This is a small treatise, some 119 pages, each only about 4.5 x 6.5 inches in size. Yet it has garnered a lot of buzz in political circles in recent months and it’s not hard to see why: it packs a punch.
Subtitled Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, this book is a warning, written by Timothy Snyder in a clear, simple style. And it’s coming at a time when the evidence—particularly right-wing popularism—is all around us. The author, who also wrote Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, divides his admonitions into 20 bite-sized lessons, each supporting the others and containing important pieces of historical evidence. The undercurrent is indeed frightening. Yet perhaps the gift of our current president is demonstrating in stark relief how the once-unimaginable quickly becomes almost commonplace.
Our Founding Fathers defined tyranny as the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit. Many of us tend to complacency, believing that tyranny could never succeed because we’d all be on guard and take steps to prevent it. But a history of the 1930s and 1940s reveals this to be a fallacy. As the author warns,
The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why. [p. 12]
There is abundant evidence all around that elements of a tyrannical (or Nazi or fascist) personality can be found just beneath the surface. Remember the experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale? Subjects were quite easily trained to administer what they thought were painful electrical jolts to others, even when hearing the “screams” of the victims. Milgram learned that people are very receptive to new rules in new settings . . . even to the point of harming or killing others for some new purpose if instructed by a new authority.
We tend to assume that institutions will automatically defend themselves against attack, but can they? Teachers in multiple states have recently marched on state capitols to make it known that the status quo in education is not working. And what about the symbols of hate? The clash last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia—a mere block from the synagogue where this reviewer was married—brought the torches of Nazism to a place where we thought it was gone for good. And, yet, the president proclaims, “There were good people on all sides.” These threats are no longer merely hypothetical. Our leaders are dangerous. Remember that without armies of conformists, atrocities are not possible. Stand out—as did Rosa Parks. Once you do, the spell is broken; others will join you.
A favorite weapon of tyrants is the ”emergency.” It is terror management. Beware the sudden disaster that requires a loss of freedom (“it’s just temporary”). As James Madison said, “tyranny arises on some favorable emergency.”
Listen carefully to language. How often are we subjected to tweets that project onto others traits that resonate with vileness and apply more to the speaker than to others? Liars. Fake. Untrustworthy. And one of the most revealing and self-aggrandizing: I alone can fix it. L’etat c’est mois.
Snyder’s 20 chapter titles are written as simple commands, such as Defend Institutions, Beware the One-Party State, Believe in Truth, Investigate, Remember Professional Ethics, and Listen for Dangerous Words. Some may appear surprising: Stand Out, Be Kind to Our Language, and Make Eye Contact and Small Talk. Why does something like this last command matter? To quote Snyder,
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…. [Victims’ memoirs of the mid-20th-century] all share a single tender moment … people living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them [emphasis added]. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting … took on great significance. [p. 82]
Being on guard means having one’s radar tuned into internal as well as external realities. Those who seek to hold power want us sitting on the couch and our minds absorbed in screens. So we are admonished to “get outside; make new friends and march with them.” Demonstrations such as the March 24 March for Our Lives is a great example of this.
Our democratic heritage does not automatically protect us from such external threats. We are no wiser than Europeans who let Nazism and fascism take hold, but we can learn from their experiences … even as we see unmistakable signs of the gathering storm in our nation. Are we up to the task? And what happens if we are not?