Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century



Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale and author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, has written a remarkable short book on tyranny. The book is remarkable in part for its very premise: that the United States is at risk of backsliding (my take on these issues can be found in joint work with Robert Kaufman; Mickey, Levitsky and Way at Foreign Affairs have the most chilling analysis). On Tyranny is written to citizens of a democratic country under stress, and puts a lot of the onus on being alert and standing up to democratic erosion. The first lesson, for example, is “do not obey in advance,” noting how Austrians who were not Nazis acquiesced to the Anschluss.

Yet the characterizations of consolidated authoritarian rule are the backdrop for the lessons, and as a result there is plenty in the book that is of relevance to understanding North Korea as well. Narratives, and resistance to them, play an important role in Snyder’s account. Victor Klemperer, for example, noticed “how Hitler’s language rejected legitimate opposition: the people always meant some people and not others…., encounters were always struggles…and any attempt to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader…” (Lesson 9: Be kind to our language). Sound familiar?

Snyder also notes how “modern tyranny is terror management,” sustained by a world of endless threats justifying emergency measures (Lesson 18: Be calm when the unthinkable arrives). Perhaps the most damning indictment comes in Lesson 10: Believe in truth. Snyder argues that “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.” Control of information—and therefore the cocoon of an alternative reality—has long been the foundation of the Kim dynasty.

Can Snyder’s lessons be read in reverse, not as a way to halt the slide into semi-democratic rule but to undermine consolidated authoritarian rule? Some of the lessons are intriguing in this regard, starting with the importance of civil society. Several of the lessons stress the importance of forging bonds and norms that are beyond the reach of the state (Lesson 14: Establish a private life; Lesson 12: Make eye contact and small talk). Lesson 5 is “Remember professional ethics”: “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 paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.”

Again and again, though, the book returns to the moral imperative of clear thinking, and in this regard the outside community is important. Commitment to truth is important at home because if we live in a world of fake news, why is American propaganda any different than Russian, Chinese or North Korean? Lesson 11 is simply “Investigate” and Lesson 16 is “Learn from peers in other countries.” Outsiders can assist in both of these lessons by providing information; see my engagement with the work of Jieun Baek in this regard (See here and here).

In the end, sadly, the hardest lesson of all are the last two: be a patriot, by redefining the meaning of the term, and be as courageous as you can. My modest proposal: translate On Tyranny into Korean and send it North.

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