Guarding against tyranny – Snyder’s twenty lessons from history

I had already known that Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, was an exceptional researcher and writer. His 2010 book Bloodlands- Europe between Hitler and Stalin was truly eye-opening for those of us closely involved with the former Soviet Union and interested in the history of the last century.

When his latest book “On Tyranny- Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” was published and greeted with widespread critical acclaim earlier this year, there were a few reviews about it in Turkey too.

Even before the book’s publication, while the ideas were still fresh from an article, Turkey’s award-winning independent media platform Medyascope, translated and published it in November 2016.

So this is not breaking news. Long ago, I had made a mental note to read the book, to see what parallels Professor Snyder drew between recent European history and the current situation in the United States.

It was not until this week, when I heard Professor Snyder at his Chatham House lecture titled “Modern Authoritarianism”,  that I realized how relevant his observations were to today’s Turkey, too.

Snyder’s 126-page book, which starts by reminding us that “history does not repeat, but it does instruct,” differs from other books on similar themes.  It doesn’t confine itself to explaining why and how authoritarian regimes rise. It also makes meaningful suggestions about how it can be stopped from happening.

Even though the history has lessons for us all, Professor Snyder rightly remarks that this book may not be equally applicable to circumstances in other countries.  When questioned by an audience to draw parallels with others, such as Turkey, his comments are measured and qualified.

Nevertheless, his lessons from the 1930s, which are also relevant to Trump’s America, still offer a lot of very pertinent insights on Turkey’s near-complete transformation into a contemporary tyranny today.

Snyder’s first lesson is “Do not obey in advance”.

“Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given” he says.

The kind of “anticipatory obedience” he warns against is fairly easy to recognise as a characteristic behaviour of those “adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation”.

Another lesson is to “Defend Institutions”.

“We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks. This was the very mistake that some German Jews made about Hitler and the Nazis after they formed a government,” he says.

The rule of law, which is ‘difficult to build but easy to destroy’, is often the first one to be undermined. Unless defended from the beginning, institutions fall one after the other.

Beware the one-party state,” Snyder says. Support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections.

He urges us to “Take responsibility for the face of the world” because “the symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow”.

“Notice the swastikas and other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them”.

Remember professional ethics” he writes. “When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important.” “Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional”.

“When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh.” So, be wary of paramilitaries.

A word of warning to those in legitimate uniform, too.

“If you carry a weapon in public service, may 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”.

He questions the necessity of a trade-off between security and liberty.  Snyder cautions against the use of words such as extremism and terrorism and points out that authoritarians constantly produce real or manufactured crisis.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone does, and “Believe in truth”. 

According to Professor Snyder, modern authoritarians deliberately create uncertainty and confusion.  He even goes as far as suggesting “Post-truth is pre-fascism”.

He urges us to “investigate”, figure things out for ourselves and support investigative journalism. We must not forget that the first thing authoritarians all do is to go after journalists.

We are told to “hold on to our friends, look at them in the eye and make new friends”. In 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s Europe, be it in Nazi Germany or the Stalinist Soviet Union, “people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbours treated them. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew”.

Establishing a private life is important. Be wary of divulging too much personal information on social media and guard against internet malware, Snyder warns.

Being active in organisations, political or not, that express your own view of life – in other words, “contributing to good causes” – is another lesson.

Snyder sees the present difficulties in the United States as an element of a larger trend. No country is going to find a solution by itself. “Learn from peers in other countries and keep up your friendships abroad” he advises.

“On Tyranny” is a short book with wisdom and insight that could easily be read as the story of any country facing the threat of tyranny anywhere in the world.

Perhaps it is another reminder that just as learning from the past helps us to protect the future, analysing the distinguishing characteristics of today’s populist regimes elsewhere, makes it easier to understand our own.


This post is also available in: Turkish

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