In his opening remarks about On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century to a crowd of over 400 students, faculty, and members of the public gathered in Kane Hall on April 26, Richard C. Levin Yale University Professor of History Timothy Snyder said that the first lesson in dealing with tyranny is “don’t obey in advance.” He reflects that this lesson from history, from 1933, is that “while we may think of marches and absolutes it is in fact politics that involves consent,” especially at the beginning of authoritarian regime changes it is about people normalizing the new reality and meeting it half way, said Snyder.
Jackson School Director and Stanley D. Golub Chair of International Studies Reşat Kasaba introduced Professor Snyder, who is also a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, noting that Snyder’s research and writings discuss dark figures like Hitler in Nazi Germany and Soviet leader Stalin and highlight that the horrible events of the 20th century resulted from the murderous desires and plans of individuals. Kasaba added that Snyder holds a very strong conviction that we all have a duty not only to understand these events but also to resist the drift to chaos and tyranny.
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The importance of institutions
Snyder highlights the centrality of institutions as a fundamental pillar in protecting democracy, that it is the institutions that make us decent: “Freedom requires institutions and that is what the founding fathers understood…the historical point is that when democracy goes away it is because people watch it go away and give it consent but is also because institutions are slowly eroding, even in the case of Nazi Germany.”
He notes that Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, is warning of declining democracy around the world. According to Snyder, in a “rule of law” state the government has a monopoly on legitimate violence; if you want to get rid of the rule of law you invite para-militaries to do acts of violence in public.
The power of the Internet
Snyder dedicated a significant portion of his talk to the power of the Internet — and that facts, according to him, have a very profound connection to freedom: “Young people have to valorize the world and make it interesting, to make investigation cool. There are reasons to be concerned that the internet is actually authoritarian, and that is because it has coincided with the spread of authoritarianism around the world. The thing that is most troubling about it is that the Internet helps us to define an “us” and a “them” entirely within our own country.”
Snyder ended his talk with a discussion about patriotism. He argued that loving your country involves imagining your country according to the principles which it claims to uphold. “There is a difference between nationalism – which is easy – and patriotism which is hard. It is easy to be a nationalist, all I have to say is ‘you Americans are wonderful, everything is great’. To be a patriot you have to say the United States of America, or whatever country it is, has principles and partaking in the United States of America means inching it toward these principles.”
About the Speaker:
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University, a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. His book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books; February 2017), has resonated with a worldwide audience. On Tyranny has been published in over a dozen countries and is a #1 New York Times Bestseller. His latest book is The Road to Unfreedom (Tim Duggan Books; April 2018).
A frequent guest at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, he has spent about ten years in Europe, and speaks five and reads ten European languages. He is a regular commentator on radio, TV and in print publications, and an award-winning author of books such as Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and most recently: The Road to Unfreedom (Tim Duggan Books, April 2018).
Snyder received his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1997, where he was a British Marshall Scholar. Before joining the faculty at Yale in 2001, he held fellowships in Paris, Vienna, and Warsaw, and an Academy Scholarship at Harvard.
This event was sponsored by The Henry M. Jackson Foundation in partnership with the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, Center for Global Studies, Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, Center for West European Studies, Stroum Center for Jewish Studies and the Foster School’s Global Business Center at the University of Washington.