Tim Snyder: "It Turns Out People Really Like Democracy"Historians in the News
tags: democracy, fascism, authoritarianism, Tim Snyder
Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author of books about the 20th-century history of central Europe, including Bloodlands, which examined the devastating consequence of Hitler and Stalin’s simultaneous reign of terror over civilian populations, and won the 2013 Hannah Arendt prize for political thought. In 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, Snyder wrote a short book, On Tyranny, which provided 20 brief lessons – “Defend Institutions”, “Remember Professional Ethics”, “Read Books” – from the 20th century that might help readers protect democracy against dictatorship. It topped the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction in 2017. A new edition of the book, with illustrations by the German-American Nora Krug, whose graphic memoir Belonging confronted Germany’s Nazi past, has just been published.
What prompted you to want to make this graphic version of On Tyranny?
It came out originally in this extremely simple, accessible form. I always had the idea that it could take a different form, but that only became concrete once I read Nora Krug’s Belonging. I cold-called her and said: “Could you please do this?” Part of it was also to renew it. I changed the text a little bit, removed some of the stuff that was specific to 2016 and added some lines that recall what happened in 2020.
You wrote the original in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Was it intended as a call to arms for yourself as well as to others?
Yes, it was like something snapped in me where I thought we should all do the things that we can. In writing the book I was putting myself out there, so it was something I had to live by. I’m glad I did that. As a writer, you have to make yourself vulnerable sometimes.
Looking back, it seemed important to say that being outraged on social media about Trump probably wasn’t going to be enough?
Exactly. I think the lesson that maybe people reacted to the most is number 12: “make eye contact and talk to people” in the corporeal world. And then number 13, which was to actively get involved in politics, to get our physical bodies into unfamiliar situations. The book is a frontal attack on that idea that it is never enough to accept the world as it is and just comment on it.
One of the things that the book is alarmed by is a lack of historical literacy. The fact that terms such as “America first” or, in the UK, “enemies of the people” could be employed with so few alarm bells ringing among people about their history in fascism. Do you still see that kind of illiteracy even in some of your students?
History has been seriously devalued in the US, I would say, since 1989 and that very unfortunate idea [“the end of history”] that history was now over. “America first” and “enemies of the people” are words that are consciously applied by people who wish to destroy democracy. If people don’t know how those words have been applied in the past, then that is dangerous. Part of the backwash of the Trump coup attempt is all of these laws in various states are designed to make history uncontroversial – which, let’s be clear, means: uncontroversial for white people.
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