Responses to Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny:
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2017), historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on 20th century Eastern European history, expresses his concerns with 21st century developments in the United States and Europe. Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. The brief book, only 126 pages, was written during the first year of the Trump presidency. While it clearly responds to events taking place and governmental decisions, it does not actually mention Donald Trump. Snyder explains that history does not repeat itself, but it does familiarize, instruct, and warn.
Snyder argues that the founders of the United States, the revolutionary generation that wrote the Constitution and created the new nation, were fundamentally concerned with the threat of tyranny. In the eighteenth century the threat came from monarchy. In the twentieth century he argues it came from fascism, Nazism, and Stalinist communism. Snyder worries that in the twenty-first century the threat to democracy will come from virulent nationalist populism. He sees the potential for the rise of authoritarianism in the United States as a response to a real or perceived danger and quotes James Madison that tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency.” He also quotes Hannah Arendt who wrote that after the Reichstag fire in Germany “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.”
The lessons Snyder highlights include the need to defend democratic institutions from domestic threats, the challenge not to automatically obey governments, the requirement that Americans champion belief in truth, and a call to take responsibility for events and conditions around the world. Ultimately, Snyder’s book is a call for active citizenship and resistance against tyranny by advocates of democracy and liberty.
We asked social studies teachers what should be our responses to current events in the United States and how should these events influence what and how we teach?
Carolyn Herbst, ATSS/UFT (adapted from a speech she gave to the American Society for Yad Vashem in March 2018): I cannot help but see connections between the United States reaction to refugees from Nazism in Europe, and the current United States reaction to the mass movement of refugees from around the world due to wars, famine, dysfunctional governments, political turmoil and ethnic cleansing. In the 1930s the United States shut its doors to Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Hitler. By the 1940s it was too late. Only after World War II did the United States, in shame, agree to accept Jewish survivors. The anti-Semitic atmosphere in the United States, fuelling oppressive immigration quota laws in the 1920s is a blot in United States history.
Today, the shameful atmosphere in the United States toward the immigration of refugees trying to escape all manner of horrors around the world is another shameful blot in United States history. As someone deeply imbued with the events of Jewish and Jewish-American history, as someone deeply imbued with the events of global history, as someone deeply imbued with the events of American political, social and cultural history, as a citizen of the United States, a resident of multi-cultural New York City, as an educator deeply involved with public education in New York City serving students and their families from all over the world, I cannot but help draw these connections.
We have children in New York City schools, we have licensed teachers in the New York City school system, who live in dread of what is coming next in terms of what will happen to them and their families in terms of deportation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, and the changing with the wind positions on DACA Dreamers in Congress. This should not be.
We have always been a nation of immigrants and have always been much stronger for it. Immigrants, our own family members, have and continue to make positive contributions to the basic strong fabric of life in The United States. Yet just as the United States succumbed to irrational immigration laws of the 1920s we are doing the same again today. Let us give lessons to our children that what happened in the United States just prior to the Holocaust should not be repeated today.
Anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States is not dead. Anti-Semitism is rearing its head in new ways. Holocaust Denial is a new form of anti-Semitism. Calls for divestiture of Israeli investments is a new form of anti-Semitism. Attacks on Jews, on Jewish stores and on synagogues are occurring in increasing numbers. Swastikas are appearing painted on buildings. In the United States swastikas are appearing on signs and banners at “America First” rallies. Every time I enter one of the Jewish themed museums in New York City with a police car or police officers stationed in front for protection I am reminded of it.
In the United States anti-Semitism has become entwined with attacks on other hate-group targets: Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans. An attack on one minority group is an attack on all. We must not succumb to this. We must be ever vigilant.
Thomas Masterson, Glen Cove Middle School: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is a harrowing book that pokes and prods at very vulnerable places. It provides a historical and theoretical explanation for many crises facing the United States and for understanding news and opinion. Too much of what Snyder warns against is plausible in the current political climate. I was most struck by the chapter “Believe in Truth.” In the media, we see people, including high-ranking government officials, dismissing arguments as “fake news” despite evidence because the information does not fit their preconceptions and beliefs. Differences of opinion based on evidence and analysis are legitimate, but there is no such thing as “alternative facts.” I agree with Snyder’s assertion that “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” and as teachers, we must equip and challenge students to reject unsubstantiated claims. Whatever our political leanings, we must advocate for truth, reason, opinions based on evidence, and open dialogue.
Kyle Novak, Hofstra University: This book is a warning to Americans, but also the rest of the democratic world. Although he does not mention Donald Trump directly, I believe Snyder is responding to the Trump presidency. He wants Americans to be vigilant in defense of democracy and constitutional government, which he sees as fragile and imperiled. One of his greatest concerns is the emergence of paramilitary groups, which we saw in Charlottesville and may be behind gun advocacy.
Mark Vasco, Bethpage High School: Snyder’s background as a historian of central and eastern Europe during the 20th century well equips him to examine potential threats to democracy in the United States. His underlying message in all twenty lessons is that citizens in a democratic society cannot be passive. They must actively involve themselves in defense of things that matter, even when inconvenient or when standing out places you at risk. Snyder is especially concerned with dishonesty in the highest office, as the “Big Lie” was a tool used by Nazis in Germany during the 1930s to undermine democratic institutions and faith in government. Almost 80% of Trump’s campaign pronouncements were false, and this trends continued during his first year in office. While I find Snyder’s concerns to be a little exaggerated, I do agree that our current electoral system is flawed and that teachers have to better prepare students to recognize “fake news.”
Alyssa Knipfing, Oceanside High School: I disagree overwhelmingly with the political views that shape Snyder’s essentially ideological manifesto. He has structured a false comparison between the election of Donald Trump and his first year in office with Adolf Hitler’s ascendency to power in Germany and the emergence of totalitarian regimes. The United States is not the German Third Reich, American government is not crippled, and Donald Trump is not a proto-fascist who seized power intent on undermining democratic institutions. I concede that much in the United States needs repair, but Snyder’s views are too radical and do not hold up to scrutiny. One thing I do agree with is the call for active citizenship and we are witnessing that in the mobilization of young people to demand gun reform in the United States. Their ability to organize a campaign could never happen in a totalitarian society.