On Tyranny

On Tyranny Book Cover On Tyranny
Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books

Timely.  All democracies ultimately end in tyranny. Here is a highlight from the book:

It is not patriotic to share an adviser with Russian oligarchs. It is not patriotic to solicit foreign policy advice from someone who owns shares in a Russian energy company. It is not patriotic to read a foreign policy speech written by someone on the payroll of a Russian energy company. It is not patriotic to appoint a national security adviser who has taken money from a Russian propaganda organ. It is not patriotic to appoint as secretary of state an oilman with Russian financial interests who is the director of a Russian-American energy company and has received the “Order of Friendship” from Putin.

They contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire. As they knew, Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.

They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.

The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall.

Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them. Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people.

Fascists ruled for a decade or two, leaving behind an intact intellectual legacy that grows more relevant by the day. Communists ruled for longer, for nearly seven decades in the Soviet Union, and more than four decades in much of eastern Europe. They proposed rule by a disciplined party elite with a monopoly on reason that would guide society toward a certain future according to supposedly fixed laws of history.

Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.

Anticipatory obedience. Because enough people in both cases voluntarily extended their services to the new leaders, Nazis and communists alike realized that they could move quickly toward a full regime change.

The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible.

In November 1938, following the Austrian example of March, German Nazis organized the national pogrom known as Kristallnacht.

At the very beginning, anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation.

Stanley Milgram,

People whom they did not know, and against whom they had no grievance, seemed to be suffering greatly—pounding the glass and complaining of heart pain. Even so, most subjects followed Milgram’s instructions and continued to apply (what they thought were) ever greater shocks until the victims appeared to

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. “I found so much obedience,” Milgram remembered, “that I hardly saw the need for taking the experiment to Germany.”

On February 2, 1933, for example, a leading newspaper for German Jews published an editorial expressing this mislaid trust: We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check…and they clearly do not want to go down that road.

The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.

It took less than a year for the new Nazi order to consolidate.

Beware the one-party state.

So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections.

“eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,”

But the sense of the saying was entirely different: that human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.

Some of the Germans who voted for the Nazi Party in 1932 no doubt understood that this might be the last meaningfully free election for some time, but most did not.

Any election can be the last

The Russian oligarchy established after the 1990 elections continues to function, and promotes a foreign policy designed to destroy democracy elsewhere.

We certainly face, as did the ancient Greeks, the problem of oligarchy—ever more threatening as globalization increases differences in wealth. 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.

Will we in retrospect see the elections of 2016 much as Russians see the elections of 1990, or Czechs the elections of 1946, or Germans the elections of 1932?

We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.

The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.

You might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such symbols include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them.

In the Europe of the 1930s and ’40s, some people chose to wear swastikas, and then others had to wear yellow stars.

When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important.

Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.

Lawyers were vastly overrepresented among the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, the special task forces who carried out the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, Polish elites, communists, the handicapped, and others.

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.

Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as “just following orders.”

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.

For just this reason, people and parties who wish to undermine democracy and the rule of law create and fund violent organizations that involve themselves in politics.

The SS began as an organization outside the law, became an organization that transcended the law, and ended up as an organization that undid the law. Because the American federal government uses mercenaries in warfare and American state governments pay corporations to run prisons, the use of violence in the United States is already highly privatized.

As a candidate, the president ordered a private security detail to clear opponents from rallies, but also encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions.

fact, the Holocaust began not in the death facilities, but over shooting pits in eastern Europe.

Not the SS commanders alone, but essentially all of the thousands of men who served under their command were murderers.

They found themselves in an unknown land, they had their orders, and they did not want to look weak.

But without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible.

Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

Well before the Second World War, numerous European states had abandoned democracy for some form of right-wing authoritarianism.

In summer 1939 the Soviet Union allied with Nazi Germany and the Red Army joined the Wehrmacht in the invasion of Poland.

But had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940, there would have been no such war to fight.

Today what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.

Teresa Prekerowa

She stood out.

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 people always meant some people and not others (the president uses the word in this way), encounters were always struggles (the president says winning), and any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader (or, as the president puts it, libel).

Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

In 1984, the language of visual media is highly constrained, to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.

When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

Some of the political and historical texts that inform the arguments made here are “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (1946); The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer (1947); The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1951); The Rebel by Albert Camus (1951); The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953); “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel (1978); “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” by Leszek Kołakowski (1978); The Uses of Adversity by Timothy Garton Ash (1989); The Burden of Responsibility by Tony Judt (1998); Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning (1992); and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (2014).

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.

This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual—and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.

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.

As Klemperer noted, the fascist style depends upon “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.

The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. The president’s campaign involved the promises of cutting taxes for everyone, eliminating the national debt, and increasing spending on both social policy and national defense.

Accepting untruth of this radical kind requires a blatant abandonment of reason.

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.” When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience.

Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant.

