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Snyder writes: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are 20 lessons from the 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today."

Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933 and established a totalitarian one-party state. (photo: Imperial War Museums)
Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933 and established a totalitarian one-party state. (photo: Imperial War Museums)

Post-Fascist Europe Tells Us Exactly How to Defend Our Democracy

By Timothy Snyder, Yes! Magazine

15 January 17


Have your passports ready, watch your language, and other advice from a Yale history professor.

mericans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are 20 lessons from the 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution.

Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics.

When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom. Read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to.

It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.

Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot.

The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+25 # Woratnac 2017-01-15 11:15
Good statement. Thanks.
+10 # Citizen Mike 2017-01-15 12:48
I agree.
+11 # heartofnests 2017-01-15 14:36
Thank you for this vital and valuable information. True patriotism is not blind obedience to a cause, it is the common cause of protecting our liberty, our dignity, and our communities.
+5 # DongiC 2017-01-15 15:14
Very timely and to the point. Thanks.
+11 # Radscal 2017-01-15 15:39
Trump and his appointees are putting the ugly face on what's become of our country.

Over several decades, we have largely stood by while all the apparatus of a totalitarian police state have been established.

We have a Continuity of Government plan in place that permits the formal establishment of Martial Law on the flimsiest of pretexts.

We have a militarized police force, and militarized federal agencies (USDA bought .40 caliber submachine guns!).

We have abolished Posse Comitatus, permitting the US Military to police our streets.

We have established "residential relocation camps" across the country, in which today we have thousands of families of "illegal aliens" awaiting their fate, but which are capable of holding far more of us.

Now we have a President-Elect that is making those things look as terrifying as they have long been.

So, all of the points in this article are important. I will add another.

20. A: Remember that many who buy into the "right" side of the "left/right paradigm" are also true patriots. They've been propagandized to believe the threat will come from "the left," so we must break down the walls built specifically to divide us, and become "we, the people."

Bear in mind that those are the folks who've been preparing for this. They will be most helpful if we can help them see that the dictatorship they've long feared can come in either party flavor.
+4 # JCM 2017-01-15 16:44
In the Continuity of Government plan it says it will,"Deploy the national citizen conscription plan to fulfill any labor required for the purpose of national defense and reconstitution. " Couldn't find any further elaboration on this "citizen conscription plan". Very unnerving.
+3 # JCM 2017-01-15 16:22
If I had a few billion dollars I would try to produce a news organization disconnected from corporate and political power. The purpose would be to disseminate information in as truthful, factual and accurate way as possible. Entertaining all sides of the political theater and then focusing on the best solution possible. A seemingly impossible goal but with dedicate individuals a goal worth pursuing. Truth is power and if represented in a honest and non ideological way could sway the direction this country will take. Democracy cannot survive without truth and is worth fighting for.
+1 # Radscal 2017-01-15 23:21
Like Pierre Omidyar did when he kicked in $250 Million to start The Intercept, where Greenwald works?

Of course, Omidyar has his agenda, too. Greenwald was the only journalist there to write a story critical of the fascists who took over Ukraine and their merciless treatment of the "impure" Ukrainians.

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