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In the direction of the totalitarian

PRE-FASCISM / Written for society «between Hitler and Stalin», Timothy Snyder's book lies between patriotic obedience and political disobedience.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Author: Timothy Snyder
Publisher: Press Forlag, Norway

On Tyranny: Twenty things we can learn from the twentieth century is based on warnings from the American historian Timothy Snyder, who specializes in the Third Reich and the Holocaust. In 2017, Snyder announced that the US president could attack democracy by provoking a crisis that could provide a reason to set aside power-balancing institutions. The belief that American liberal democracy is the only political alternative to fascism and communism has been virtually sacred in the United States, something not least Hannah Arendt has contributed to. With the experience of the post-Trump community and the certainty that Trump will continue to shape American policy during the US congressional elections in 2022 and the presidential elections in 2024, the reissue is therefore relevant.

In Norway, several critics were positive of Snyder’s democracy education project but more sceptical of what seemed to be his Americanized exaggerations. In 2017, Aftenposten’s reviewer perceived Snyder’s message as «too pessimistic”. But Snyder was right. Trump came as a shock to political America and revealed obvious weaknesses in the political system in the country – but also taboo areas in the debate about American liberalism.

Timothy Snyder
Timothy Snyder

Beware of pre-fascism

The book consists of 127 pages with 20 short chapters, based on advice or exhortations, with headings not unlike well-known American statements such as «Defend institutions» (as opposed to Trump’s attacks on them), and «Be a patriot» (but not as in «America First»), and «Beware the one-party state.» Some of the headings, from a Nordic perspective, may (still) seem difficult to accept the necessity of, such as the advice «Be  wary of paramilitaries» and the call «Be reflective if you must be armed», or the rationale for the advice to «Believe in the truth’ must be clarified. Some of the headlines, such as «Listen for dangerous words», are more problematic, since from a Norwegian perspective they indicate the possible development of a surveillance society.

The changes happen quickly, Snyder points out. It only took one year for the Nazi party in Germany to establish the one-party state in 1933. Trump’s America was very similar. All the most important institutions were threatened. «During the 2016 election campaign, we took a step in the direction of totalitarianism without even realizing it, as we accepted data breaches and privacy violations as normal», writes Snyder. This is based on Arendt’s definition of the totalitarian not as an all-powerful state but without distinction between public and private.

Snyder emphasizes that the characteristics of pre-fascism include changes in the language of power. He uses the philologist Victor Klemperer’s four characteristics from interwar Germany: linguistic transformation or new speech lies as facts, statements that dehumanize the opponent, and the view of the leader (as a god) as a problem solver (The language of the Third Reich, A philologist’s Notebook, 1947).

Snyder is particularly aware of the language of power’s use of «extremism» and «terrorism» since «renouncing freedom in the name of security» is a step on the way to an anti-democratic society. In Norway, moreover, no journalists problematized the fact that PST, referred to «left-wing extremists», as posing the same security risk as terrorism from right-wing extremists and Islamists in the period from 2006 to 2020.

Timothy Snyder
Timothy Snyder (Professor für Geschichte, Yale University), Foto: www.stephan-roehl.de

Politics and ambiguity

Snyder refers to the individual’s judgment as the foundation of democracy and that society comprises «verifiable truths, common perspective and agreement.» Facts or truth are what we can collectively agree on. If nothing is verifiable as true, no one can criticize power and its definition of what is transcendent. He points out the importance of investigative journalism and American media where connection, cause and effect are lacking: «[The] latest news waves over us, but we never get to see the sea.» This can be seen as a continuation of Noam Chomsky’s criticism (Manufacturing Consent, 1988). Still, Snyder does not mention Chomsky by name. He warns against the post-factual society as the beginning of a pre-fascist one: «to arouse people’s emotions before they have time to examine the facts of the matter.» Although he encourages supporting the institutions, he warns against anticipatory obedience and encourages not to have blind faith but to investigate for yourself.

The result is a society without history.

It is impossible not to let the mind wander to Julian Assange’s, Bradley Manning’s and Edward Snowden’s disobedience to the institution – here, the US Department of Defense. Snyder quotes Arendt’s concept of freedom: «We are free only to the extent that we can control how much others know about us and under what kind of circumstances they get to know it.» It corresponds to Snowden’s «Privacy is the right to a free mind.» Snyder’s criticism cannot be isolated to apply only to the Trump state. His On Tyranny is also a critique of Arendt’s sharp distinction between liberalism, communism and fascism. He concludes that the belief in American liberalism has entered into a teleological understanding as «the inevitable» and «the eternal» – with an anti-historical view as a consequence – resulting from a stifled political debate. Basic social criticism has been put on hold. The result is a society without history.

In Norway, too, after 1990, there has been a great deal of trust in the USA and American liberalism. Snyder’s perspective shows the need for a public debate. Perhaps particularly related to foreign policy and defence cooperation?

Marianne Solberg
Marianne Solberg
Regular contributor to our sister publication NY TID in Norway.

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