In the opinion pages of this morning’s Guardian there’s an article by Timothy Garton-Ash on the worsening situation for free speech and human rights in Turkey as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime tightens the screw. ‘To travel to Turkey today is to journey into darkness,’ writes Garton-Ash; ‘tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly mist of fear.’

Erdoğan crops up in Jan-Werner Müller’s concise guide, What Is Populism? which I read recently. For the epigraph to his book Muller chose the words of Bertolt Brecht: ‘All power comes from the people. But where does it go?’  It’s a good question, and Muller provides a readable analysis of populism, a term that’s been bandied about a great deal post-Trump, post-Brexit, and in the context of fears of what might happen in Europe in 2017. Even more timely and urgent is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, a brand-new, slim volume by Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s hard to recall now, but at the beginning of this century the Turkish government was serious in its hope that Turkey might join the EU – and the EU seemed serious about preparing to welcome Turkey to the club. ‘All gone, gone utterly,’ as Garton-Ash remarks:

To travel to Turkey today is to journey into darkness: tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly mist of fear. Hasan Cemal, one of the country’s most celebrated journalists, received a 15-month suspended sentence for a piece of investigative reporting about a leader of the Kurdish PKK – good journalism which the regime travesties as ‘conducting terror propaganda’.

The writer is in Turkey just as a referendum is being held on proposed constitutional changes which will give massive new powers to Erdoğan and allow him to remain president until 2029.


Garton-Ash describes how students outside Bosphorus university (where he has been invited to deliver a lecture on free speech) hand out boiled sweets with tiny strips of paper attached that read: ‘Free speech at Bosphorus University has been under threat for months! Don’t be silent!’

He asks those he meets what they think is the most accurate description of Turkey’s current political system? The answers he gets range from ‘pure authoritarianism’ to ‘electoral authoritarianism’ – a regime type which, ‘like Vladimir Putin’s Russia and (in a softer form) Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, legitimates fundamentally authoritarian rule with periodic elections.’

The repertoire of this new generation of authoritarians is by now familiar. You control the media through the oligarchs and business conglomerates that own them. (The Hürriyet newspaper, owned by the Dogan group, recently did not print an interview in which Nobel prizewinning writer Orhan Pamuk said he would vote “no” in the referendum.) You knit a patchwork quilt of elastic legal provisions under which you can prosecute almost anyone. […] You ensure political control over a cowed judiciary. You pump out your own nationalist populist narrative through television and social media, while accusing independent media and local NGOs of being a fifth column paid by foreign sources. And so it goes on.

Jan-Werner Muller's What Is Populism?
Jan-Werner Müller’s What Is Populism?

In What Is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, explores the rise of populism across the globe, with special emphasis on the phenomenon in the Unitred States and Europe. What – if anything – is the common thread that unites the rise of Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, or Viktor Orbán?  Should everyone who criticizes business or political elites be called a populist? Does populism bring government closer to the people or is it a threat to democracy? Who are ‘the people’ anyway – and who can speak in their name? Recent developments make these urgent questions.

Geert Wilders, Dutch Party for Freedom, Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany party, and Marine Le Pen, leader of France's Front National
Geert Wilders, Dutch Party for Freedom, Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany party, and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National

In his book, Jan-Werner Müller argues that, fundamentally, populism is a rejection of pluralism. Populists always claim that they and they alone represent the people and their true interests. In an article in the London Review of Books last December, he wrote:

What defines a populist? Not everyone who criticises elites is a populist. Those who draw a lazy equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump fail to recognise that populists don’t stop at protesting against Wall Street or ‘globalism’. Rather, populists claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority’. This claim to a moral monopoly of representation has two consequences that are immediately deleterious for democracy. Populists accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate. They do not talk in terms of disagreement over policy, which in a democracy is the very point of politics – presenting citizens with options, not just competing on competence and qualifications. Instead, they make it personal: their opponents must be crooked and corrupt.

Daily Mail, 4 November 2016
Enemies of the People: Daily Mail, 4 November 2016

In the LRB article, Jan-Werner Müller continued:

The second consequence of what could be called the populists’ principled antipluralism is less obvious. Populists hold that those who don’t support them – or who don’t share their sense of what constitutes the ‘real people’ – may not themselves properly belong to the people. In his speech the morning after the EU referendum, Nigel Farage claimed it as a ‘victory for real people’. Evidently the 48 per cent who wanted to stay in the EU were not quite real: they might not be part of the authentic British (or, more likely so far as Farage is concerned, English) people at all. Trump has espoused similar views. ‘The only important thing,’ he declared at a rally in May, ‘is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.’

