Op-Ed: Words to Fight the Many Faces of Tyranny
It was one of those strange nights when everything gets confused and then clears up. It was July 20, 2017, and my family had just arrived in Warsaw. There was a protest march underway to defend an independent judiciary, so we joined in.
As the march advanced down a long boulevard towards the presidential palace, I put my then 5-year-old daughter on my shoulders. It was a long road, and I almost gave up when a bicycle taxi appeared and took us, free of charge, to the edge of the woods around the palace. Now in the dark, we were walking hand in hand through the trees to a voice I heard projected through the microphone.
I had the dreamy impression that the words were familiar to me: a protester, I realized, was reading aloud a Polish translation of my book “On Tyranny: Lessons From the Twentieth Century”, which had been published a few months ago. earlier.. This was lesson 2, “defend institutions”.
It has been a long and strange journey for these words. I am an Eastern European historian who wrote about Nazism and Stalinism and was educated by people who lived and were suppressed by Communism. In July, I last saw my thesis supervisor Jerzy Jedlicki, a Holocaust survivor who was interned in a camp in Communist Poland.
I wrote “On Tyranny” in response to the 2016 US presidential election, informed by what I learned from the European past about how democracies fall and how individuals can respond. It aimed to help Americans recognize patterns of oppression in time to act. He reached the Americans, which was gratifying. But to my surprise, he also returned to Eastern Europe. In Poland, the book was read aloud at protests across the country. It was even recorded as a rap in 2019.
Some lessons, like # 10 (“believe in the truth”) were inspired by my contemporaries. Serhiy Zhadan is an extraordinary creator of Ukrainian culture: novelist, poet and singer in a ska group. In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine, he turned to the internet to fight Russian propaganda. At the time, Russian soldiers, mercenaries and nationalists were flocking across the Ukrainian border, creating the appearance of civil unrest in towns in eastern Ukraine like Kharkiv, where he lives. Zhadan joined a group of locals who were trying to defend the buildings in the city. He was beaten and told to kneel down. When he refused, assailants broke his head. There was so much in that head, so much talent, so much to say: and he had refused to bow.
He recovered and his city too. In June 2017, just before leaving for this trip to Poland, I went to New York to see his group. They had added a song to their repertoire: a cover of “Know Your Rights” from The Clash in which Zhadan included the 20 lessons from my book in the lyrics.
In the late 2010s, people around the world were looking for ways to express threats to democracy that did not have a clear name and to find words that would describe their own action. The book played a modest role in it. It ended up on posters in Brazil, in Parliament in India, in peacekeeping missions in Syria, in protests everywhere. In Hong Kong, human rights defenders put up stickers with the lessons in the city. On the lesson 1 sticker, “Don’t obey in advance,” there was a person refusing to kneel.
Tyrants learn from the past and from each other, and those who oppose them must do the same. If we are to grasp what is happening in time to make a difference, we need to know the models, which we can find in history and in other countries.
All of us who believe in the power of the people can see how the attack on freedom occurs as societal and political structures weaken. In China and Russia, regimes are deliberately undermining political values. Globalization is exploited by tyrants to put the face of an enemy on unpredictability. Ecological disasters are used by tyrants to divide societies and blame the victims. Social media platforms are used to organize and energize the reaction against democratic movements. Growing economic and social inequalities further distort national conversations. And cowardly politicians and judges, with moral blindness to threats to freedom, concede rights to empty legalism.
Democracy rises and falls on a global scale. To believe that America is exceptional, democratic by nature, is only to help the tyrants. It is this same arrogance towards our own country that has made us so vulnerable to undemocratic tendencies. We didn’t listen in 2016 when others warned us about the trends in our country. If you think what you are doing is democratic because of who you are, you won’t notice when you are helping to provoke tyranny. America is as exceptional as we make it. This is lesson # 8, “stand out”.
If we want to be heard around the world, we need to listen especially to those who have taken more risks than us, and in worse circumstances. We have a lot to “learn from our peers in other countries”, which is lesson 16.
Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and a bestselling author. Nora Krug is a professor of illustration at the Parsons School of Design and an author whose work has been seen in numerous publications. Their collaboration, a graphic edition of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century”, will be released on October 5th.