Our Faltering Vigilance: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny

In a recent appearance on Sam Harris’ podcast, Waking Up, Timothy Snyder declared that 2016 was payback for our collective assumption that history had ended. In the space of a single surprising year, it became clear that the liberal democracies that we had so long assumed had reached a point of perpetual ascendency were being challenged, eroded. Across much of Europe and North America, previously sound liberal democracies are being assaulted by an illiberal form of populism at a scale not seen since the 1930s and ’40s. Voters in many states appear willing, if not eager, to surrender the liberties that protect them: crowds bray at the press and celebrate efforts to curtail them; on university campuses students protest to shut down voices that offend them; prosperity is sacrificed in the name of nationalism; and the erosion of civil liberties has increasing been accepted as the price of security. Consider for example how readily the public has accepted the leaking of private correspondence as normal, or how many caveats now exist on the right to privacy. The erosion of the barrier between private and public by authoritarian regimes through the 20th century helped normalise the constant surveillance of police states, perpetuating tyranny. We are treading on worn ground; history continues, whether we remember it or not.

On Tyranny, Snyder’s vitally important treatise, released on 28 February this year, begins “History doesn’t repeat, but it does instruct”. This reads first as advice to pay attention to the instructions of history, and it is, but as Snyder explains, this cuts both ways. The actions of those that sought and captured power in the 1920s and 1930s have not faded into oblivion in the absence of our attention, and they are being learnt from and repeated by those who today seek power for themselves. We are not witnessing some unseen forces of history inevitably repeating themselves, we are seeing people learning from history; the wrong people. The populist politics and tactics of leaders from Hugo Chavez to Marie Le Pen was not of their own invention; rather such leaders such have seen from history the value, for their selfish ends, of eroding the notion of truth, of demonising the media, and of focusing voters anger at a common enemy

The notion that we might discard history took root in the post-Cold War euphoria of the early 1990s and was embodied most notably by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama declared that the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the gradual opening of China to capitalism signaled the end of the generations long battle of political ideologies, and would herald the dawn of a long democratic peace as first the free market, and then democracy, spread across the world. It was a pleasant dream. For a time.

As the 1990s wore on Fukuyama’s dream stumbled in the face of the unrelenting horrors of ethnic violence, including in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, that revealed themselves to be not the last gasps of ideological struggles but something else entirely: ethnic-nationalism, or at least the cynical manipulation of ethnic-nationalism by politicians seeking to consolidate power. The attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of Fukuyama’s dream: there was no room for a global democratic peace in the forever war against the amorphous notion of terrorism into which the US plunged.

At the heart of the work of Fukuyama (and his rivals, including Samuel Huntington who predicted that ideology would be eclipsed by a ‘clash of civilizations’), was an expectation that ideology was dead; that history is no longer a suitable guide for the world in which we find ourselves. Over the course of 2016, as the political landscape in Europe, North America, and elsewhere, buckled and twisted with the resurgence of nationalist and populistic politics, it became very clear that disregarding history has been a collective mistake that may endanger our democracies.

On Tyranny is Snyder’s attempt to help us avoid that mistake and bring the lessons of history to the attention of those that are at risk of ignoring it. In the immediate wake of the 2016 US Presidential election, Timothy Snyder scribbled down, in a matter of hours, twenty lessons that history offers to those seeking to preserve liberty in the face of tyranny. Snyder has approached this task with a broad audience in mind. On Tyranny is slim, just over 120 pocket-sized pages, able to be digested in an afternoon and passed onto the next person. Snyder’s lessons range from the obvious, “Beware the one party state”, to the surprisingly simple “Make eye contact and small talk”. They form the backbone of On Tyranny. Each of his ideas are explained in a repeatable sentence or two, then expanded upon over a handful of pages, complete with evidence taken from the rise of communism and fascism in the early 20th century. His opening imperative, “Do Not Obey in Advance”, is illustrated with reference to right wing Austrians who, having invited Nazi German occupation, attempted to anticipate the demands of their new masters and initiated a pogrom against Austrian Jews. The willingness of Austrians to abandon and even attack their Jewish compatriots provided the Nazis with a unrequested model of how complacent populations could be in pursuing what would become the Holocaust.