Müller organises his book around three questions: what do populists say; what do populists do when they are in power; and how should they be dealt with? Crucially, he notes that populists are not strictly anti-democratic, since they campaign to get elected to power, and then manipulate things to ensure that they maintain their grip on power – whilst continuing to hold rigged elections and referenda (just as Erdoğan is now in Turkey, or as can be seen in Poland in the bitter conflict over the membership and functioning of the constitutional tribunal since the right-wing Law and Justice party triumphed in the October 2015 parliamentary election).

In the LRB, Müller  wrote that populist politicians ‘don’t respect procedures’:

All they care about, or so they say, is directly executing what they take to be the will of the real people. It is no accident that Trump refused to announce in advance whether he would recognise the election result if Clinton won (70 per cent of Republicans agreed that if she won, the election must have been rigged). Of course, all politicians think they are right and that their opponents are wrong; one of the things that distinguishes populists is the idea that a loss at the ballot box can’t be their fault, but must be caused by the elites scheming behind the scenes. If the silent majority could actually express itself, the logic goes, populists would win every time; they only lose when the elites somehow keep the majority silent. The perverse thing is of course that in the US there really is voter suppression. But it is Republicans who are responsible; they have effectively disenfranchised minorities by, for instance, increasing voter ID requirements.

Within the EU, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is the exemplar of populism in power. On a recent visit to London, he observed that Trump’s election means a return to ‘real democracy’, as opposed to the ‘liberal non-democracy’ the West has experienced in the past twenty years. In the Guardian, Müller explored this argument:

Populist politicians are not like other politicians in a democracy. But the difference is not that they are somehow closer to the “masses” who, according to the self-declared non-establishment thinker John Gray, are everywhere in “revolt”. It is also not that they want direct, as opposed to representative, democracy. Populists are fine with the idea of representation, as long as they get to represent who they consider to be the real people. This is why one cannot score points against figures such as Geert Wilders (who has spent his entire adult life in the Dutch parliament) or Trump by pointing out that they themselves are not exactly ordinary people. The crucial difference is that populists deny, or wish away, the pluralism of contemporary societies. When they say equality, they mean sameness, which is to say: conforming to some ideal of Middle America, Little England, or whatever a symbolic representation of real peoplehood comes down to for them.

Timothy Snyder
Timothy Snyder

Meanwhile, another American academic has rushed out what is likely to be the most timely and urgent book of 2017. Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, is noted for his forensic examination of the processes and procedures of the Holocaust in two key books – Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (a book of such terrible precision that I’m currently making my way through it in small, gingerly steps).

Between them those two books comprise 1000 pages of forensic argument. In contrast, in just over 100 pages, On Tyranny offers twenty concise lessons on how European democracies collapsed into fascism, Nazism and communism in the twentieth century – all of them movements in which a leader or party claimed to represent the people and promised to protect them from threats, both internal and global.

‘History, ‘ writes Snyder, ‘can familiarise, and it can warn.’ By learning how authoritarian and oppressive regimes worked in the past, we might have a better chance of resisting the advance of tyranny in the present. In this slim book steeped in the history of interwar Germany and the horrors that followed, Snyder offers twenty plain lessons from the past.

Twenty lessons from the past

Though primarily addressed to Americans, the lessons are relevant to anyone anywhere with any concern for freedom, civil liberties and the continuation of democracy. The book communicates a real sense of urgency which can’t be ignoredcoming as it does from a historian of repute. Snyder writes:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.


Selected at random, here are ten lessons from Snyder’s book, some of which are recognisable from his dissection in Black Earth of the stages by which the Holocaust developed under Nazi direction in eastern Europe.

  1. Do not obey in advance (Most of the power of athoritarianism is freely given).
  2. Defend institutions (It is instiutions that preserve our decency. They need our help, too).
  3. Take responsibility for the face of the world (The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them.)
  4. Remember professional ethics (It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, judges, obedient civil servants, or businessmen interested in cheap labour.)
  5. Stand out (Someone has to. It is easy to follow along.)
  6. Believe in truth (To abandon facts is to abandon freedom).
  7. Investigate (Figure things out for yourself. Take responsibility for what you communicate with others).
  8. Make eye contact and small talk (It is part of being a citizen and helps break down social barriers.)
  9. Practice corporeal politics (Get outside.Make new friends and march with them.)
  10. Listen for dangerous words (Be alert to the use of words like extremism or terrorism).