“post-truth,” and we tend to think that its scorn of everyday facts and its construction of alternative realities is something new or postmodern. Yet there is little here that George Orwell did not capture seven decades ago in his notion of “doublethink.” In its philosophy, post-truth restores precisely the fascist attitude to truth—and that is why nothing in our own world would startle Klemperer or Ionesco. Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. Post-truth is pre-fascism.

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.

Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself.

Hannah Arendt

“Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality.” The part about computers is no longer true.

We need print journalists so that stories can develop on the page and in our minds.

Before you deride the “mainstream media,” note that it is no longer the mainstream.

We find it natural that we pay for a plumber or a mechanic, but demand our news for free.

We get what we pay for.

Since in the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears some private responsibility for the public’s sense of truth.

Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside.

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.

If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.

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.

When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order.

But one element of freedom is the choice of associates, and one defense of freedom is the activity of groups to sustain their members.

Make sure you and your family have passports.

To Ukrainians, Americans seemed comically slow to react to the obvious threats of cyberwar and fake news.

Russia deployed many of the same techniques against Ukraine that it later used against the United States—while invading Ukraine.

History, which for a time seemed to be running from west to east, now seems to be moving from east to west. Everything that happens here seems to happen there first.

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.

Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.

People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.

There is no doctrine called extremism. When tyrants speak of extremists, they just mean people who are not in the mainstream—as the tyrants themselves are defining that mainstream at that particular moment.

Modern authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, use laws on extremism to punish those who criticize their policies. In this way the notion of extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny.

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 Reichstag fire was the moment when Hitler’s government, which came to power mainly through democratic means, became the menacingly permanent Nazi regime.

this spectacular act of terror initiated the politics of emergency.

The next day a decree suspended the basic rights of all German citizens, allowing them to be “preventively detained” by the police.

On March 23 the new parliament passed an “enabling act,” which allowed Hitler to rule by decree. Germany then remained in a state of emergency for the next twelve years, until the end of the Second World War. Hitler had used an act of terror, an event of limited inherent significance, to institute a regime of terror that killed millions of people and changed the world.

Putin declared a war of revenge against Russia’s Muslim population in Chechnya, promising to pursue the supposed perpetrators and “rub them out in the shithouse.”

Putin exploited the occasion to seize control of private television.

Putin did away with the position of elected regional governors. Thus Putin’s rise to power and his elimination of two major institutions—private television and elected regional governorships—were enabled by the management of real, fake, and questionable terrorism.

In its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia transformed units of its own regular army into a terrorist force, removing insignia from uniforms and denying all responsibility for the dreadful suffering they inflicted.

In April 2015, Russian hackers took over the transmission of a French television station, pretended to be ISIS, and then broadcast material designed to terrorize France.

The aim was presumably to drive voters to the Far-Right National Front, a party financially supported by Russia.

When the American president and his national security adviser speak of fighting terrorism alongside Russia, what they are proposing to the American people is terror management: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy. The Russian recap of the first telephone call between the president and Vladimir Putin is telling: The two men “shared the opinion that it is necessary to join forces against the common enemy number one: international terrorism and extremism.” For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.

It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes, especially when American working families do pay. It is not patriotic to ask those working, taxpaying American families to finance one’s own presidential campaign, and then to spend their contributions in one’s own companies. It is not patriotic to admire foreign dictators.

It is not patriotic to call upon Russia to intervene in an American presidential election.

It is not patriotic to share an adviser with Russian oligarchs. It is not patriotic to solicit foreign policy advice from someone who owns shares in a Russian energy company. It is not patriotic to read a foreign policy speech written by someone on the payroll of a Russian energy company. It is not patriotic to appoint a national security adviser who has taken money from a Russian propaganda organ. It is not patriotic to appoint as secretary of state an oilman with Russian financial interests who is the director of a Russian-American energy company and has received the “Order of Friendship” from Putin.

The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best.

nationalism “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.”

A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.

nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop 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.

allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy.

The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma. So long as there was a contest between communist and capitalist systems, and so long as the memory of fascism and Nazism was alive, Americans had to pay some attention to history and preserve the concepts that allowed them to imagine alternative futures.

What appeared to be critical analysis often assumed that the status quo could not actually change, and thereby indirectly reinforced it.

The whole notion of disruption is adolescent: It assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adults will come and clean it up. But there are no adults. We own this mess.

The second antihistorical way of considering the past is the politics of eternity. Like the politics of inevitability, the politics of eternity performs a masquerade of history, though a different one. It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.

Brexit, The move to separate from the EU is not a step backward onto firm ground, but a leap into the unknown.

The National Front in France urges voters to reject

In his 2016 campaign, the American president used the slogan “America First,” which is the name of a committee that sought to prevent the United States from opposing Nazi Germany. The president’s strategic adviser promises policies that will be “as exciting as the 1930s.” When exactly was the “again” in the president’s slogan “Make America great again”? Hint: It is the same “again” that we find in “Never again.”

In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures.

The danger we now face is of a passage from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naive and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments.

History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.

It must be hoped that they could, instead, become a historical generation, rejecting the traps of inevitability and eternity that older generations have laid before them. One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. This is not the end, but a beginning.