The Current

Yale historian shares lessons of 20th-century tyranny relevant today

Yale Historian Timothy Snyder has studied the bloody regimes of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler of the 20th century. He sheds light on the present, by sharing the lessons of tyranny from the dark episodes of the past.
The rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930's is reflective of what American society is currently experiencing, says Yale historian Timothy Snyder. (Photo by Ine Gundersveen/

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It's been more than half-a-century since the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini ruled as tyrants in Europe.

But in historical terms — that's only yesterday and the echoes of that era are only growing stronger today, according to Timothy Snyder.

Snyder is the Levin professor of history at Yale University and his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, draws attention to a history that he says America needs to be paying close attention to now with a Trump presidency.

"The purpose of the book is not to provoke. The purpose of the book is to allow us to embrace ourselves," Snyder tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe.  
Joseph Stalin (1879 - 1953), General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, circa 1930. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Snyder points to the book as a manual to draw lessons from the 20th century, over the course of regime changes, "so that people can have a sense that even when they are shocked, and even when day after day things happen that they don't expect, they can rely on history to give them a sense of what they should do." 

He urges Americans to admit the faults of forgetting history because Snyder says, "history gives us a sense of possibility — not just in the positive but mainly in the negative sense that things can go very wrong."

"Democratic republics in the history of the last 200 years usually fail. And so it behooves us where we're … in a moment of great stress like we are now to try to get some traction in history … to  be able to say 'Aha, I see some resemblance and therefore I see some possibilities for action.'"

The aversion people have to making the comparison between Trump and leaders like Mussolini and Hitler prevents people from seeing the lessons that history offers, Snyder says.

"It's precisely in the effort to make comparisons that one finds differences and similarities," he tells Crowe.

Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945) welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg. (Getty Images)

Snyder explains that since 1989, when the Cold War ended, Americans allowed themselves to think "the details of the past don't matter."

"And unfortunately we've allowed ourselves to basically sleepwalk into the future, and by making that move, we've actually summoned back the ghosts of the very past we thought we had dismissed."

Thomas Weber, director of the Centre for Global Security and Governance at the University of Aberdeen, worries the comparison of Hitler to Trump becomes a distraction from the risks the new U.S. administration poses.

"It becomes a discussion about the comparison rather than about substance," Weber tells Crowe.

His concern lies when people conclude Trump is not like Hitler and think everything is fine.

"I would say that is a distraction from the real dangers that an unstable narcissist that I believe Donald Trump is, with few core ideas, is the most powerful men in the world and has no clear ideas about how the international system has to be ordered."

Weber says the other danger is "the crying wolf problem."

"If you just invoke Hitler too often, people won't listen anymore when those comparisons really do work."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.