One week after Donald Trump was elected United States president in November last year, Yale University professor and author Timothy Snyder (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, 2015; Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 2010) wrote a concise but impassioned Facebook post, bluntly reminding his fellow Americans that they are “no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.”
“Our one advantage,” he wrote, “is that we might learn from their experience.”
He then laid out 20 lessons from the 20th century that might help prevent a return of such tyranny: defend an institution; investigate; make eye contact and small talk, etc. The post was shared 17,000 times.
Snyder’s lessons are now in book form — a short, pocket-sized manifesto — and, with rising populism, interest in his calls-to-action has spread well beyond the U.S.
The author recently spoke to OpenCanada’s managing editor Eva Salinas about why these warnings are so useful now, why people take democracy for granted and what was so worrying about Sean Spicer’s recent Assad-Hitler comparison.
Your book scares me somewhat because it feels like it’s a book to keep in your pocket, like a bill of rights, and it scares me to think that such a book is needed. Is that the idea?
There are times in history where it doesn’t matter so much what you do and there are times in history where it matters. It so happens that we’re now in a time where it matters intensely what we do, and the idea of the book is to clarify what the things are that we can do.
And of course the beginning of that has to be a certain amount of bracing of oneself. One has to look around and realize that one is in such a moment and there are emotions that attend that and fear is one of them. But we can’t just be afraid, we can’t just be concerned, we have to start doing things. And one of the great things about activity is that it changes your mood… Ever since I wrote the 20 lessons, I’ve felt much better, not because the way I see things has changed, but because just getting out there and doing something and meeting other people who are doing things changes the mood. And that very change of the mood is part of the necessary action that we have to take.
Did you start to write these lessons earlier last year or did you pick up the pen the day after the election?
The background is that I spent basically my entire adult life learning languages, and reading sources and spending time in Eastern and Central Europe, and writing books about the darker chapters of European history. That’s what I understand and that’s where I feel at home. It’s also true that in places like Russia and Ukraine and Poland, which are frankly just as familiar to me at least politically as the U.S., the kinds of things we are experiencing now have already begun to happen.
So there’s a background that I’m bringing to this [book] but the writing didn’t come out until November. I wrote things in 2016 where I tried to get people’s attention with zero effect; it was only after the election that I wrote those 20 lessons and millions of people read those. It was from there that I concluded that now is the time when one has to make the intervention that might be early enough, and fast enough, that it will give people a chance to act while they still can.
Was it difficult to order the lessons; are some easier to learn?
You’re asking a really hard question because it’s a book, so it has to move from beginning to end, and it has to be readable, so there’s that constraint, and then there’s the constraint which is it has to follow the chronology of regime change, more or less. And beyond that they have to make a certain kind of sense in terms of what order you follow them in.
So lesson one, ‘Do not obey in advance,’ is maybe the most important because if you can’t do that one, you’re not likely to do any of the other ones. And it may be the most important also largely because it’s mental. It’s about realizing that you’re in a moment when your own actions matter and that you’re choosing autonomously your own course for the next little while, rather than doing what we do most of the time, which is to adjust to the new circumstances.
Why has there been, as you say, a reluctance to look back at history?
In many ways we’ve been in an exceptional moment from, let’s say, the 1950s through now in a certain part of the world, where a number of democracies have succeeded over a long period of time. That is totally exceptional in the general history of democracy and there are signs that it is a trend that is reversing. But many of us have grown up with that experience of a democratic system and that’s part of it.
Another part of it is the cautious decision we made at least in the U.S. in 1989 to declare that history was over. It was the idea that there was only kind of a residual category of politics and that was liberal democracy, parliamentarism plus markets. Once you do that you are putting yourself in a mood where it’s hard to imagine anything else that can happen. You’re also educating your generation, which we’ve also now done perilously, in the belief that the past doesn’t matter, or that variants of the past can’t appear again.
The third thing is plain, old-fashioned American exceptionalism. The moment you make some kind of comparison, Americans will then say, ‘well, that comparison isn’t good because it’s not perfect.’ That’s just good old-fashioned American laziness, where we don’t want to think about how the past might be similar or different so we just say, ‘well, it’s not exactly the same therefore it’s irrelevant. Therefore let me go back and watch some more TV.’
We need history; we need to recognize that people in the past faced similar challenges to what we face; we need to recognize that people in the past fought through these challenges and said useful things about them.
We need to realize from the past that democracy is fragile; that it’s a struggle from year to year and that you can lose it and there are various ways you can lose it and you can recognize what the signs are. All of this learning is accessible to us but we do have to make a certain effort of humility to recognize that we need to do that.
