My grandfather, Menka, who escaped the 1905 pogrom in Odessa in which most of his family was killed, liked to tell the following joke. Two Jews are standing blindfolded against a wall facing a firing squad. One turns to the other and says, “I’m going to ask for a cigarette.” “No, no!” whispers the other. “Don’t make trouble!” The joke mocks what it regarded as a certain Jewish tendency toward passivity. Its force consists of its ironic self-awareness. Groupthink is an intellectual somnambulism, and, lacking self-awareness, it is humorless, but when looked at with detachment, it often possesses the stunning ironic turn that is at the heart of the greatest jokes, like the one my grandfather liked to tell.
For what could be more darkly funny than imagining, in 1940, at the height of Hitler’s reign, the publication in Germany of a bestseller called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Nineteenth Century? Or the publication, in a Berlin newspaper, in 1938, of an article that helpfully informed readers how Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland “Checked All Eight Rules for Dangerous Irredentism”? Snyder has made a lucrative career of commodifying historical analogies, but no precedents exist for a popular historian leading his country away from political disaster via bestselling books and newspaper articles. For a historian of the Holocaust, Snyder is remarkably at ease while living through history, even as he cries that it is closing in around him. As he told the Yale Daily News: “The bad news is that our republic is in a lot of trouble. The good news is that On Tyranny is a practical guide for how to defend a republic, how to defend individual freedoms, so if a lot of people are reading it, that’s good news.”
Snyder has become a one-man industry of panic, a prophet whose profitability depends on his prophecies never coming true. He could flourish only in a country so far removed from “totalitarianism”—a word he freely applies to America—as to seem historically blessed with eternal freedom. Yet while he remakes himself into a media functionary, genuine figures of intellect and principle in actual authoritarian countries suffer when they speak the truth. As Snyder draws facile analogies between America and Russia from his aerie in New Haven, Alexei Navalny struggles to survive each day and night in Vladimir Putin’s asphyxiating universe.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor