"On Tyranny" author Timothy Snyder. Photo from Wikipedia

‘Tyranny’ historian warns Americans: Don’t forget lessons learned

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has spent the better part of his career studying 20th- century authoritarian regimes, from fascist Germany to the communist Soviet Union. Educated at Oxford, Snyder has written extensively about the rise and fall of modern political systems and the catastrophes that ensue when civil society breaks down.

His latest work, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” is addressed to Americans who are disturbed by the radical new politics introduced into American democracy by the Trump administration. It is both a warning and how-to manual, urging citizens who cherish American democracy to defend democratic institutions and their own independent minds.

Snyder will appear in conversation with Jewish Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills through Writers Bloc.

DANIELLE BERRIN: At what point did you start to consider the threat of tyranny — a serious charge — a legitimate critique of the current administration?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: I’m trying to adopt the perspective of the Founding Fathers, [who thought] that we need to be very thoughtful about [democratic] institutions, because if you’re not thoughtful about the institutions, the system can fall apart at any time. What I’m trying to do is look back at recent examples of modern tyranny — Nazi Germany, fascism, communist regimes — to see how democratic republics tend to break down. I have to point out, if the book seems relevant now, I wrote the “Twenty Lessons” in November, and had [finished] the book by Christmas. So I couldn’t even judge the present administration. What I was judging were the tendencies of a [president-elect] who seemed to be entirely indifferent to the foundations of our political system.

DB: What did you find most alarming about him?

TS: In Donald Trump’s campaign, there was an absence of support for democracy and an absence of support for human rights. He never talked about those things, whereas other American politicians do. The second thing that concerned me was the Russia connection; I don’t think American politicians should be seeing foreign tyrants as models of leadership. The third thing was the war on truth — not just lying at the margins the way all politicians lie — but the broad-gauge full-on attack on the truth. [Trump] was using language to build up a kind of counter-world, an alternative reality, a myth in which his supporters could live … that’s fascist.

DB: In the book, it’s clear you’re trying to address a wide audience — both left and right. But do you really think the same people reading Breitbart are going to read a work of scholarship?

TS: Look, this book is written from the position of an American citizen who thinks that the American republic is in danger. And the various kinds of moral and intellectual commitments I have don’t line up perfectly with one party or the other. In a lot of ways, I’m sympathetic to conservatism — when it’s actually conservative.

DB: You talk a lot in the book about truth and lies. How do you combat propaganda when truth itself has been politicized?

TS: Without the enlightenment — without the belief that there is truth on earth, and that we can discover that truth — there will not be democracy. There will not be rule of law. If we let truth go, we’re not going to have the system that we have. Journalists are now in a position where you get to be pioneers; you get to be the stars. Because the mainstream is now all this junk. People still say “mainstream media” but the mainstream [has changed]. You guys are now edgy. You guys have a chance to be heroes in 2017.

DB: In order for Hitler to be successful, you write that he needed the complicity of ordinary citizens to carry out his policies. That puts a lot of responsibility on citizens. How much power does the populace actually have to make or break a dictatorship?

TS: Citizens have a huge amount of power and usually what they do is give it away without thinking about it. We [learn] the rules and we adapt. That’s how we survive. But sometimes things change so drastically, we have to check our social impulses and be an individual. We have to stop and say, “This situation is different. I’m not going to automatically adjust.” The smartest analysts of authoritarianism, they all make the point that it depends upon consent. That the little choices you make matter. Just going along is a choice; and when you go along, you’re making regime change happen.

DB: Some people are deeply disturbed by what is happening within our government, but others argue that democracy remains intact — the press is still functioning, we still have rule of law. Even you could write a book “On Tyranny” without fear of repercussions. How close do you think we are to fascism? 

TS: There are things that are short of fascism that are absolutely terrible: If America becomes a kleptocratic, authoritarian regime where we have ritualized elections in which everybody knows who will win in advance; where you can’t become prosperous or wealthy without the support of the people in power; where you think about what you’re going to say before you say it — we’re not very far away from that. It won’t take too many pushes to get into a situation where it’s normal for us to think that the president is the richest person in the country and that the next several presidents need to be named Trump. Fascism would be something more. Fascism would be [White House chief strategist Stephen] Bannon succeeding in creating a sense of white nationalism in the U.S. [with] lots of internal violence deliberately directed toward creating a national identity. That’s a higher bar for evil.

DB: Trump has targeted and maligned many minority groups. Why is it important for an authoritarian leader to have scapegoats?

TS: If you want to change the regime, you take a group and say, “This group is not your neighbors, it’s not your fellow citizens; this group is an element of an international plot.” For Hitler, it was Jews, but it can be anybody. The mechanism is the same. So with American Muslims, you’re taking a group that is basically assimilated, basically small, and you’re saying, “Don’t think of them as individuals. Don’t think of them as citizens or as customers. Think of them as part of some larger threat.” That is politically important because it changes domestic politics [to become] about fighting the larger global threat — whether it’s terrorism or the Jewish international conspiracy. And that means that the normal things of domestic politics — like prosperity, group interest or freedom — those things are suddenly less important.

DB: The president hasn’t targeted Jews the way he has Muslims and immigrants, but the political climate has enabled an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. As a historian of the most anti-Semitic period in history, is the current surge of anti-Semitism here significant?

TS: Those who are saying that anti-Semitism isn’t as bad as it seems is what the Orthodox community in Poland did in the second half of the 1930s; it’s exactly what the German Jews did in 1933. If Jews are going to remember the Holocaust, they have to remember the whole thing — including that normalization burst right after Hitler was elected. That impulse to rationalize — you have to check yourself: What do I think it means as an American Jew that the [headstones in] cemeteries are going down? What do I think it means that there’s all this hate speech? That there are now swastikas in places where there weren’t swastikas before? It sounds crazy and obvious, but this is a time for American Jews to be thinking about the Holocaust — not so much from 1944 in Auschwitz, but from early 1933 and the transition. Because if you only think about the end, you forget about the beginning. And if you only look at the end, nothing is ever as bad as the end — until the end.

Timothy Snyder will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, 7:30 p.m. on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Tickets are $20.