What was your reaction to the erroneous comment Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer made recently, saying Bashar al-Assad was worse than Adolf Hitler because at least Hitler, he said, didn’t use chemical weapons?
It’s even worse than it appears because first of all, they just use Hitler as a kind of floating signifier. If they don’t like someone, they compare Hitler to him. So yesterday it’s American intelligence officers who are Hitler and today it’s Assad who is Hitler. If you keep that up enough then the Second World War and the Holocaust lose all meaning.
Secondly, it’s very interesting the way the comparison was made this time. It’s not that Hitler is bad, it’s that Hitler is not as bad as someone else — that’s the direction of the comparison, Assad is worse than Hitler. And that’s another form of minimization because as horrifying as the war in Syria is, you’d still be hard pressed to say it’s worse than a war in which tens of millions of people are killed and in which there are several deliberate policies of extermination which touch upon millions of people.
The third thing: It doesn’t occur to Sean Spicer that chemical agents were in fact used during the Second World War against civilians on the scale of millions of people.
Then number four, and the most profound thing, is that in his apologies, Spicer says ‘I was trying to say that Hitler didn’t use them against his own people’. And that may be the worst thing of all because when you make that distinction between your own people and others, you are revealing that you yourself are thinking in a fascist style. The only way that the handicapped who were gassed were not Germany’s own people is that they were deliberately excluded from the German national community and then killed. And the only way that the German Jews who were killed were not their people were that they were deliberately excluded and then killed.
So you’re retroactively accepting this distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and that distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the beginning of the whole process. That they casually invoke Hitler to make the point of the day is bad enough, and then that they casually [imply] it’s OK to murder people so long as they are not your own people and don’t even realize what’s wrong with that — that for me was the most horrifying part of the whole exchange.
What are the most worrying red flags, at the moment, that echo the past?
There are a lot. Number one, for me, is the challenge to maintain truthfulness, the challenge to maintain belief and factuality. We often forget this but the way that fascism starts is as a challenge to every day life, a challenge to every day factuality and…that’s fascism whether we realize it or not. When a leader goes after the concept of truth, what they are really doing is undermining civic and political trust. Without civic and political trust, you can’t have the rule of law, you can’t have the kinds of institutions we’re used to having in the United States, you can’t have democracy. You’re going to end up with something else.
The second thing which troubles me would be the resurrection of the 1930s as a positive model, which one sees all over the world, whether its Russia — every time [Vladimir] Putin needs to cite someone in a moment of stress or importance he cites Ivan Ilyin, [who] was a fascist in the 1930s — or Washington. The most important advisor to Trump (except for his children of course), Steve Bannon, is also nostalgic for the 1930s; someone who thinks we should have policies, and I quote, as “exciting as the 1930s;” who himself reads and admires fascists and is part of that tradition.
So the notion that we can rethink history without the war against fascism, without the welfare state, without the great project of European and transatlantic cooperation, which brought so many people peace and prosperity, that troubles me an awful lot.
Our memory tends to be selective, doesn’t it?
One thing Americans are doing now is to say, ‘of course we’re going to continue to be a democracy, we’ve been a democracy for 200 years.’ But no, we haven’t. We just haven’t. We have basically been a democracy for about 50 years. If everyone can’t vote, you’re not a democracy. Women have been able to vote for a century and African Americans basically since the mid ’60s.
And the truth is, even that hasn’t been fully sorted out, what with voter suppression laws and the electoral college, and we have new problems with democracy from the 21st century — above all the prevalence of money in politics. So the story that we tell — ‘we’ve always been a democracy therefore we will always be one’ — you know, that’s exactly the problem: We haven’t always been a democracy.
Democracy is aspirational in my country, as it is everywhere, and we have to aspire to it. That’s something that the Founding Fathers here understood. You have to press forward to it, or it’s going to slip away from you.
With lesson number 19, ‘be a patriot,’ and the references to freedom, are you speaking in a way that you can reach Trump supporters as well?
Absolutely. In the beginning [post election], tens of millions of people thought ‘this is strange and disorienting and threatening and I have no idea what to do about it,’ and the book was meant to give people — the lessons aren’t easy — but it’s meant to give them a simple road map of 20 things you can do.
But almost from the very beginning, I’ve also been hearing from Republicans in a different way, or a different mode: ‘Can we have a little phone conversation that you won’t share with others,’ ‘I read your book and I disagree with this or that but I see where you are going…’ That was always meant to happen.
