History does not repeat itself, but it does instruct us. It can warn us about signs which show that the political order is in danger.
This is the opinion of Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University and contributor to the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.
He writes about this in his most recent publication, On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. The book is mainly aimed at an American audience, but its message is universally relevant.
Snyder’s first lesson states “do not obey in advance”. As he puts it, anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy, as was the case in Nazi Germany and communist Czechoslovakia, when Nazi and communist parties won respective elections in 1932 and 1946 but quickly carried out regime change from democracy to tyranny.
The reader is then told to defend institutions. Examples include courts, newspapers, laws and workers’ unions, which might fall one by one unless they are defended from the start. In this regard, Snyder appeals to the reader to be involved in politics. This does not necessarily mean party politics – it could also include membership in organisations, expressing views, and donating money to charities within civil society.
On Tyranny adds that every one of us should take responsibility for the face of the world.
We should not look away when we see signs of hate such as racism and discrimination. Withdrawal from daily life through apathy, renunciation and non-engagement can help empower oppressors.
One may also go a step further and stand out. Snyder explains that the moment one sets an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
On a political level, this is what Winston Churchill did in May 1940, when Great Britain was initially alone in standing up against Hitler’s Nazis. So did many selfless individuals who helped Jews escape persecution from the Nazis.
The book adds that modern tyranny is terror management. It is not the first time that tyrants have profited from ‘sudden disasters’ by eroding civil liberties, checks and balances and normal procedure. But we can always choose not to comply. This is what Hannah Arendt did after the Reichstag fire in Nazi Germany. Indeed, she wrote that “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander”.
Snyder adds that professional ethics are imperative in such circumstances. As he puts it, when political leaders set a negative example, professional commitment to fair practice becomes even more important. In his words, “Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seeks businessmen interested in cheap labour”.
Here, it is imperative to believe in truth and not to reduce everything to spectacle. The reader is warned that one submits to tyranny when one renounces the difference between what one wants to hear and what is actually the case.
“Post-truth is pre-fascism”, and fascists loved slogans that resonated like a new religion.
Snyder also refers to various ways how we can equip ourselves against tyrants in the making. These include reading, investigating, figuring out things for oneself and spending more time with long articles. One may also wish to subscribe to reputable media and to share and retweet statements and writings of those who follow journalistic protocols.
We may thus equip ourselves against perils such as fake identities, fake news, alternative facts and online trolls. We may also avoid internet bait which tries to hook us.
We may also be attentive to the use of language to justify power. For example when adversaries are labelled ‘extremists’ or when governments justify ‘exceptional’ behaviour by removing checks and balances.
Finally, Snyder invites his readers to be patriotic and courageous. As he puts it, patriots are not those who share advisers with oligarchs or who admire foreign dictators. Patriots are those who serve their country and who want it to live up to its ideals.
In turbulent political times we may be tempted to ignore the bigger picture in favour of personal perks or detached gratification. But we may also choose not to succumb to those who imperil democracy. And no one can take away this freedom.