Timothy Snyder's 'On Tyranny': 20 Steps to Resist
When Trump won the election, Yale historian Timothy Snyder took to Facebook and offered 20 lessons as a brief guide on how to resist a dictatorship. Snyder was uniquely qualified as an expert on tyranny, having written at length about Fascism, Communism, and the Holocaust, in his previous books.
Drawing examples from his intimate knowledge of the dismal history of interwar Europe, Synder alerted his readers on the signs of impending tyranny and provided a pithy, actionable guide on resisting the repression of mind and body from the tyrannical regime. Expanded into a crisp book of 128 pages, it has now perhaps become the most influential book in the ongoing resistance movement in America.
In explaining how democracy dies, and what can be done to save it, Snyder’s first task is to quash the misguided faith in our own exceptionalism; the belief that our institutions, or of our democratic heritage, automatically shield us from the forces of tyranny.
“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”, Snyder declares in the prologue.
On our faith in the checks and balances of institutions, Snyder notes that- “Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.” He reproduces an editorial in a leading Jewish newspaper after the Nazis came to power. The editorial expressed the belief that the Nazis “will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob”, because they were constrained by “a number of crucial factors (that) hold powers in check”.
The Nazis, of course, did commit all these criminal acts, because the German institutions were, in less than a year, subverted and refashioned to fit the purposes of the Nazis.
As the political advisor David Frum recently wrote in the Atlantic, recalling the words of a 19th Century founding editor of the magazine, that the Constitution was not “a machine that would go of itself.” “Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism”, Frum wrote. Tyranny, therefore, is not prevented by the inherent strength of the institutions, but the resistance and uprightness of the people manning them, as much as the willingness of the wider public to defend those institutions in the face of attacks.
Snyder warns of the surveillance state, in the era of ever sophisticated technology to monitor citizens, cautioning citizens to zealously guard their private space. He reminds us that Hannah Arendt, who fled Nazi Germany, defined totalitarianism as “the erasure of the difference between private and public life.”
We are free, Snyder notes, “only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us and how they come to know it”. He warns that tyrannical regimes are always on the look for compromising information on dissidents- ” the hooks on which to hang them”.
Snyder, an expert of 1930s Europe, is well aware that era defining historical changes sweep across national boundaries. He expressly connects the rise of Trump, with the rise of the far right across Europe. “The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend”, Snyder writes.
Snyder mentions India in the context of ‘authoritarian’ regimes that are cracking down on civil society. “Today’s authoritarians (in India, Turkey, Russia) are also highly allergic to the idea of free associations and non-governmental organizations”, Snyder writes, in a chapter titled ‘Contribute to good causes’.
On being questioned about India by the Citizen, Snyder replied that that while he ‘can’t speak about the situation in India’, as he is not adequately informed about it, he does sense that ‘most of the lessons in the book have general applicability’. “I have letters from citizens and activists from all over the world thanking me for what they have found to be useful lessons. As you might have noticed I do mention India in the context of suspicions of NGOs”, Snyder told us.
The book is replete with Snyder’s recommendations to citizens to resist tyranny in their everyday life. An example is his call to readers to “stand out”, to break the spell of the ideology that demands conformity. “Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different”, Snyder reasons. He reminds as that small gestures of breaking from social expectations can lead to larger changes, as Rosa Parks showed when she refused to go to the back of the bus, inspiring others to break the powerful hold of segregation.
Perhaps the most important part of Snyder’s book is his meditation on the dangers of ‘post truth’ politics, where the legitimacy of facts is sought to be destroyed in favour of a powerful, emotional, nostalgia-imbued narrative.
“Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people”. In times when deception (and self deception) becomes widespread, he recommends following Vaclav Havel’s philosophy of “living in truth”, of keeping a sacred space for what you can prove to be true and for truth-tellers.
The aim of totalitarian propaganda, as Hannah Arendt argued, was not to obscure the truth, but to obliterate the very distinction between truth and falsehood. In her book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, Arendt wrote about the effects of Nazi propaganda on the German people- “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow”.
Through slogans and ‘shamanistic incantations’, Snyder writes, the strongman cultivates the personal faith of citizens in his messiah-like abilities, to the detriment of their belief in reason and evidence. Throughout history, despots have “despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism.” This elevation of mythology over truth has consequences. “Post-truth,” Snyder writes, “is pre-fascism.”
Drawing back to the Reichstag fire, when Hitler used the pretext of political terrorism to suspend all civil rights, Snyder cautions against the age old strongman method of using the threat of terrorism to consolidate power. “Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary”, Snyder warns.
He cites the example of how Putin used a spate of terrorist bombings early on in his rule to take control of private television, abolish elected regional governorships, launch a war in Chechnya, and to gain widespread popularity. Some of these terrorist attacks, appeared to be staged, as in the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999, where, as Snyder notes, the police in fact arrested secret service agents with evidence of their guilt. In another case, the speaker of the Russian parliament ‘announced an explosion a few days before it took place’.
Snyder, however, curiously omits how even Western democracies have reacted to terrorist attacks by severely circumscribing civil liberties. In his own country, the Congress passed the Patriot Act within 45 days of 9/11, expanding the authority of the government to spy on its own citizens by monitoring their phone and email communications.
The continuing state of emergency in France is yet another instance of this trade-off between security and liberty. As Snyder writes- “People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both”. Or as James Madison put it- “Tyranny arises on some favourable emergency”.
The inherent fragility of freedom has always been ingrained in American elite consciousness. The very purpose of the Constitution was to save freedom (and of course aristocratic property) from what Madison described as the “tyranny of the majority”.
Asked what government the federal constitution of 1787 had established, Benjamin Franklin responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Reagan memorably warned about the ever present dangers to liberty when he declared- “Freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same”.
However, as the horrors of the World wars slowly receded from memory, and the triumphalism of the post- Cold War era seeped into American imagination, many in America, and the broader West, proclaimed the ‘end of history’. The elites convinced themselves, as Snyder notes, that “there was nothing in the future but more of the same,” and that “history was no longer relevant.”
Synder connects this complacent belief of the elites that ‘liberal democracy’ has permanently vanquished the narrow dogmas of 20th century, leading to a world marked by an irreversible expansion of democracy, with the rude shock of the very resurgence of these dark historical forces. History, it seems, is back, and with a vengeance.
The first step towards saving our democracy, Snyder writes, is acknowledging the grave, existential dangers it faces. “Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today. It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures. A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.”