Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder has sounded alarm bells about autocracy and fascism for several years now, in both his scholarly and popular books about Russian and German history. Whether you’ve followed his warnings or just started paying attention, it’s not too late to get caught up on the lessons he brings from his rigorous studies of 20th century totalitarianism. To make his relevant points more accessible, Snyder has distilled them over the years, aiming at the widest popular audience.
First, he published On Tyranny in 2017, drawing 20 lessons about unfreedom from the lives of those under the Nazi, Soviet, and other fascist and totalitarian regimes. Without arguing that history repeats, exactly, Snyder noted similarities and differences to past events, and adapted general principles to the geopolitics of the early 21st century. These lessons get reiterated and distilled even further in an edition of the best-selling On Tyranny illustrated by artist Nora Krug.
Published in 2021 and reflecting four years of Trumpism, the illustrated edition continues what we might call Snyder’s Chomskyan commitment to public intellectualism. Trump may be out of power, but the threats to democracy are wired in — in one judicial action after another, and in states like North Carolina, where an illegal, racially-gerrymandered state legislature has held power for years, and now seeks to nullify federal elections at state level, with many other states threatening to follow suit.
This kind of political secessionism imposes the permanent will of a minority on a rapidly changing nation, ensuring that history never catches up with the elites, a category that includes leaders on both sides of the euphemistic “aisle.” For increasing numbers of Americans, political divisions are more aptly characterized by barricades, prison walls, or indivisible codes of silence(ing), repression, and complicity. Snyder meets this time of creeping (loping?) fascism with a YouTube series in which he speaks directly to the camera.
He isn’t giving up on more people paying attention to the bigger picture, and he’s never given up on effective responses to 21st century tyranny. Voting alone has never been enough, and it could be rendered meaningless in the near future. The lessons — “Do not obey in advance”; “Defend institutions”; “Beware the one-party state” — may be familiar to us now, or they may not. But if they bear repeating, it’s worth hearing them from Snyder himself, who closes some of the distance between the intellectual and the public by stepping away from print altogether — a medium perhaps unsuited to the malleable demands of the online present.
How does the media affect, or become, Snyder’s message, especially when it’s effectively one-sidedly televisual, the medium of the 20th century of fascism par excellence? Snyder does not address these theoretical questions, except indirectly by way of a generic book talk aesthetic complete with rumpled shirt, rustling lapel mic, and requisite background shelves of books you’ll find yourself trying to identify as you learn to “be wary of paramilitaries.”
Being wary is one thing, but to what does Snyder’s hyper vigilance add up without the power to make change where we are? Ah, but in asking such a question, maybe we find we are already in the trap, obeying in advance by assuming powerlessness and freely giving up control. It’s our job as individuals to apply the relevant lessons where we can in our own lives, and to read (or watch) Snyder critically, in relation to other trustworthy voices within, and far outside of, Ivy League academic departments.
We do not lack the information we need to understand our moment through a historical lens. But we often lack the knowledge to make sense of things at world-historical scale. Historians like Snyder can bridge the gap, and it’s good to take advantage of the freely-offered professional experience of skilled readers, researchers, and educators. In this instance, Snyder’s approach seems well-tailored to counter innumerable presentations that trivialize WWII history into overfamiliarity and perverse spectacle… or what another anti-fascist public intellectual, Walter Benjamin, identified as the aestheticization of politics — fascism-by-passive-consumerism that leads us down the path to horrors we’d never contemplate outright….