Timothy Snyder | Twentieth Century Lessons on Tyranny (Episode 629)

Timothy Snyder | Twentieth Century Lessons on Tyranny (Episode 629)

Timothy Snyder | Twentieth Century Lessons on Tyranny (Episode 629)

Timothy Snyder (@TimothyDSnyder) is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

“Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” -Timothy Snyder

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Democracy has to be an ongoing activity — not a waiting game for the next election cycle.
  • Understand how fragile a democratic republic can be against the concentrated efforts of would-be tyrants — and that the United States is not immune to their strategies.
  • Take these small actions every day to ensure we’re doing our part to maintain an open and free society.
  • Learn how to consume information critically in a “post-fact” world.
  • Recognize the scary parallels between historic catastrophes and current events.
  • And so much more…


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(Download Transcript Here)

Compared to many young nations that have dabbled in democracy, the United States has been lucky enough to enjoy stability and prosperity envied by the rest of the world for generations. But does this luck make Americans complacent enough to ignore signs of budding tyranny that would be obvious to the less lucky — such as Holocaust survivors who endured the Third Reich and Eastern Europeans who remember life under authoritarian Soviet rule?

Timothy Snyder, Yale University’s Housum Professor of History and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century joins us not so much to scare us awake at what he sees happening in our country today, but to show us what we can do to resist it and avoid being complicit bystanders.

More About This Show

American history is filled with so many lucky breaks it’s no wonder some see it as a sign that the United States is somehow graced by the favor of divine providence. But taking this long run of luck for granted — believing the country immune to the failings of other democratic republics throughout history — is exactly what may be its undoing, according to On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century author and history professor Timothy Snyder.

“There are these moments where we had to have good leadership,” he says. “And damn, were we lucky with Washington, with Lincoln, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Every couple of generations, we had to have a good leader, and by the standards of the time, those were exceptional leaders. Now, the next moment, and we’re unlucky. We have terrifyingly bad leadership…in that sense, it’s the first time we really have been tested.”

While the US is often looked toward as the epitome of a thriving democratic republic and bastion of equality, it’s been an imperfect journey — and not unexcelled by other nations over the course of that journey.

“Women have only been able to vote for a century,” Timothy points out. “African-Americans have been able to vote for half a century. And in the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve actually been moving away from democracy with the more specific gerrymandering, with the voter suppression laws, with Citizens United and the endless money in politics. We’ve been drifting away from democracy rather than moving towards it.”

Timothy says one of his major motivations for writing On Tyranny was to remind us that democracy has to be an activity — not just a waiting game for the next election cycle, but a conscious, ongoing effort. Anything less is tantamount to willful ignorance.

“There are two American impulses,” says Timothy. “The first is: it’s not happening. The second is: if it is happening, nothing like this has ever happened to anyone ever before, ever, therefore no experience is relevant.”

Rather than wilfully ignoring the signs of an eroding democracy, we can read accounts from those who have endured the effects of tyranny — whether it’s Victor Klemperer’s diaries from Nazi Germany or Vaclav Havel’s essays about life in communist Czechoslovakia. In so doing, we might be shocked to discover that the entrenchment of tyrannical regimes often come as a surprise to the populations they oppress — and follow patterns we might find eerily familiar if we pay attention to what’s going on right here at home.

Timothy warns us that the range of possible outcomes in our current political climate is a lot broader than Americans usually consider. While the majority may assume our democratic republic has gone through worse and has an intrinsic tendency to correct itself, he reminds us that this is not the lesson that world history has taught us. “We have people in the executive branch now who are indifferent and hostile, in fact, to democracy and the rule of law,” he says. “So our imagination may only extend to various forms of democracy, but reality extends much further than that.”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm to learn more about why so many of our Eastern European and Russian friends accurately called the election results long before the American press, the meaning of corporeal politics, pushing back against normalization of abhorrence and giving advance consent to would-be tyrants, the tools we can use to oppose oppression, how we can critically dissect miniscule facts from mountains of misinformation (without getting burned out and just giving up), why deciding to do nothing is still a choice, what Timothy means when he says we must “take responsibility for the face of the world,” how we can stand up for the marginalized, the power of language in resistance, how people are manipulated into supporting policies that make their lives worse, and — most important — what we as individuals can do to stay motivated against apathy and safeguard our society from those who would deprive us of the right to do so.


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