ON TYRANNY: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, 126 pages, Duggan paperback, $7.99
Timothy Snyder is a Yale historian who has immersed himself in the story of eastern Europe during the 20th century, in a series of powerful books (including “Bloodlands,” reviewed at RtO on
Aug. 21, 2016). That was a grim tale, repeated thrice: after 1918, 1945 and 1990, states formed as democracies but soon evolved into fascism, Naziism or communism.
Now in “On Tyranny,” he warns it could happen in America, and is already happening in other countries. His prophylactic is history, his antidote political action. And he is deeply alarmed:
“We can be sure that the elections of 2018, assuming they take place, will be a test of American traditions. So there is much to do in the meantime.” As I type this, the Republicans have just ratified, by the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch, what they told us a year ago, that they hold American traditions in deep contempt.
So if anyone is going to do anything, it won’t be the Republicans.
I am mindful of a story a friend of mine told me about her mother. She was born in Berlin in 1920 to a high-status Jewish family. In 1938, alarmed, she abandoned family, status and possessions and fled to the United States. None of her relatives thought things were quite that bad. By 1945, she was the only member of her family alive.
That resonates with Snyder’s Lesson 20: Be as courageous as you can.
He elucidates: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”
In tone, and standing alone, that sounds more like a line from “The Turner Diaries” than the work of a respected academic, but the difference is that Snyder knows what he is talking about.
Yet, if countering the dictatorial goals of Trump depends upon Americans understanding history — and especially if it means understanding the history of other people — then I am more pessimistic than Snyder. The motto of the Trumpeters, the Tea Partiers, the rightwing generally is the one adopted by the antisemite, antidemocrat Henry Ford: “History is more or less bunk.”
It is worth remembering that Ford had a private army that he used against workers. The thing about private armies is that only the very rich have them.
If you were, say, a Polish college professor, it did not matter much, during the past century or so, whether the tyranny you faced was Nazi, communist, or, for that matter, tsarist. All were about equally ominous for you personally. And Snyder does not make practical distinctions between fascism and communism.
However, his historical examples of what to watch out for are weighted more toward Nazism than Bolshevism. This is, I think, an obvious reaction toward the Trump style, which is more Hitlerian than Leninist or Stalinist. RtO has noticed numerous examples (especially "Frenzy," Feb. 3, 2017), which are more an example of what evolutionary theorists call convergent similarity than direct descent.
To call Trump a neonazi is not to say he embraces National Socialist ideology. He is a nationalist but not a German nationalist.
Almost all aspirants to unlimited personal power have to adopt similar approaches. One that has become evident since the last time RtO listed the neonazi aspects of Trumpery is the reliance on family. This is not one of the 20 lessons in Snyder’s book and, in fact, is not associated with Hitlerism or Stalinism — neither had much family; but it is a very common aspect of most despots. Think Castro or Napoleon. Most despots don’t trust outsiders, and many have discovered that trusting family was a mistake, too.
But I do not propose that Jared Kushner will eventually strangle Trump and Pence and declare himself leader.
Our tyranny, when it comes, is more likely to assume a corporate or bureaucratic cloak.
Some of Snyder’s 20 lessons are more immediately pertinent than others. These are:
1. Do not obey in advance
2. Defend institutions
9. Be kind to our language
10. Believe in truth
17. Listen for dangerous words