Timothy Snyder and the lessons of history

Long ago, there was the idea that you studied history for its Lessons about Life. “History is philosophy teaching by example,” is what people said, meaning it shows you the big principles playing out in real circumstances. The Greeks said it first, though apparently nobody knows which particular Greek thought it up.

That remained the accepted wisdom into the nineteenth century, when history began morphing into the enterprise we know today. Before then, it was a branch of literature, something you learned in school and occasionally read for fun; there was no such thing as a professional historian, just writers trying to sell books like everyone else. But after about 1830 history became a research subject, with university departments, advanced degrees and seminars, scholarly journals, career paths up the professorial ranks, and all the rest. That didn’t happen overnight, but by 1900 all the elements were in place, all over the Euro-American world.

You can see why that change put pressure on the “teaching by example” idea. When you write history for high school kids or Oprah’s Book Club, you’re free to accentuate the positive and package the material in appealing ways. You can claim there’s a moral to the story, and that it’s not just meaningless chaos. But once you put on the historian’s metaphorical lab coat, you’re supposed to follow the story wherever it goes, just like a cancer researcher or a character on “Bones,” and that can lead into some pretty dark corners. You’re likely to stumble on evidence that a beloved national hero was a creep, or that your own country has committed war crimes, or that greed and violence tend to win out over decency and reasonableness. Maybe you’re still teaching philosophy by example, but the philosophy you’re instilling is cynical nihilism. What then?

I don’t know any historian who has fully-satisfactory answers to that problem. I’ve tried to lay out my own in these posts, but I’m still mulling them over after forty-five years in the business.

But lately there’s been a turn back to more muscular, less doubt-ridden ideas about what history can teach, no doubt in response to our contemporary crises and troubles– like many others, historians feel a need to improve our own world, not just study by-gone ones. Consider the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a prominent specialist on Eastern Europe during the Holocaust era. He’s got a new book coming out called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and he’s been offering samples in various journalistic and online formats; his last book carried the subtitle “The Holocaust as History and Warning.” The lessons of history are clearly much on his mind.

It’s worth looking closely at his views on the matter because he’s such a prominent figure, who’s worked hard to make his voice heard outside the unversity as well as within. He writes for middle-brow publications, speaks often to non-specialist audiences, and keeps his online presence up-to-date; he’s even dabbled in real-life contemporary Ukrainian politics. And then there’s the Yale factor, which matters because America now expects its leaders to come with Ivy League degrees. Even the famously under-educated Donald Trump has one, as do both Clintons, Obama, and both Bushes– our last non-Ivy president was Ronald Reagan, and he left the White House in 1988. That’s something new in American history. Over the forty-five years before Bush I, there were only six when we had an Ivy-Leaguer in the White House. Snyder’s one of those helping shape our future deciders.

(Here I’m working off Snyder’s journalistic statements [especially here, here, and here], not the new book itself, which I haven’t read yet; I’m assuming these give an accurate depiction of his thinking, and anyway, they’re the versions that will reach the broadest public.)

What strikes you first about Snyder’s lessons is the urgency with which he delivers them. Donald Trump is seriously dangerous, he tells us, and the historical model we need to learn from is Nazi Germany. “We have at most a year to defend the republic, perhaps less,” is how he put it to one interviewer; in fact even “the next few weeks” are critical. Hitler moved fast to change the political rules, and he left his opponents no room for backtalk– a seizure of power is a seizure of power, and for Snyder that’s what we’re facing.

But after those three-alarm warnings, it’s a shock to reach the tepid history-based advice itself, because a lot of it sounds like the basic advice you’d give anyone, at any time: don’t surf the internet before bed, read thoughtful books instead (Lesson #6); connect with other people at real-life levels, both on the street (Lesson #11) and in your private life (#15); have a passport and stay in touch with your friends in other countries (#16). You imagine other items coming up in a high school class on To Kill a Mockingbird: don’t be swept away by the language politicians use (#4, but also #6, which says pretty much the same thing); don’t join the scape-goating lynch mobs if there’s a frightening terrorism-style event (#5); cling to the ethics of your profession (#3). That’s about it, except for a certain amount of add-on blather– be courageous (#19), be patriotic (#20), give to good causes (#14).

I suspect Snyder intends this to add up to more than just “be a good person, the way you were taught in school.” Probably he has in mind George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, who both thought totalitarian regimes were especially determined to snuff out private life, which they view as competing for individuals’ loyalty.   But really– do we need a crack research historian to tell us stuff like this?

It’s not just just the low-temp quality of the advice that’s interesting, it’s also the underlying assumptions, and especially their relentless individualism. Snyder doesn’t mention labor unions, churches, civil rights groups, feminist collectives, hippie communes, political parties, or any of the other communities that have structured resistance movements in other times and places. Nor does he mention actual refusal/ resistance movements, even of the non-violent form preached by Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Black Lives Matter. You could say, he’s offering advice for an already fully-atomized society, made up (as per classical liberal theory) of unconnected social free-agents. Sure, we’ve all got a few friends and our own families, we encounter fellow shoppers in the street, we go to our jobs,  but none of us has any deeper attachments to larger communities.

Exaggerating somewhat, you could say Snyder takes for granted the social atomization that worried Orwell and Arendt. What they saw as a product of totalitarianism, he sees as a baseline modern condition– except that it’s a pretty comfy condition. It’s assumed you’ll have a profession with a code of ethics, not just a McJob you desperately need to keep in order to feed your family. Even the idea that you’ll have foreign friends to stay in touch with is odd, applicable to high-profile professors, less so to the vast majority of Americans. (To say nothing of recent immigrants, who may want to be extra-careful about foreign contacts in the new regime.)

And then there’s one last assumption, which I’ll only sketch here and try to explain in more detail next week– namely, that the relevant time scale is very, very short. In fact in Snyder’s account, the clock only started ticking January 20, 2017, with no fundamental connections to what happened over the previous decade or two. I’m guessing that’s his thought-out view; the idea would be, the roll of the electoral dice gave us a mega-dangerous president (just as it more or less did in 1932-33 Germany), and now anything can happen. But aren’t there other lessons of history, about how accumulating conditions produce the mega-dangers, over decades rather than weeks? Shouldn’t some attention go to the expanded governmental powers Trump has inherited from recent presidents (24/7 surveillance, torture, drone assassinations, and on and on), or to the multiple angers percolating out in the heartlands?

I’ve suggested that Snyder’s history lessons take us back to a pre-professional version of the discipline; they also seem to take us to a Bad Guys Do Bad Things version, and I’m not sure that’s where help lies.