Amidst the current carnage, I followed up Timothy Snyder’s brilliant, harrowing Bloodlands by reading two of his more recent books, written under the shock of the Trump presidency. While we’ve been sleepwalking, suddenly with the invasion of Ukraine they are even more distressingly relevant (for an overview of his work, see here).
- On tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century (2017) (reviewed e.g. here; for an interview, click here)
is a succinct handbook, a manifesto largely directed at US readers. It’s also available in graphic form.
Of the topics, each illustrated with salient cases from modern history, some may seem prosaic, like “Make eye contact and small talk”, “Contribute to good causes”; others (so far) are specific to the USA, like “Be wary of paramilitaries”, “Be reflective if you must be armed”, and “Learn from peers in other countries” (“make sure you and your family have passports”). More widely salient are:
- Do not obey in advance (“anticipatory obedience”):
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
- Defend institutions (countering a tendency to perceive them as impersonal and corrupt):
It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institutions you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labour union—and take its side.
- Beware the one-party state:
The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.
- Take responsibility for the face of the world:
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other symbols of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
- Remember professional ethics:
When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labour.
- Be kind to our language:
Avoid pronouncing the phrase everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.
- Believe in truth:
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no-one can criticise power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
Here Snyder identifies four modes: open hostility to verifiable reality, “shamanistic incantation” (“Build that wall!” “Lock her up!”), magical thinking (“the open embrace of contradiction”), and misplaced faith.
Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidise investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realise that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns. Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.
- Listen for dangerous words:
Be alert to the rise of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of political vocabulary.
In “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives”, Snyder outlines the rise of Putin. His target in “Be a patriot” is particularly clear:
It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families. […] It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes, especially when American working families do so. […] It is not patriotic to admire foreign dictators. It is not patriotic to call upon Russia to intervene in an American presidential election. […]
A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.
(I was going to reproach the use of “he” and “his” there, but with some disturbing exceptions this is indeed largely a male aberration.)
In the Epilogue Snyder observes:
Until recently we had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and Communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that politics could move only in one direction: towards liberal democracy. […]
He describes this as a self-induced intellectual coma.
The second antihistorical way of considering the past is the politics of eternity. Like the politics of inevitability, the politics of eternity performs a masquerade of history, though a different one. It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.
Eternity politicians bring us the past as a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some external enemy upon the purity of the nation. […]
The danger we now face is of a passage from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naïve and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.
But he counsels:
History allows us to see patterns and make judgements. […] History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.
We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. Our own tradition demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it.
* * *
The politics of inevitability and eternity are major themes of Snyder’s
- The road to unfreedom (2018) (reviewed e.g. here),
where he expounds in more detail the background to the ongoing disaster. The chapters consider alternative world-views through meticulous analysis of the modern history of Russia, Europe, America—and Ukraine:
- Individualism or totalitarianism
- Succession or failure
- Integration or empire
- Novelty or eternity
- Truth or lies
- Equality or oligarchy.
Ukraine is highlighted in Chapters 4 and 5.
Another rigorous scholar setting forth from the brutal history of 20th-century regimes to address the current crisis is Anne Applebaum. Note also the work of Timothy Garton Ash; and in film, Adam Curtis. See also under Life behind the Iron Curtain. There’s a surge of recommended readings on Ukraine, on Ukraine and Russia, and guides to help understand the invasion.