Snyder’s lessons are a summarisation of history’s lesson: democrary isn’t lost overnight and terror often doesn’t arrive like a thunderbolt. As Jonathan Glover writes in Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century:

The Nazi policy towards the Jews was implemented by degrees. They were excluded from professions. Their shops were boycotted and attacked. They were stigmatised by vicious propaganda and forced to wear a yellow star. They were segregated. They were rounded up and deported in conditions of extreme cruelty. They were held in camps of unimaginable horror. Finally, in their millions, in a mechanised industrial form of killing, they – men, women and children – were systematically murdered.

In an interview for Süddeutsche Zeitung, Snyder was challenged about an article he wrote for Slate magazine last November – ‘His election that November came as a surprise…‘ – in which he compared Trump’s election victory to that of Hitler in 1933. He replied:

The history of the 1930s is terribly important to Americans (and Europeans) right now, just as it is slipping from our memories. I was not trying to provoke one more fruitless series of conversations about comparability.

Snyder added:

I wanted to remind my fellow Americans that intelligent people, not so different from ourselves, have experienced the collapse of a republic before. It is one example among many. Republics, like other forms of government, exist in history and can rise and fall. The American Founding Fathers knew this, which is why there were obsessed with the history of classical republics and their decline into oligarchy and empire. We seem to have lost that tradition of learning from others, and we need it back. A quarter century ago, after the collapse of communism, we declared that history was over – and in an amazing way we forgot everything we once knew about communism, fascism and National Socialism. In this little article for Slate, I was trying to remind us about things that we once knew.

Burning of the Reichstag 1933
Burning of the Reichstag 1933

Snyder returned to this theme in the New York Review of Books on 27 February, the anniversary of the Reichstag Fire, the moment in 1933 when Hitler used the fabricated fear of terrorism to end democracy in Germany:

On February 27, 1933 the German Parliament building burned, Adolf Hitler rejoiced, and the Nazi era began. Hitler, who had just been named head of a government that was legally formed after the democratic elections of the previous November, seized the opportunity to change the system. “There will be no mercy now,” he exulted. “Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.”

The next day, at Hitler’s advice and urging, the German president issued a decree “for the protection of the people and the state.” It deprived all German citizens of basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly and made them subject to “preventative detention” by the police. A week later, the Nazi party, having claimed that the fire was the beginning of a major terror campaign by the Left, won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections. Nazi paramilitaries and the police then began to arrest political enemies and place them in concentration camps. Shortly thereafter, the new parliament passed an “enabling act” that allowed Hitler to rule by decree.

After 1933, the Nazi regime made use of a supposed threat of terrorism against Germans from an imaginary international Jewish conspiracy. After five years of repressing Jews, in 1938 the German state began to deport them. On October 27 of that year, the German police arrested about 17,000 Jews from Poland and deported them across the Polish border. A young man named Herschel Grynszpan, sent to Paris by his parents, received a desperate postcard from his sister after his family was forced across the Polish border.  He bought a gun, went to the German embassy, and shot a German diplomat. He called this an act of revenge for the suffering of his family and his people. Nazi propagandists presented it as evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy preparing a terror campaign against the entire German people. Josef Goebbels used it as the pretext to organize the events we remember as Kristallnacht, a massive national pogrom of Jews that left hundreds dead.

The Reichstag fire shows how quickly a modern republic can be transformed into an authoritarian regime.

Václav Havel
Václav Havel

‘Take responsibility for the face of the world,’ urges Snyder. In that passage he re-tells the story, originally told by Václav Havel in an essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’, of the greengrocer in communist Czechoslovakia who obediently puts a poster among his onions and carrots urging ‘Workers of the World – Unite!’ For Havel, the greengrocers act symbolised the lies and the cowardice that make the authoritarian grip on power possible. The greengrocer puts up the poster partly out of habit (the annual May Day celebrations), partly because everyone else does it, and partly out of fear of the consequences if he doesn’t. But, just imagine, Havel wrote:

    …that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

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