[artinfo] Timothy Snyder: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Patrice Riemens patrice at xs4all.nl
Mon Nov 28 10:18:03 CET 2016

Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

by Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History Yale University

     "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield
to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might
learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are
twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances
of today
     1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is
freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a
more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without
being asked. You've already done this, haven't you? Stop. Anticipatory
obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates

     2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court
or a newspaper. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you are making
them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don't protect
themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the

     3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a
negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much
more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers,
and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

     4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look
out for the expansive use of "terrorism" and "extremism." Be alive
to the fatal notions of "exception" and "emergency." Be angry about
the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

     5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack
comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or
plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag
fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power,
the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the
Hitlerian book. Don't fall for it.

     6. Be kind to our language. 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. (Don't use the internet before
bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to
read? Perhaps "The Power of the Powerless" by Václav Havel, 1984 by
George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czes½aw Milosz, The Rebel by Albert
Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is
True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

     7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to
follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But
without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an
example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

     8. 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.

     9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with
long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to
print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to
harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign
propaganda pushes.

     10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in
your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put
your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends
and march with them.

     11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is
a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary
social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not
trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the
psychological landscape of your daily life.

     12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the
swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get
used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do

     13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states
were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make
political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state
elections while you can.

     14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and
set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that
is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

     15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know
about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember
that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the
internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person.
For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble.
     Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on
which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

     16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships
abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an
element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution
by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

     17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who
have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and
marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh.
When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military
intermingle, the game is over.

     18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in
public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the
past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing
irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this
means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about
training in professional ethics.)

     19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die
for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

     20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example
of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it."

     Timothy Snyder
     Housum Professor of History
     Yale University
     Author: "Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning"

(original to:

More information about the Artinfo mailing list