April 26, 2019

A serious, timely take ‘On Tyranny’

Timothy Snyder is one of those rare scholars whose work has transcended the academy and entered the public conversation about the perilous world in which we live today. That’s why you will find Snyder’s byline on op-ed pages as well as in academic journals, and that’s why his latest book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century” (Crown/Tim Duggan Books), is so timely and so important.

Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale, has published widely on the subject of Eastern Europe, but to fix Snyder in the intellectual firmament, we need to recall the impact of his masterpiece, “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” which daringly reframed the history of World War II and the Holocaust by considering why most of the victims died in a relatively narrow strip of real estate in Eastern Europe and Western Russia.

Predictably enough, the fact that Snyder was willing to compare the crimes against humanity committed by Hitler and Stalin was uncomfortable to some of his readers who insist on the moral uniqueness of the Holocaust. Perhaps because of that backlash, Snyder, who will appear in conversation with me at a Writers Bloc event on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, followed “Bloodlands” with “Black Earth,” a work devoted wholly to the Holocaust.

His latest book, strictly speaking, is not a work of history. Rather, it began with Snyder’s visceral reaction to the Electoral College victory of Donald Trump, which prompted him to post a series of admonitions on Facebook. Now he has collected and expanded those comments in “On Tyranny,” an elegant little chapbook that will take an hour or so to read but which is likely to provoke many days of reflection and conversation.

The book begins with a healthy caution: “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” he writes. “If we worry today that the American experiment is threatened by tyranny, we can follow the example of the Founding Fathers and contemplate the history of other democracies and republics.” He reminds us that fascism and communism, the horrors of the mid-20th century, were responses to some of the same fears that haunt us today. “We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex,” he writes. Not without a note of irony, he calls on us to recall “the precedent set by the Founders,” which “demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it.”

What follows are Snyder’s 20 lessons, each one brief but resonant and provocative. By way of example, the first lesson is “Do not obey in advance,” which is followed by a brief explanation: “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.”

Then Snyder offers a short excursus on the specific lessons that can be learned from the events of the mid-20th century.  He points out that Germans rallied without compulsion to Hitler and the Nazis on their electoral victory in 1933, and when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the SS invented the machinery of the Holocaust on its own initiative. “They guessed what their superiors wanted and demonstrated what was possible,” Snyder explains. “It was far more than Hitler thought.”

Each of Snyder’s lessons is, in fact, a call to action in defense of American democracy. His third lesson, for example, is: “Beware the one-party state.” Ever the disciplined historian, he writes that “Thomas Jefferson probably never said that ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,’ but other Americans of his era certainly did.” He is always mindful of practical solutions: “We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.” Yet he refuses to reassure us that everything will be OK in the end: “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.”

Snyder’s lessons are rooted in history, but each one is focused sharply on the here and now.  “Take responsibility for the face of the world” is his fourth lesson, but it applies with precision to the events in the headlines: “Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate,” he writes. “Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”

And he insists, again and again, that it is up to us to defend our democracy: “Investigate” is the 11th lesson, and he goes on to say: “Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media.” He even advises us to “Make eye contact and small talk” because “having old friends is the politics of last resort” and “making new ones is the first step toward change.”

Perhaps the most stirring moments in “On Tyranny,” however, are those when Snyder insists on confronting us with worst-case scenarios. The final lesson is: “Be as courageous as you can,” and it is followed by a single sentence of commentary: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” That chilling observation is the best measure of how seriously Snyder takes his subject, and so should we.

Writers Bloc presents Timothy Snyder in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way. Tickets are $20. For more information, click here.

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.