Historian Timothy Snyder Presents 20 Lessons for Defending Democracy Against Tyranny in a New Video Series

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.…

Watch all 20 lessons above, or find them here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

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

A Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Edi­tion of On Tyran­ny: Twen­ty Lessons from the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry, the Best­selling Book by His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

The Mak­ing of Mod­ern Ukraine: A Free Online Course from Yale Pro­fes­sor Tim­o­thy Sny­der

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


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