The ‘be a patriot’ business was easy because I happen to believe it, as well as it’s a way to make contact with folks who wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as Democrats or on the left. I believe the person who was elected president of the United States is not a patriot in a very straight-forward sense, in that he does not give a damn, one way or the other, what happens to the United States. Until he provides some evidence to the contrary, I’m going to keep on thinking that.
I think that there a lot of people who voted for Mr. Trump for various reasons who care more about their country than they care about him, and they are right and they should, and as time passes some of them may act accordingly. So yeah, the book was actually meant for everybody. It’s partisan for that democratic republic which we like to think we have but we’re still fighting for. It’s not a partisan book for one of our political parties.
You distinguish between patriotism and nationalism in the book, saying that patriotism means serving one’s country. But is that that far from also saying ‘My country, right or wrong,’ which can be dangerous?
It’s very tricky terrain because people mean very different things by those words and the opposition between patriotism and nationalism that I make is mine. I’m trying to clarify things that I think are out there but haven’t been clarified. The way I argue it is that patriotism and nationalism are not different degrees, they are actually opposing concepts. And that nationalism is the view that we are already terrific, we can’t do anything wrong and our leader’s job is to tell us that and fleece us, which is what’s happening. Patriotism is wishing your country well according to some standard which goes beyond what your leader is saying at the moment. In fact, it’s independent of what your leader is saying, you judge your leader against that standard.
We’re up against a nationalist, someone who tells Americans they’re wonderful in order to lead us into a world where there really are no standards of anything. For me, love of country means always wanting it to be better, that’s a kind of sustaining love.
In sheer practical terms, I do not think that an opposition in the United States can do without some notion of the United States, we’re just too big to rely on internationalism or just upon cosmopolitanism. Just out of straight realism, the U.S. is just too big for this to be fought out on any other terrain than what kind of country we’re supposed to be. And that’s the terrain it’s going to be fought out across. And one has to accept that.
One of the lessons is looking out for dangerous words. We’re a foreign affairs publication so we are often looking at what words global leaders are using— what do you think the role of journalists and academics is when relaying their messages to the public?
That’s a great question because as the political vocabulary shrinks, more and more of it is about this kind of suggestion where you get used to hearing things over and over again. That’s not so much communication of information but rather a kind of psychological suggestion of what’s going to come next. So when the American president talks over and over about ‘terrorism’ and ‘bad hombres’ and so on, it’s not that he is trying to communicate some picture of reality, he’s softening up the mental landscape for what he intends to do next.
So I think it’s incredibly important for journalists to realize that there’s nothing objective about just repeating the terms that leaders use. That’s a lazy, unreflective position, that it’s objective to use the terms that leaders use, as though those terms themselves were somehow neutral. They are not neutral; they have political and historical context around them.
So journalists have to automatically take a distance from
those words, consider how they are going to use them, whether they will put
quotation marks around them and in particular treat them as a subject of
analysis rather than a substitute for analysis. I’m saying things that good
journalists already understand but I think it’s particularly important that these
things get fought for now.
What’s next for you, for your book? I saw that the lessons were being postered in London.
The wonderful thing about this book is it’s not a book in the normal sense, it’s a journey with various stages and I can’t really see them in front of me. The concept, the writing, the publication, the tour, basically all happened at the same time. It is part of the moment which it’s meant to change so this means that all kinds of things happen.
So there’s going to be a poster display in Brazil, too. The book has been sold in about 30 languages and most of the places where it’s been sold, they are publishing basically right away. They are translating immediately. That’s been really heartening too.
For me, the main difference is now I walk down the street and people want to stop and talk to me, and since one of my lessons is ‘make small talk,’ it’s kind of hard for me not to do, or I walk down the street and people give me random hugs. That’s the main difference for me, that clearly in one form or another, people feel they need it not just intellectually but they need it emotionally.
What’s nice for me is I’m just going to keep talking about this until it’s not useful for me to talk about it anymore.
That’s a good final point to end on, that the book is being translated around the world, because these are not just lessons for Americans.
The book is by far the most American thing I’ve ever done but the conceit of the book is that I am taking lessons from Europe and applying them to America. I’m saying I know something about authoritarian or totalitarian regime changes, so let’s try to apply that because these lessons are general. And so I was trying to intervene in the U.S. at a particular moment, [but] that moment was an international one. And if you cross out a few lines or skip a few sentences, it’s just as applicable in Hungary or Poland or Canada or Korea as it is anywhere else.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.