After Trump’s victory in November 2016, a question hovered over many in the United States: “could it actually happen here?” After all, tyranny was something Americans saved people from in faraway corners of the planet, not a plausible scenario in the land of democracy. Centuries of institutional balances created an illusion of the exceptionality of the US, a country sealed off from abuses of power.
On Tyranny. 20 lessons from the 20th century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), a 100-page handbook that can be read through a single sit, is Timothy Snyder’s attempt to answer that question from a historical standpoint. And the answer, of course, is yes. Snyder, a scholar of Europe’s 20th-century atrocities, attempts to bring history out of academia and turn it into a tool against authoritarianism. The book’s very first sentence states so: “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”
Tyrannies are us
Dictatorships couldn’t exist without the cumulative effect of little actions and individual decisions. Using examples from the making of Fascism, Nazism and Communism, Snyder illustrates how, indeed, 20th-century tyrannies didn’t come through a top-to-bottom imposition, but rather through an organic process that led people to give away their freedoms, inadvertently or voluntarily.
Carl Schmitt, a Nazi legal theorist, provided a neat explanation of how this could happen. Leaders only needed to focus on the exceptionality of the current time, creating a state of permanent emergency that would lead citizens to trade freedom for safety.
“Modern tyranny is terror management,” writes Snyder. Leaders such as Trump or Putin will exploit the natural shock, fear and grief that follow a terror attack to justify a takeover of the democratic institutions; the alibi is always a war on extremism, a term that could mean anything.
Critical thinking is therefore key in the most vulnerable moments. One can never take rights and freedoms for granted. As Snyder writes, voting is like having sex: every time could be the last, and you probably wouldn’t be aware of it at the moment.
“Post-truth is pre-fascism”
“You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case,” Snyder writes. Looking back at Nazi and Communist propaganda techniques, he establishes that there is nothing new or postmodern about “post-truth” or “alternative facts.” Both represent a fascist attitude towards truth, the one that paves the way, and erodes resistance to, authoritarianism.
Of course, whoever abandons verifiable facts and indulges in magical thinking doesn’t realize they are doing so. Post-facts come in an envelope of truthfulness, and the endless repetition of a lie can make it sound plausible and desirable. We become abettors every time we retweet dubious information, disregard investigative journalism based on research and verifiable data, or thoughtlessly repeat that phrase everyone else is saying: “Make America Great Again,” for example.
Preaching to the choir
The foreseeable failure of this book is the fact that it preaches to the choir. I can hardly imagine a person who has shouted “Build that wall” at a Trump rally underlining and absorbing Snyder’s thoughtful lessons. History may come out of academia, but in this case it will barely leave the liberal circles that already perceive Trump as a threat to democracy.
In the epilogue, Snyder argues that all Americans alike are being caught off guard by the politics of inevitability, what he describes as “the sense that history can only move in one direction: liberal democracy.” This idea is wrapped in the Western myth of a “end of history” that came after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even though this notion is now widely rejected, it has influenced a whole generation’s sense of their historical moment. Snyder calls the politics of inevitability a “self-induced intellectual coma,” because of their narcotic effect on people’s imagination and capacity to react to a progressive deprivation of their rights and liberties.
All in all, Snyder’s 20 lessons sound worryingly relevant to Europe nowadays. The current rise of nationalistic populism around the continent make one wonder whether Europeans hold any memory, or regret, of their not-so-distant murderous past. If it took only two generations raised in peace for some countries to re-engage in hate speech and identity politics, is it possible to learn from history at all?
The politics of inevitability seem therefore something cyclical. In his 1942 memoir The World of Yesterday, Austrian writer Stephan Zweig recalled a similar sense of ultimate security in the world of his youth, the 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire. Turn-of-the-century Vienna, with its blooming artistic scene and century-long lack of conflict, seemed to its inhabitants the heyday of civilization.
“In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the straight and unfailing path toward being the best of all worlds. Earlier eras, with their wars, famines, and revolts, were deprecated as times when mankind was still immature and unenlightened,” Zweig wrote.
What happened next is history.
Photo: Mussolini, Hitler and King Vittorio Emanuele III, May 6, 1938.