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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Timothy Snyder

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 10, 2017
Category: History

In November, Him: his election that November came as a surprise read like a surprise. Because it sounded like recent history. The rallies. The racism. The conspiracy theories. Only toward the end do you get it — the year is 1933, the subject is Hitler.

A few weeks later, I was rocked by 20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America, a Facebook post that had 12,000 “likes” and 15,000 “shares” — such a remarkable response it has been expanded and is now a book. [To buy the paperback of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” from Amazon for $5.42, click here. To buy the Kindle edition for $9.99, click here.To buy the 108-minute audiobook, click here.]

What was especially disturbing was the byline on both pieces. Timothy Snyder is Housum Professor of History at Yale, author of “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” which received a dozen awards and has been translated into 33 languages. [To read my review of “Bloodlands,” click here To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

In 2015, Snyder published “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” now available in 24 foreign editions. Never has a subtitle been more accurate — or terrifying. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

I felt a conversation with Timothy Snyder was an urgent priority, so we spoke. He sees the United States in 2017 as an echo of an earlier decade, so we started by talking about Germany…

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Until I read “Bloodlands,” I knew almost nothing about what happened between 1930 and 1945 in Eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union, where Hitler and Stalin killed between 14 to 20 million people. In “Black Earth,” there was a fresh revelation: “Almost all of the Jews killed in the Holocaust lived beyond Germany.” Why were these revelations for me?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: We tend to think about history nationally, so we follow the experiences of German Jews, and once you focus on German national history, it’s hard to see others. I started with Jews and asked: Where were they killed?

JK: Why was the destruction of state institutions the critical factor in mass murder?

TS: Institutions are everything. For Germany to kill Jews, they had to make Jews unconnected to states. In Germany, that was a slow, legal process. So they started elsewhere, in places where for other reasons they destroyed the state.

JK: “Black Earth” suggests that Hitler backed into the Holocaust. He wanted Jews to be sent to Siberia or Madagascar. Why didn’t that happen?

TS: Hitler always wanted a world without Jews. In “Mein Kampf,” he said nature could only be restored by their elimination. He did not know just how this would take place. It was not clear to anyone, even to him, that Germans would shoot millions of Jews face to face. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he gained a practical lesson in how mass murder is done.

JK: For Hitler, failure to conquer the Soviet Union and defeat Britain had to be caused by “enemies.” How did he come to think that and position himself as infallible?

TS: National Socialism fits into the larger Fascist tradition: pay no attention to facts, just follow the leader. Hitler said the Soviet Union would fall in 9 to 12 weeks. When that didn’t happen, he still had to be right, just, as it were, at a higher level. The cause of the defeat had to be the Jews.

JK: In some ways, Germany’s problem in the 1930s was about food shortages. These could have been solved by science — but science was suspect. Goebbels defined the purpose of a war of extermination as “a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a big dinner.” For German citizens, did the Holocaust really come down to this?

TS: It’s not quite that simple, but it’s important to understand that the Germans were living in a material world, and even a country as advanced as Germany had trouble with its food supply. Food was thus a matter of politics. Without a war to colonize Eastern Europe and, in particular, Ukraine for what Hitler called “Lebensraum,” there would have been no Holocaust.

JK: The thesis of “Black Earth” is that the Holocaust is “not only history, but warning.” In “Him” you’re especially scornful of lawyers and judges who submerged their professional ethics “in an understanding of the greater good.” Why those people in particular?

TS: History doesn’t repeat itself. One person is not another. But the rule of law is a fundamental asset — it precedes democracy, it precedes the free market, everything depends on it. America is a very lawyerly society. Germans also cared a great deal about the rule of law. Yet in Germany, lawyers found ways to reverse the normal understanding of law. After that, anything could be done. So it might make sense for us to think about lawyers.

JK: In your Facebook post, you offer suggestions for good citizenship during the Trump presidency. You start with lessons learned from Nazi Germany: “Do not obey in advance. Defend an institution. Recall professional ethics.” Further down, it gets heavier: “Practice corporeal politics… Make new friends and march with them…. 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.” And then this: “Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.” That is terrifying. “Die for freedom” — could it come to that here?

TS: It comes to that all the time. We’re just not used to it, because the exception is America in the last few generations. I don’t mean you should be prepared to throw yourself on the first available fire. I’m saying this: If none of us cares, we’ll all lose everything. Those are lessons from Fascism, Nazism but also Communism in the twentieth century. We have spent the last 25 years forgetting the history that we once thought vital to the preservation of our own institutions, convincing ourselves that our institutions will thrive on their own.

JK: We’ve seen scores of free-lance threats and acts of violence against Muslims. Do you see that as the precursor of an official assault on institutions?

TS: It’s a shot across the bow. Institutions are constantly under attack — they don’t stand up by themselves. What’s new in our country is a president who does not see himself as upholding an institution but as a person whose job is to denigrate institutions. We’re about to find out if all our big American talk about defending freedom is actually true.

JK: As a historian, do you believe that restricting freedom and targeting “enemies” start with an event: the Reichstag fire, for example, or 9/11? If that happens, what’s a useful response?

TS: Hitler used the Reichstag fire to suspend rights and declare a state of emergency that lasted for 12 years. When an event like that happens, It is natural that you experience fear and grief. But you have to understand your feelings can be exploited to undo a political order and resist. The Reichstag fire is a good example of that. A terrible thing, but compared to Nazi Germany….

JK: La Rochefoucauld wrote: “No one can look long at the sun or death.” At the end of 2016, I felt a general lessening of rage, a dull acceptance and dread — and a return to private concerns. Then came the protests. But commitment may wane again.

TS: You can pretend you have a choice. But you don’t have it. What I notice is a new interest in the 1930s among people in their 20s. We told them that history is over, go to work in finance. We were wrong. It’s crucial now how this generation reacts.

JK: Your final chapter addresses the ultimate defenders of decency — “the righteous few.” Who are they?

TS: That small minority who behaved heroically during the holocaust when all was black, when all institutions were destroyed. I worked hard in the Jewish sources to find and understand those rescuers. We tend to think we’re all like that. That’s naïve. If government makes institutions go away, people will behave differently and in ways we now find unthinkable. In some future crisis, no doubt a few people will behave well. But we have no idea who they are now. It’s a mistake to count on being rescued. What we have to do is preserve the political order that we have come to take for granted.


Timothy Snyder on the Reichstag Fire

Timothy Snyder interviewed on NPR