“Stand out.” “Believe in truth.” "Be calm when the unthinkable arrives." A historian offers a set of 20 prescriptions for how to live under a dictatorship.
If we read our history properly, we have plenty of examples of how people have held up under tyranny, some resisting, some complying, some collaborating. In this slim book, a sort of operating manual for navigating the new authoritarianism that was first born as a set of social media memes after the recent presidential election in the United States, Snyder (History/Yale Univ.; Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, 2015, etc.) finds many of those examples in Greek and Roman history but many more in the totalitarian history of the 20th century. Both fascism and communism, he warns, were “responses to globalization” and to rising inequality. “We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats,” he writes, adding, “this is a misguided reflex.” Snyder begins his series of provocations with the warning, “do not obey in advance”—i.e., yield no ground to self-censorship and self-policing, to what he calls “anticipatory obedience.” He moves on immediately from the individual to the macro level, urging his readers to understand that it is institutions such as the courts and the free press that preserve democratic mores against the ways of authoritarian rulers, would-be or real; it is no accident that orders of noncompliance against recent federal immigration mandates have come from a judiciary committed to defending the Constitution. Throughout, Snyder carefully weighs his rules for radicals against historical benchmarks. Given that the current administration seems less inclined to Hitlerian efficiency than to Ruritanian chaos and Mussolinian posturing, thankfully, there is some reason to think that the direst of Snyder’s warnings may be fodder for a worst-case scenario rather than daily life. Those committed to resistance will want to study up on them all the same.
Timely and essential, if, one hopes, a bit more than the present situation requires.