Yale historian shares ‘sobering’ analysis of the past, and an action plan for the present, in new book

“History does not repeat itself, but it does instruct.” With those words Yale historian Timothy Snyder introduced readers to his new book, “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century.”
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(Illustration by Michael Helfenbein)

“History does not repeat itself, but it does instruct.” With those words Yale historian Timothy Snyder introduced readers to his new book, “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century.”

Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History who specializes in Central and Eastern European history, originally wrote the 20 lessons in the book as a post on Facebook to make himself feel like he was “being useful” and to “get the sense of crushing despair off of [his] chest” following the election of Donald Trump.

The post was shared over 17,000 times on Facebook and has been read by millions of people worldwide — which, Snyder says, is precisely the reason that he chose Facebook as the medium. “I didn’t claim copyright over it, and as a result numerous outlets picked it up. Several million people from a wide variety of backgrounds viewed it,” not just those who read national newspapers for which he frequently contributes articles. “I was glad about that,” he says.

Snyder notes that if he had published the 20 lessons on Facebook today, much of the media would likely endorse them. He wrote the post on Nov. 15, at a time when many people “were still in the mode of thinking that maybe this presidency would turn out to be normal” or, as the children in Snyder’s daughter’s nursery school said, “he’ll be nicer now.”

Snyder has focused his research on the darker chapters of European history — the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s — and has examined how republics collapse, how authoritarian regimes emerge, and the roots of political atrocities.

Those are Snyder’s “starting points” when he looks at what is happening in American politics today, he says.

“Because I’m American, I am able to look at what is happening in the American government from a broader range of viewpoints, which comes from what I research and what I see in my day-to-day life.” It is based on those two viewpoints — that of a historian and as an American — that he chose to write a book on America 20 lessons for the 20th century, he says.

“You have to have some deeper anchoring which allows you to declare to yourself that [what is happening with the new presidency] is not normal,” says Snyder, “and that instead of taking a wait-and-see approach, it is important to take action, even in a small way, every day.”

The widely quoted declaration that history came to an end in 1989 when the communist regimes were ousted in Eastern Europe and the Cold War stopped has been harmful to the American people, says Snyder, because it has allowed Americans to “cut our links with influential people” — people like Václav Havel, a Czech writer and dissident who served as the last president of Czechoslovakia and then as the first president of the Czech Republic after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, “who thought deeply about communism or what he called post-totalitarianism.”

One of the aims of his book is to restore the circulation of those ideas and to recall Havel and other important figures, says Snyder. “Part of not feeling alone is realizing that other people in the past have faced similar predicaments, and part of thinking for yourself is learning how others have thought for themselves.”

The main slogan associated with Havel’s name is the idea of living in truth, notes Snyder. Havel was among a number of other anti-communist dissidents in the 1970s who emphasized the importance of truth.

“Without truth there is no way for us to trust one another, and without trust it is very hard to believe in the rule of law or the fairness of the system,” he says. “We are starting to experience that with cyberwars and with fake news. America in 2016 became much more like historical and contemporary places in Eastern Europe, where people don’t really trust things such as journalistic authority, so the seemingly naïve idea that you have to care about truth turns out to be fundamental for preserving a system like ours.”

Snyder says that in many ways the American way of life already mirrors those in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

Historian Timothy Snyder's latest book examines how regime changes have worked in the last 80 years and advises readers to learn from the experience of those Europeans who witnessed democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the 20th century.
Historian Timothy Snyder’s latest book examines how regime changes have worked in the last 80 years and advises readers to learn from the experience of those Europeans who witnessed democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the 20th century.

“There has been a general drift towards visual knowledge and away from books and newspapers,” notes Snyder, which is not unlike the worlds described by Orwell and Bradbury where books were illegal and “what’s worse, not even particularly desired by most people.”

The other Orwellian similarity is the concept of alternative facts, says Snyder. “We have a presidential administration which openly says that they will not be constrained by truth, but will instead provide the American people with alternative facts. That is obviously Orwellian. How far we slip towards some kind of Dystopia depends, of course, on our government, but it also depends on ourselves. Whether it’s Havel or Orwell, everyone who is describing authoritarianism is talking about some kind of cycle where the people are also taking part.”

In the epilogue to his book, Snyder quoted from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” a work he says he reads regularly, and one that resonated with him after the election when he thought about his students.

“I like the famous line about the time being ‘out of joint’ because it seemed to be for us in general, but for young people in particular, a deep problem that has to do with how we feel about or how we experience time. Young people have been told that the world was moving in a positive direction, and in the future they would only see more globalization, prosperity, and enlightenment. If you believe that, and then you’re shocked — as many of our students of course were — by something like Trump’s election, it’s very easy to lose faith and to slip from a naïve view to an overly cynical one. So with this line from ‘Hamlet’:

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Nay, come, let’s go together.

“I was trying to describe to the students their situation, which is that they have to feel the time is out of joint, but also I was trying to get across to them that they were born to set it right. It is really up to them — not that people of other generations don’t have to participate — but I have this very strong intuition that it’s going be people in their 20s who end up being the decisive voices of change for our country.

“And if they just go from thinking ‘everything had to be good’ to ‘we give up; everything has to be bad,’ then I actually do think the Republic is finished. If they decide that perhaps they were a bit misled but decide to try to make history in a way that’s their own, then I think we are probably going to be all right.”

The Yale historian, who conveys a sense of urgency in the book by advising readers to “make sure you and your family have passports,” says that there is a timeline — based on historical examples — for protecting the American democracy.

“The transition from the Weimar Republic to the Hitler Regime took one year,” explains Snyder. “In contemporary times, the transition from Vladimir Putin coming into office in 1999 to a fairly established regime is about three years. The democratically elected Polish government took about a year to dismantle the judiciaries so there were no longer checks and balances. Hungary by way of legal changes took about two years to effectively dismantle its constitution and create conditions where the government can rule forever.”

The important point is that there is a timeline, notes Snyder. “You can’t be deluded. You have to accept that a process is underway and in that process identify what you going to do to prevent it.”

Snyder uses the analogy of a road race to reinforce the need for people to take action.

“Whether we like it or not, we’ve signed up for a race, and we have a choice. We can just stand at the starting line if we want to, but then we will get trampled by people who are actually running the race. There is a finish line for the new presidential administration out there. It may be a year or two or six months, but it’s out there, and if we just stand there and watch them break through the tape, we will get crushed. I would say we get to go home then, but we don’t because there won’t be any home left.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,