On the Lessons and Experience of History
On November 15th, one week after the results of the 2016 US presidential election were known to all, Timothy Snyder, a distinguished historian of Modern Europe, took to his Facebook page where he formulated a series of steps he urged readers to take in response to what he clearly deemed an emerging threat to the future of American democracy. Snyder's message, which captured the sense of urgency and foreboding that was palpable across large swaths of the land, instantly went viral. In a preface to comments informed by deep knowledge of the totalitarian regimes that held Europe in their grip in the decades following World War I, Snyder wrote:
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
The commentary that followed was surely jarring to the countless online readers who came upon it in subsequent weeks. Although no doubt aware of the stark polarization that has riven the American electorate in recent decades, pitting not just Left and Right, but also entire regions of the country against one another, Snyder's readers were not likely to have given much prior thought to how one goes about surviving and resisting political tyranny of the sort his post indicted may well be upon us.
Some readers may have found Snyder's call to action unnecessarily alarmist, reasoning that it was best just to wait and see what the future held. For many, though, there was every indication that we were headed into uncharted and portentous political terrain. The brisk and broad dissemination of Snyder's post suggests it was a resounding wake-up call that shook one of our polity's core beliefs: that a centuries-long experience of flawed, but nonetheless continuous democracy would never fall prey to [End Page 175] the kinds of despotism that have asserted themselves at various moments in time in other parts of the world. But as Snyder has shown in a body of scholarship that has altered our understanding of twentieth-century Europe, rule by consent is far from a given in Western modernity, much less in the whole of human history; under the right circumstances, Snyder warns, the tyranny that plagued the European continent in the interwar and war years can flourish anywhere, at any time.
In his paradigm-altering study Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), Snyder examined the policies of state-sanctioned mass murder that efficiently delivered 14 million human beings to certain death in that narrow window of opportunity which two dictatorships, one of the Left and one of the Right, opened in Central and Eastern Europe between 1930 and 1945. Snyder's study charts the demise of fragile interwar democracies and the commandeering of a would-be egalitarian society-in-the-making, showing how each succumbed to the campaigns of domestic political terror and turbocharged imperial aggression that Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler waged in this period, across a zone of mass destruction stretching from Berlin to Moscow. Both used similarly ruthless means to simply annihilate populations they saw as either obstructing the historical imperatives that the one was intent on fulfilling, or standing in the way of the racist utopia that the other was bent on creating. Despite stark differences in the ideologies that propelled their projects, there is a sorry commonality in the staggering amount of carnage these two despots unleashed, the documentary record of which was closely held by the powers that ruled this region for decades following World War II. The recent resurgence of far-right white nationalist and authoritarian movements, not just in the US, but across the de-industrializing West, has prompted Snyder and other historians schooled in the tyrannies of old to apprise the contemporary world...