More on history and its lessons

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” A few days after posting last week’s effort about learning from history the blog picked up Timothy Snyder’s new book On Tyranny and the quote above was the book’s first line.

Snyder wrote the book Bloodlands which is an astonishing record of the death and destruction in Europe in the 20th century caused by Hitler and Stalin. In the latest book he applies his deep knowledge of the impact of tyranny on humanity and derives ‘Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’ for those living today.

The lessons are: do not obey in advance; defend institutions; beware the one party state; take responsibility for the world; remember professional ethics; be wary of paramilitaries; be reflective if you must be armed (he does live in the US); stand out; be kind to our language; believe in truth; investigate; make eye contact and small talk; practice corporeal politics; establish a private life; contribute to good causes; learn from peers in other countries; listen for dangerous words; be calm when the unthinkable arrives; be a patriot; and, be as courageous as you can.

Obviously Snyder is not planning a career in contemporary politics But he does want to warn us that, just as in the late 19th century there were expectations of progress and prosperity which were “challenged by new visions of mass politics in which a leader or a party claimed to directly represent the will of the people” so we are tempted by similar beliefs in the later 20th century “to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex.”

Snyder, in just 126 pages, tries to rescue people from a “mythicised past (which) prevents us from thinking about possible futures” by a belief in a “politics of inevitability”. As an alternative the last lines of the book quote Shakespeare: “the time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” Thus Hamlet: “Nay, come, let’s go together.”

Having dinner recently with two of its oldest friends the blog got to talking about the book and one of the friends asked what the 20 lessons were. The blog confessed it could only remember a few – perhaps because it had raced through the slim volume in an excitable state. But since then it has had time to read it again and think more deeply about the lessons.

The first, about not obeying in advance, is based on the reality that most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given – citing as examples the 1932 German election and the 1946 Czech equivalent along with Stanley Milgram’s Yale ‘torture’ experiments. In defending institutions Snyder advises: “..choose an institution you care about- a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union – and take its side.” He reminds us that one party states didn’t start as such and defending the rules of the voting system – something the US Republicans and the current US Attorney General Sessions are busily under-mining – is important.

He quotes Vaclav Havel about taking responsibility for not looking away from symbols of hate and working to remove them and uses Trump campaign rallies to show how easy it would be to mobilise paramilitary forces – particularly in societies where people have lots of guns. Rosa Parks, Churchill and the Pole Teresa Prekerowa are his examples of the need to stand out rather than just following along. He might also have included the recently dead Simone Weil. He appeals to professionals to abide by professional ethics and how ignoring them can subvert society and the state.

Believing in truth is vital because “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom…..If nothing is true then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” Investigate what is true and “take responsibility for what you communicate with others.” Politeness is the core of civility and civic responsibility. Establishing a private life is a defence against tyranny because “nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around…Remember that email is skywriting.” Snyder points out that during the 2016 Presidential election campaign the US “took a step towards totalitarianism without even noticing by accepting as normal the violation of electronic privacy” and compares this with Hannah Arendt’s view of totalitarianism not as an all-powerful state but as “the erasure of the difference between private and public life.”

In his lesson on learning from peers he points out that what’s going on in the US is not unique to that country but advises his compatriots to get a passport! Listening for dangerous words is not about Orwellian Newspeak but rather about being alert to the use of words such as terrorism, extremism, emergency and exception along with “treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.” In the case of exception he describes how the Nazi legal theorist, Carl Schmitt, explained that the most effective way to destroy all rules was to focus on the exception.

Calmness in the face of the unthinkable analyses how terrorism management becomes modern tyranny and is the oldest trick used by the Nazis, Putin, US Presidents and our own rulers to take away rights.

Snyder’s three pages on being a patriot are a brilliantly succinct description of why patriotism is not the same as nationalism and why a particular unnamed US individual is not a patriot. Finally he turns to courage – “if none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

Far-fetched? Read the book and judge for yourself.