Winston Churchill once famously declared: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Underpinned by the rule of law and the popular will, democracy is the only way we can prevent the arbitrary exercise of tyrannical power: suppression of free speech; curtailment or abolition of civil liberties; laws passed by decree without public debate or popular approval; arrest and imprisonment without trial; torture and murder by unchecked agencies of the government; and theft, extortion and embezzlement by politicians in power, who inevitably turn into kleptocrats when democracy is destroyed.
Yet democracy is a fragile creation. After a period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when constitutional democracy spread to many countries not just in Europe but across the globe, and Francis Fukuyama declared that history had come to an end, the tide seems to have turned. Democracies are now being destroyed in Russia, Hungary, Turkey and Poland, as strongmen such as Putin, Orban, Erdoğan and Kaczyński dismantle civil liberties, silence critical voices and suppress independent institutions. What makes it worse is that such would-be dictators enjoy popular support for what they are doing. A similar process may well be under way with the advent of the Trump regime in the United States.
How we defend our most fundamental freedoms has once again become a matter of great urgency. The historian Timothy Snyder has produced this short book as one response. History, and especially the history of the 20th century, has lessons for us all, he contends. A specialist on east-central Europe, Snyder made his name with a book, Bloodlands, that argued, less than persuasively, for an equivalence of Stalin’s purges with the Nazi Holocaust. More recently, he has declared in Black Earth that the Holocaust was not about the implementation of paranoid antisemitism but an attempt to gain control of more agricultural land as an alternative to using science to improve the natural environment. His argument did not find many supporters. What does he say in his latest tract?
On Tyranny is less an anatomy of tyranny itself than an essay about how we might stop it from happening. “Do not obey in advance,” he says. “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” After Hitler came to power, many if not most Germans voluntarily offered their obedience to his regime. We should heed this warning and refuse to do so ourselves. And certainly, the millions of state servants who ran Germany did indeed rush to join the Nazi party to save their jobs. Later on, few opposed the growing antisemitism of the regime or its genocidal outcome. But Snyder forgets the degree of coercion to which they were subjected. It was no easy thing to risk your job when over a third of the workforce was unemployed, as it was in 1933. Hundreds of thousands of Nazi stormtroopers were roaming the streets beating up and killing the Social Democrats and Communists who were the regime’s main opponents. Up to 200,000 people, overwhelmingly those on the political left, were thrown into concentration camps and brutally mistreated. The great mass of Germans did not obey in advance: they obeyed when tyranny had already set up its tent.
In Czechoslovakia in 1946, to take another example offered by Snyder, free elections resulted in 38% of the vote going to the Communists (by an interesting coincidence, roughly the same as the popular vote for the Nazis in 1932); within the next three years, democratic institutions were annihilated as people followed their drive to monopolise power. Here too, however, the driving force was the occupying Red Army, and even in other east-central European states such as Romania, Poland or East Germany, where support for communism was far weaker, the same thing happened: Stalinism came to power at the end of a Red Army bayonet. It’s not always easy to refuse to obey in such circumstances, and what we really need is to work out how to resist the imposition of a dictatorship when it’s not backed by massive violence against its opponents but claims to be establishing itself with popular consent and the validation of the law.
Snyder’s second lesson is to “defend institutions”, by which he means the courts, the constitution, the press, the trade unions, the parliament and so on. The example he gives, however, illustrates a different point: he shows German Jews underestimating the Nazis and assuming Hitler would be controlled by his conservative coalition partners, calm down and become more moderate once he got into power. We do not need the example of Nazi Germany to demonstrate the fallacy of these beliefs: Trump has already shown how mistaken they are in the first few weeks of his presidency. It is not at all clear, though, that people actually have underestimated Trump. He clearly is impulsive, ignorant about foreign policy and inconsistent in many of his statements – unlike Hitler, who arrived with clear purposes at home and abroad, and prepared everything he said carefully beforehand. The mistake some have made is to assume that Trump would be curbed by more moderate advisers. Even if he does submit to control, his choice of advisers has steered clear of moderation.
Snyder’s third lesson is “beware the one-party state”. As he rightly remarks, this is in a way unnecessary, because most people will realise that the suppression of oppositional political parties is a glaringly obvious step on the way to dictatorship. Here again, however, it is important not to ignore the element of coercion in this process. In Germany in 1933, most oppositional parties were suppressed by force or the threat of force; even the large Catholic Centre party was threatened with violence as well as bribed with false promises of Nazi respect for the institutions it held dear. And sometimes the preservation of a multi-party system can mask the creation of a dictatorship: Communist-run East Germany, for example, had a multiplicity of political parties right up to the end, including its own version of the Christian Democrats. But these parties were all kept rigidly in line, used by the regime as “transmission belts” for the communication of its ideology to areas of society – active Christians, former Nazis and so on – who might otherwise be impervious to it.
Snyder’s fourth lesson is “take responsibility for the face of the world” – in other words, be sceptical about propaganda. This lesson is essentially the same as various others he suggests: “be kind to our language”, “believe in truth”, “investigate”, “listen for dangerous words”. And indeed when Trump brands any criticism as “fake news” and proclaims blatant untruths as facts, we have entered the era of “post-truth” and “alternative facts”. No wonder sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have surged in the US. We certainly need to be persistent and unyielding in nailing politicians’ lies, though it is doubtful whether Snyder’s recommendation, which involves reading that old authoritarian Fyodor Dostoevsky’s double-decker novel The Brothers Karamazov, will be of much use.
Snyder also tells us that we can survive tyranny by establishing a private life and staying calm when the unthinkable arrives.
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