On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Snyder, Timothy
Notes by: Jacopo Perfetti.
0. Prologue
History does not repeat, but it does instruct .
Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants .
The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall .
European history has seen three major democratic moments : after the First World War in 1918, after the Second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989 .
In the early twentieth century, as in the early twenty - first, these hopes were challenged by new visions of mass politics in which a leader or a party claimed to directly represent the will of the people .
European democracies collapsed into right - wing authoritarianism and fascism in the 1920s and ’ 30s. The communist Soviet Union, established in 1922, extended
its model into Europe in the 1940s .
Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization : to the real and perceived inequalities it created ,
in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people .
1. Do not obey in advance.
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.
ANTICIPATORY OBEDIENCE IS a political tragedy .
enough people in both cases voluntarily extended their services to the new leaders ,
The first heedless acts of conformity could not then be reversed .
The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible .
Milgram grasped that people are remarkably receptive to new rules in a new setting. They are surprisingly
willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority .
2. Defend institutions.
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. So choose an institution you care about — a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union — and take its side.
The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions —
3. Beware the one-party state.
The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi - party system.
The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that “ eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. ” He added that “ the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. ”
The hero of a David Lodge novel says that you don’t know, when you make love for the last time, that you are making love for the last time. Voting is like that .
We certainly face ,
the problem of oligarchy —
The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens .
4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others.
LIFE IS POLITICAL, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do .
In the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much .
When everyone else follows the same logic, the public sphere is covered with signs of loyalty, and resistance becomes unthinkable .
declares his loyalty in the only way the regime is capable of hearing ; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game ,
5. 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 labor.
If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it .
Then there is no such thing as “ just following orders. ”
6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro - leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle,the end has come.
MOST GOVERNMENTS, MOST of the time, seek to monopolize violence. If only the government can legitimately use force, and this use is constrained by law, then the forms of politics that we take for granted become possible .
the emotions of rallies and the ideology of exclusion have to be incorporated into the training of armed guards.
7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.
we make a great mistake if we imagine that the Soviet NKVD or the Nazi SS acted
Without the assistance of regular police forces ,
Some killed from murderous conviction. But many others who killed were just afraid to stand out .
8. Stand out.
Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
It is those who were considered exceptional, eccentric, or even insane in their own time — those who did not change when the world around them did — whom we remember and admire today .
Other politicians would have found support in British public opinion to end the war. Churchill instead resisted, inspired, and won .
Churchill said that history would be kind to him, because he intended to write it himself .
Today what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out .
Teresa Prekerowa
stood out among her friends and family in her reaction to this horror .
herself, Teresa chose to enter the Warsaw ghetto a dozen times in late 1940, bringing food and medicine to Jews.
9. Be kind to our language.
Avoid pronouncing the phrases 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.
the classic novels of totalitarianism warned of the domination of screens, the suppression of books, the narrowing of vocabularies, and the associated difficulties of thought .
One of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official dictionary .
“ And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. ”
10. Believe in truth.
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
YOU SUBMIT TO tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case .
as Victor Klemperer noticed, truth dies in four modes ,
The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts .
The second mode is shamanistic incantation .
“ endless repetition, ” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable .
The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction .
promises of cutting taxes for everyone ,
The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self - deifying claims the president made
when he said that “ I alone can solve it ” or “ I am your voice. ”
Post - truth is pre - fascism .
11. Investigate.
Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns ( some of which come from abroad ). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.
“ WHAT IS TRUTH ? ” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant .
In the 2016 presidential election, the two - dimensional world of the internet was more important than the three - dimensional world of human contact .
The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information .
Before you deride the “ mainstream media, ” note that it is no longer the mainstream .
It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult .
We find it natural that we pay for a plumber or a mechanic, but demand our news for free .
If we did not pay for plumbing or auto repair, we would not expect to drink water or drive cars. Why then
should we form our political judgment on the basis of zero investment ? We get what we pay for .
12. Make eye contact and small talk.
This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust.
When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew.
13. Practice corporeal politics.
Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
FOR RESISTANCE TO succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends. Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.
14. Establish a private life.
Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware on a regular basis. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.
We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it.
15. Contribute to good causes.
Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. Pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good
one element of freedom is the choice of associates, and one defense of freedom is the activity of groups to sustain their members.
16. Learn from peers in other countries.
Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States going are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
17. Listen for dangerous words.
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.
18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
terror management: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy.
19. Be a patriot.
Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
20. Be as courageous as you can.
If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.