The Historian Who Can Help Us All Make Sense Of The Mess The World’s In
The world’s a sorry mess. How do thoughtful people make sense of it all? David Everatt, Head of the Wits School of Governance in Johannesburg, explains why the book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by American author and historian Timothy Snyder is a good place to start.
If there’s one book to help explain the bloody mess we find ourselves in – globally and (by implication) locally – this is it. Snyder has been building a remarkable body of work over the last couple of decades, charting the rise of fascism across Europe from biographies of minor politicians and collected essays, into into his recent spate of major overviews that span the last century and bring us up to the unpleasant present.
As a good historian, Snyder is not restricted by methodology or ideology to one data source or the other. He finds useful, often vital data, everywhere, attracted to whatever seems to be glinting in the gloom. He writes beautifully, too.
His last few books, which chart mass murder in Europe – ‘Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin’ and ‘Black Earth: The holocaust as history and warning’ - do not try the silly ‘who was worse, Stalin or Hitler?’ approach to history. Rather, via the engaged work of a humanist, we see Snyder learn for himself that ideology kills, whether avowedly national socialist, socialist, fascist, communist or other.
His cold precision in giving precise numbers (of children shot, or Jews burned in barns, or kulaks murdered to appease Stalin) reflects the precision these regimes demanded from their executioners. He happens also to be fluent in a number of east European languages, which means original texts and contemporary speeches (and Facebook posts and Tweets) are translated directly for the reader. What comes across is a man battling to comprehend the scale and nature of human brutality while simultaneously trying to learn lessons for us.
Witnesses to a decline we did not see
His 2015 ‘Black earth’ reminded us of the importance of holding the line as demagoguery rises. By 2018’s ‘The road to unfreedom’, Snyder is writing about now. His purview is universal, even if his focus is Russia, Europe and America.
The lessons for today’s world are self-evident. Many were also summarised in the booklet ‘On Tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century’ that reminded us of simple facts, such as;
- Any election can be … the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote
- The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions.
In ‘Unfreedom’ he continues the thread. Only active citizens who strengthen their civil society organisations and simultaneously strengthen their state institutions can help us at this moment. As he notes:
“To experience its destruction is to see a world for the first time. Inheritors of an order we did not build, we are now witnesses to a decline we did not see”.
Make that post-war America or post-apartheid South Africa or post-Brexit Britain, and the resonation is the same.
Triumph of fascism
In ‘Unfreedom’ Snyder traces the triumph of fascism in Russia, where Ivan Ilyin - fascist theorist and champion of the Whites against the Bolshevik Red brigades - has been taken from obscure, long-dead exile to national hero, reburied in Moscow. His books are now prescribed in Russian schools; and his war on political virtues including individualism, succession, integration, novelty, truth and equality, has become Russia’s primary export.
It was exported first to Europe, via the far-right and internet warfare, and then by more advanced bot-wars that affected Brexit as much as the British, French and other general elections. From there on to America, where a fake businessman is propelled to the White House on the basis of fake news. As he observes:
Trump the winner was a fiction that would make his country lose.
Snyder is a modern historian. He assembles all types of data - documents, speeches, Facebook notes from Russian mothers to their sons fighting a war that officials say did not exist in the Ukraine, diary entries, letters and more, taken from multiple sources and languages. With these, he creates a narrative that does not need to score cheap points because it has such profound if awful political insights.
He’s a refreshing voice precisely because he lifts debate out of the dull, ideologically driven, or point-scoring bitchiness of most contemporary writing about politics. He is more concerned with making the reader think for themselves than winning you over to his camp.
Close to the edge of the cliff
Every chapter is rich with apercu. Read them and weep:
Authoritarianism begins when we can no longer tell the difference between the true and the appealing.
A fascist says “the people” and means “some people”, those he favours at the moment.
American and Russian oligarchs have far more in common with one another than theydo with their own populations.
Every sentence smacks of careful thought, engaged concern, and urgency.
Read the book. Look beyond whatever contemporary mess your country is in, and see yourself in the context of a global mess. Snyder does not tell us what to do, or how to respond. But he does demand that we think, and analyse, and then act to defend what we have before the fascist rhetoric and associated violence wipes clean the post-war gains and locates us firmly in the fascism of the 1930s.
We are, as Snyder is urgently reminding us, perilously close to the edge of the cliff.