Timothy Snyder’s history lessons,a second installment

Last week I talked about the well-known Yale historian Timothy Snyder and the lessons he’s drawn from recent history. By the modest standards of our profession, Snyder’s famous, with 12.7 thousand Twitter followers and huge book sales– so his opinions matter. Plus the subjects he researches have special significance for the lessons-of-history question as we confront it today. After all, we’re trying to understand the possibilities for dictatorship and genocide in the twenty-first century, and Snyder’s books deal with the 1920s-1930s versions of those phenomena. Who better to ask for history lessons?

Actually quite a few people, it turns out– at least that’s the answer I came to after reading Snyder’s mass circulation account of what the 1920s and 1930s can teach us about today.   Some of the supposed lessons don’t have much to do with history, some seem plain wrong– and all of them express the ultra-individualist social assumptions you’d expect to hear from the world of Ivy League success stories.

There’s really only one of Snyder’s lessons that seems worth holding onto — his starting point, that “it can happen here,” and that the US can slip into fascist dictatorship just as Germany did in 1933. Politics made that happen in Germany, he says, not some divine decree, and it can do the same to us. I strongly agree.

But even here my agreement with Snyder doesn’t go very far, because I don’t buy his understanding of what the “it” is that can happen here. He sees the worry in terms of an individual collecting too much power– Hitler and Stalin were bad men, they did bad things, and we need to worry about a bad leader doing bad things here. The history lessons I propose point to something a lot bigger and more complicated– and also more disturbing.

For guidance, I propose we look back at George Orwell’s novel 1984, published soon after the death of Hitler and while Stalin was still going strong. Maybe Orwell doesn’t count as offering lessons from history– after all, it’s a novel. But for generations 1984 has provided the standard checklist for totalitarianism identification, and Orwell himself had up-close views of both Hitler and Stalin.

And sure enough, Orwell’s vision includes a highly-visible dictator, at first glance fitting the evil dictator theory. Big Brother’s face is plastered on every building and shown in every movie theater, accompanied by slogans telling people to trust, admire, and even love him. It seems straightforward: a dictatorship is run by a dictator, and we’ll know we’re there when the elections stop. From that angle, Donald Trump sure looks like serious trouble. After all, Trump had already plastered his name on dozens of buildings before reaching office; he’s probably not going to learn greater modesty in the years ahead.

But whatever dangers Trump poses, that’s actually not the point 1984 is making, in fact it’s almost the opposite of the point. In fact the novel never shows us the real-life Big Brother, and he may not even exist. What we see instead is a high-ranking but totally unpublicized member of “the Party,” and then the systems and mechanisms he and his Party-insider colleagues have put in place. For Orwell, it’s those systems and mechanisms that constitute the real totalitarianism. And if that’s the case,it becomes a lot harder to determine an exact dictatorship tipping point. You can’t just point to a Big Brother-like figure, because nearly everything in 1984‘s world is part of the story.

Of course some things are more obviously dictator-adjacent than others, starting with The Party itself. Its insider members run everything, and they alone hold the secrets about what’s really going on– the vast majority of the population doesn’t have a clue, let alone any influence, nor do most party members themselves. The Party’s power rests partly on violence, and partly on 24/7, multi-platform surveillance. Every home has an entertainment screen that can’t be turned off, and it transmits what you’re doing back to the authorities; plus everyone’s encouraged to report on those around them, family members included. So the party knows all about you, and it can use its knowledge however it wants– when they torture the hero, the authorities already know his deepest fears, and he cracks at just the threat. Other people just disappear.

Other features of 1984-land don’t have that obviously totalitarian look, though, yet they count for just as much in making the system work. There’s the society’s grungy poverty, for instance. Nothing’s in good repair, nobody’s got quite enough to live well, everyone’s living in cramped, dingy spaces. That’s a feature not a bug, because it ensures no one can survive if they get out of line — the state provides the housing and ration cards everyone needs to keep body and soul together.

Culture plays its role too. The Party’s got whole buildings full of culture workers, busy rewriting history, diluting literature from the past, and reworking the lanuage into mushy new forms. These projects matter because the watered-down, fact-free new culture prevents people from thinking clearly; they lack both the knowledge and the conceptual categories. (For smart reflections on that culture program, see here.) And then, in 1984 England/America is permanently at war, with one or another of the world’s other great powers. It’s a real war, with bombs ocasionally hitting London, but the fighting is remote and the issues are opaque, in fact beyond opaque, because the war isn’t actually about anything, not even the interests of an identifiable group of war profiteers. It’s really another mechanism by which The Party preserves its power over its subjects. It uses up resources, thus helping create the society’s ambient poverty, and it generates fear of enemies and longing for protectors.

You can see why this adds up to a more disturbing picture than the Hitler/Stalin/Leader X model. For one thing, the 1984 model includes many thousands of people as active participants, not just a leader and a few hench-persons, and way more practices than just disbanding parliament and putting troops in the streets. It’s actually a form of social organization, so if there’s totalitarianism, large swathes of society as a whole are implicated– and the tipping-point moment isn’t all that clear.

The other disturbing point, of course, is that we’ve been living for the last fifteen years amidst elements of that social organization. As we learned from Edward Snowden and others, someone actually is watching us 24/7, and we’ve been continuously at war since 2003, and really earlier. We’ve got designated enemies like Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Putin, and we’ve got torture; we’ve had massive efforts to make livelihoods as precarious as possible–as Orwell thought, it’s a great formula for discouraging people from mouthing off. Do we have “the Party” as well?  Probably not, but maybe.  We certainly have secret-keepers, the million or so national defense and intelligence types who know the real stories and keep then from the other 299 million of us, and some of whom have the green light for extra-judicial assassinations. (For the basics, see here.)

Sometimes the lessons of history start with some soul-searching.