ment of free expres­sion and free access to ideas.


    Sup­port your libraries; free peo­ple read freely!

  • Stu says:

    Tim­o­tyh Sny­der? The same bom­bas­tic war­mon­ger teach­ing us on democ­ra­cy? Accept Trump and move for cry­ing out loud!

  • azteclady says:

    Sup­port­ing pub­lic libraries, and fight­ing to keep them not only open, but oper­at­ing equal­ly for every­one, it more impor­tant than ever.

  • emilio murillo says:

    num­ber 18 is dan­ger­ous, the police will be on our side unless they see us as dan­ger­ous to them. we are not in nazi ger­many yet, the gun idea will give the police that hold on to law and order as way to under­stand soci­ety, no choice but to take the oth­er side as pro­tec­tion

  • azteclady says:

    Have you seen the videos of police bru­tal­i­ty against minori­ties that have been broadcasted/streamed for the past two and half to three years? Have you seen what is hap­pen­ing right now to the peace­ful pro­test­ers around Stand­ing Rock?

    The police is no more a mono­lith­ic enti­ty than women, or lib­er­als, or Jews, or any oth­er group are. Some of them are decent peo­ple, but most of them pre­fer to keep qui­et rather than rock the boat.

    We already live in a coun­try where many cops–indeed, entire police department–feel jus­ti­fied in deny­ing cit­i­zens their legal rights, and where the courts tend to priv­i­lege cops’ rights over those of the rest of the cit­i­zen­ry.

    This sit­u­a­tion will not improve, just the con­trary, until this Pres­i­dent.

  • Dennis says:

    Would have been a bet­ter read 8 years ago.
    Each side sees what they fear in their oppo­nent I sup­pose.

  • d. miller says:

    I will nev­er in my life just fall over back­wards and accept any Repub­li­cans views ever. His­to­ry shows that they look after their own monied kind. tRUMP being the prime exam­ples these days as a politi­cian who is after the “lib­er­al agen­da”. As a female no one is going to deny me the right to an abor­tion basi­cal­ly because what does a male know real­ly about deliv­er­ing a child. I become pro choice when one of my broth­ers announced to me that women do have abor­tions via a knit­ting nee­dle if they want it. Too, I think that men should be required to say to a female con­tra­cep­tion or not!!

  • Maxim says:

    Rule 21: keep tv / cin­e­ma celebri­ties out of pol­i­tics.

  • M K says:

    If the rev­o­lu­tion requires or even specif­i­cal­ly encour­ages eye con­tact, then that rev­o­lu­tion is exclu­sion­ary to me and peo­ple like me.

    I am frankly tired of hav­ing to men­tal­ly remind myself, “this part was­n’t writ­ten for me; that’s okay, they could­n’t have known,” every time I read an arti­cle of “advice” from a non-dis­abled, neu­rotyp­i­cal per­son.

    I am tired of being a life­long left­ist who nev­er­the­less seems to spend half my time in left­ist and pro­gres­sive spaces jus­ti­fy­ing ele­va­tors, pre-sliced fruit, plas­tic drink­ing straws, scoot­ers, “Big Phar­ma,” and internet/laptop access to peo­ple who seem to con­sis­tent­ly for­get that dis­abled peo­ple are usu­al­ly the first casu­al­ties of fas­cism. We were last time.

    I don’t say this to harp on a sin­gle point, but to empha­size the tone that is cre­at­ed, and to invite oth­er read­ers to ques­tion how many of these tips are actu­al­ly acces­si­ble to them, whether the inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty comes from socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus, geog­ra­phy, dis­abil­i­ty, or any oth­er fac­tors.

    If voic­es speak­ing from the same van­tage points keep lead­ing the dis­cus­sion, how will we hear any­thing new?

  • tk says:

    two and a half years lat­er, we now see that trump absolute­ly is an author­i­tar­i­an. wants to destroy checks and bal­ances. attempt­ing to pros­e­cute and jail polit­i­cal ene­mies. call­ing the press the “ene­my of the peo­ple.” pack­ing the courts and fed­er­al gov­’t with rad­i­cals and syco­phants. attempt­ing to destroy objec­tive real­i­ty.

  • Turboblocke says:

    Well, you called that right!

  • xanadian says:

    Thank you for this. I hit that part in the arti­cle (and then the “get out­side and talk to strangers, put your body in unfa­mil­iar places” (not to men­tion “use the inter­net less” cou­pled with “keep up over­seas friend­ships” — as of the inter­net isn’t how most of us CAN have inter­na­tion­al friend­ships!) and thought about how many of us live lives where we quite lit­er­al­ly can­not do those things, and that does­n’t make us stooges for The Man.

    A lot of good stuff in the arti­cle, mind you! But it would be nice if just once the advice was a gen­tle reminder to able-bod­ied neu­rotyp­i­cal peo­ple to tru­ly *see* those around them who go through life dif­fer­ent­ly, and to take a minute to not assume things about every­one they encounter — instead of the advice being itself fraught with assump­tions about how peo­ple use tech­nol­o­gy and move through the world.

    Did­n’t COVID teach us *any­thing* about the val­ue of the inter­net to keep peo­ple con­nect­ed in mean­ing­ful ways? For a while there I almost believed that I might get to stop hav­ing to explain to peo­ple that some peo­ple type because they’re deaf, order online because they can’t phys­i­cal­ly go to the store, or group chat because they’re iso­lat­ed. For a while there I enter­tained a fan­ta­sy that there might be less dis­parag­ing of adap­tive tech in this world.

    I real­ly did not expect “make eye con­tact” to make the list of ways to fight fas­cism, though. Good grief.

    Again, not to take away from the parts of this list that were excel­lent, but: Under­stand­ing that there are a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of expe­ri­ences and many valid ways of being social and exist­ing phys­i­cal­ly in this world is much more impor­tant to the fight against fas­cism than some cheap “go touch grass” cliche.

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