The speed with which On Tyranny emerged following the US election makes it remarkably topical. Interspaced within his detailed accounts of those of have previously failed to heed his lessons are contemporary comparisons that place this book firmly in the here and now. Kellyanne Conway’s now famous reference to ‘alternative facts’ to take one example, demonstrates how openly the notion of truth is under attack. Most striking is his warning to beware the growing use of words such as extremism and terrorism, as they are so broad as to allow endless redefinition to allow the emergence of “the fatal notions of emergency and exception”. As Masha Gessen argued in her recent essay The Reichstag Fire Next Time, it is in response to emergencies that populations consent to exceptions that erode liberty. Emergencies like the Reichstag fire yes, but also like the September 11 attacks. Having read On Tyranny, and Gessen’s essay, I now find myself counting, with increasing dread, the number of times these words are used everyday by politicians in the United States and United Kingdom.

There is an apparent risk that the references to the present could leave On Tyranny with only a fleeting moment of relevance. In ten years time the current imperative that completed the writing of this book will have faded; Snyder’s fears for the current trajectory of liberal democracies will have been proven true or false.

But the value of On Tyranny lies not in its examples but in its ideas; ideas that did not leap fully formed from Snyder’s head on the eve of the US election but are the product of his long study of European history. Snyder is a professor of history at Yale, and author of five books on the history of central and eastern Europe the most well known of which is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Snyder’s scholarship ensures that the contemporary references are well framed by historical context, and regardless of what becomes of the threats identified, they will remain examples of the sort of risks of which history teaches us to be wary. In the end, On Tyranny reads not as a frantic tirade against contemporary events, but a considered reflection of greater trends. “It is… history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of possible futures” he writes. “A nationalist will say that ‘it can’t happen here,’ which is the first step towards disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.”

There are risks too that this book will be perceived only with partisan eyes, not least because Snyder does not hide his politics. Many of the contemporary examples with which he furnishes his twenty lessons make reference to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Yet this is not a partisan book. At least not in the traditional sense of left and right, or liberal and conservative. As Snyder argues we, and I include myself until reading this book, have been lulled into a comfortable belief that the preference for liberty over tyranny is universal within our democracies. This has never been true in history, and there is nothing to suggest it is true today. Snyder’s critics have called him alarmist for suggesting the election of Trump may be the onset of authoritarianism. But whether or not you agree with the assertion that liberty is being threatened by current events in the United States and Europe, the historical precedents remain true. The rise of fascism in Italy and Germany showed that populations that do not defend their institutions will soon find those institutions can not defend the population. Likewise the effective propaganda of communist dictatorships of the 20th century are examples that remind that “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 need for democracy to be defended remains acute. Snyder implores readers to pay attention to history’s lessons:

We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex…. Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.

I must admit my own bias in considering On Tyranny. For some time I have been troubled by the apparent willingness of some populations, particularly in the United States where I currently sit, to give away the liberties their predecessors fought for. I’ve watched concerned as university students shout down the views of others, asserting that they have a right not to be offended that usurps the right of others to free speech. It seemed to me to be no coincidence that this was occurring in conjunction with the apparent banishment of history from our collective interest. On Tyranny ambushed me on the bookstore counter, as small books so often do. Its notions were familiar but as I read its short blurb, a variation on the above passage, I felt relieved that the idea had been seized by someone so articulate as Snyder. On Tyranny would not been as impactful, nor as useful, if it has simply sounded an alarm at current political trends, or provided its twenty lessons without context; it is the weight of historical evidence provided in such an accessible form that makes On Tyranny important.

On Tyranny can be read in an afternoon. Nothing is sacrificed by its length, as its ideas are well argued and well supported. Snyder wisely does not solely rely on his scholarship and deft prose, and reinforces his lessons by incorporating the views and experiences of those who have witnessed firsthand the erosion of liberty and democracy. You may leave On Tyranny more troubled than when you began; convinced of the fragility of democracy and fearful of the willingness of people at either end of the political spectrum to surrender their liberties in pursuit of their own agenda.

In the United States, amongst partisans of all affiliations accusations that the ‘other side’ is pursuing tyranny, either communism or fascism, have become commonplace. If you recognise this fear in yourself then On Tyranny is worth your time for the advice it offers on how best to resist what you fear without also becoming it. Partisan fears do not however, constrain On Tyranny’s relevance. This book is for those that still embrace the likes of Trump and Le Pen as much as it is for those that oppose them. On Tyranny is a universal warning for all citizens of democracy who wish to retain their liberty; I cannot think of a greater recommendation.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.