Historian Timothy Snyder: ‘It turns out that people really like democracy’ – The Guardian
The author of On Tyranny on the lack of historical literacy, how local news has been replaced by Facebook, and why novels matter to him
Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author of books about the 20th-century history of central Europe, including Bloodlands, which examined the devastating consequence of Hitler and Stalin’s simultaneous reign of terror over civilian populations, and won the 2013 Hannah Arendt prize for political thought. In 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, Snyder wrote a short book, On Tyranny, which provided 20 brief lessons – “Defend Institutions”, “Remember Professional Ethics”, “Read Books” – from the 20th century that might help readers protect democracy against dictatorship. It topped the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction in 2017. A new edition of the book, with illustrations by the German-American Nora Krug, whose graphic memoir Belonging confronted Germany’s Nazi past, has just been published.
What prompted you to want to make this graphic version of On Tyranny?
It came out originally in this extremely simple, accessible form. I always had the idea that it could take a different form, but that only became concrete once I read Nora Krug’s Belonging. I cold-called her and said: “Could you please do this?” Part of it was also to renew it. I changed the text a little bit, removed some of the stuff that was specific to 2016 and added some lines that recall what happened in 2020.
You wrote the original in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Was it intended as a call to arms for yourself as well as to others?
Yes, it was like something snapped in me where I thought we should all do the things that we can. In writing the book I was putting myself out there, so it was something I had to live by. I’m glad I did that. As a writer, you have to make yourself vulnerable sometimes.
Looking back, it seemed important to say that being outraged on social media about Trump probably wasn’t going to be enough?
Exactly. I think the lesson that maybe people reacted to the most is number 12: “make eye contact and talk to people” in the corporeal world. And then number 13, which was to actively get involved in politics, to get our physical bodies into unfamiliar situations. The book is a frontal attack on that idea that it is never enough to accept the world as it is and just comment on it.
One of the things that the book is alarmed by is a lack of historical literacy. The fact that terms such as “America first” or, in the UK, “enemies of the people” could be employed with so few alarm bells ringing among people about their history in fascism. Do you still see that kind of illiteracy even in some of your students?
History has been seriously devalued in the US, I would say, since 1989 and that very unfortunate idea [“the end of history”] that history was now over. “America first” and “enemies of the people” are words that are consciously applied by people who wish to destroy democracy. If people don’t know how those words have been applied in the past, then that is dangerous. Part of the backwash of the Trump coup attempt is all of these laws in various states are designed to make history uncontroversial – which, let’s be clear, means: uncontroversial for white people.
At the time you wrote the book, people were being criticised for making comparisons with what was happening in 2016 and the 1930s. Did you feel any trepidation about doing that?
I don’t remember having that feeling. When people refuse to make comparisons with events that have happened before, what they are really saying is: “I don’t want to look at either the past or the present.”
You grew up in Dayton, Ohio. How much did that firsthand knowledge of the midwest and those declining industrial heartlands inform your understanding of the forces that produced Trump?
It certainly affected it. In 2016, I spent some time going door to door there and talking to people about the forthcoming presidential election. That helped me to see how important social media was. I asked one guy a question and he went back and checked Facebook before answering. Where my parents are from and still live had become entirely Trumpland.
The demise of local news is not mentioned often enough in these kind of conversations…
I think a lack of local news may be the single greatest source of the problem. Most American counties are now news deserts; they have no reporters covering local politicians at all. People have no way of being active citizens; they go on reading but the stuff they read drives them upwards to national politics, into obsession and conspiracy. They bring the trust they had for local news to Facebook.
One of your antidotes to that is “read books”; who have been the writers that you’ve turned to most in the past five years?
I always go back to Roger Penrose, the physicist. He is important to me because he has a view about unpredictability in quantum mechanics, which has implications for politics. And then some of the people who confronted these questions in the last century in different ways: Hannah Arendt, Václav Havel, Victor Klemperer. In addition to that, it’s really important to me to read novels, because they prepare you for scenes in the real world you haven’t yet confronted. I’ve just started rereading Les Liaisons Dangerouses. But I also get excited when I hear Julian Barnes has a new novel out.
It seems to me that the opposite of tyranny is not freedom, but something more active: creativity, engagement. Do you think artists and writers have lately stepped up to that challenge?
I think it’s true that freedom cannot be the opposite of anything. But I’m not going to criticise artists and writers – the main problem is often the way that their work has trouble getting viewed. One of our big problems at the moment is that we find it hard to imagine a viable future. Art and literature enable us to flex those imaginative muscles.
Where do you place your optimism?
I prefer hope to optimism. One thing is, it turns out that people really like democracy. It has been heartening to see that so many people care enough about democracy to take personal risks to defend it.
On Tyranny Graphic Edition by Timothy Snyder, illustrated by Nora Krug, is published by Vintage (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply