20 Lessons for 2019 from the 20th Century

During the holidays I read „On Tyranny“ by Timothy Snyder and I think, we should heed the lessons from history he presents

  1. Do not obey in advance: After Hitler came to power in Germany 1933 or for example the Communists in Czechoslovakia 1946 the next step was anticipatory obedience. Many people voluntary extended their services to the new leaders.
  2. Defend Institutions: Rulers who came to power through institutions sometimes have no problems to destroy just these institutions. This was the approach of the Russian Bolsheviks. Sometimes institutions are deprived of vitality and function, turned into a simulacrum of what they once were, so that they grid the new order rather than resisting it. This is what the Nazis called „Gleichschaltung“.
  3. Beware the one-party state: The American abolitionist Wendell Philipps said, that „eternal vigilance is the price of liberty“ and „the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten“. We believe that we have checks and balances, but have rarely faced a situation like the present: when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level (luckily only until Jan 3, 2019) as well as the majority of statehouses. Much has to be done to fix the gerrymandered system, so that every citizen has one equal vote.
  4. 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 the yourself and set an example for others to do so.
  5. Remember professional ethics: If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries: Most governments seek to monopolize violence. The American federal government uses mercenaries in warfare and the American state governments pay corporations to run prisons, the use of violence in the US is already highly privatized. What is novel is a president who wishes to maintain, while in office, a personal security force which during his campaign used force against dissenters.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed: Evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. When we think of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews we imagine Auschwitz. This was a convenient way for Germans to remember the Holocaust, for they could say that few of them had known what had happened behind those gates. But it`s a matter of a fact that many Jews were murdered by regular German „Wehrmacht“ and policemen. Without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible.
  8. Stand out: It`s easy to follow along. And it can be hard to say or do something different. Remember Rosa Parks, or remember Teresa Prekerowa, a young Polish woman living at Warsaw 1940. Without telling her family she entered again and again Jewish ghetto bringing food and medicine to the imprisoned there and she managed to save a family from certain death. She stood out.
  9. Be kind to our language: Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books! Every good book enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others. One novel, for example read by millions of young people allover world, is J.K. Rowling`s „Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows“. You will find many other books in world literature that will help you to judge situations.
  10. Believe in the truth: Yes there is a truth. Even if it`s sometimes hard to find out, and even harder today in times of internet and fake news. Authoritarian persuaders want you to believe in alternative facts and to think, it`s impossible to find out, what`s really true. Try hard and you`ll find the truth. Post-truth is pre-fascism.
  11. Investigate: Figure things out for yourself. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). If we are serious about seeking the facts, we can each make a small revolution in the way the internet works.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk: It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust. In the most dangerous times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust.
  13. Practice corporeal politics: Power wants your body in your chair and your emotions dissipating on your screen. For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes.
  14. Establish a private life: Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. What the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by „totalitarianism“ was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of difference between private and public life. During the campaign of 2016, we took a step forward to totalitarianism without even noticing by accepting as normal the violence of electronic privacy. Whether it`s done by American or Russians intelligence agencies, or for that matter by any institution, the theft, discussion, or publication of personal communications destroys a basic foundation of our rights.
  15. Contribute to good causes: Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. The anticommunist dissidents of eastern Europe, facing a situation more extreme than ours, recognized the seemingly nonpolitical activity of civil society as an expression and a safeguard of freedom. Today`s authoritarians (in India, Turkey, Russia) are highly allergic to the idea of free associations and non-governmental organizations.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries: Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. In the months before the president was elected US commentators assured that at the next stage he would be stopped by one fine American institution or another. At the same time east European journalists, especially Ukrainian, assessed the situation more correctly, they were more familiar with campaigns of disinformation and propaganda.
  17. Listen for dangerous words: Be on alert to the use of the words „extremism“ and „terrorism“. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. If politicians try to train you to surrender freedom in the name of safety, you should be on the guard.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives: The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the right to a fair trail and so on ( see Reichstags fire Germany 1933, military coup Turkey 2016) Do not fall for it!
  19. Be a patriot: Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and it`s failing not only in parts of Europe but in many parts of the word today. A nationalist will say : „It can never happen here“. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.
  20. Be as courageous as you can: If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, than all of us will die under tyranny.

Today at the threshold of the year 2019 we don`t know the future, perhaps it will be easier we think, perhaps even worse. Anyway let`s defend democracy and keep the above lessons in mind.

I wish you a Happy New Year

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