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Friday 28 September 2018

Prof. Timothy Snyder, 2018 Vienna Lecture at Vienna City Hall, Vienna Humanities Festival 2018, 9.5* out of 10

Timothy Snyder's 2018 Vienna Lecture and the following conversation with the Director of the Institute for Human Sciences Prof. Shalini Randeria were a thoughtful and thought-provoking delight. His book The Road to Unfreedom on which his lecture was based is an invaluable and lasting contribution to a most important problem of our time. A great start to this weekend's 2018 Vienna Humanities Festival. 

The 2018 Vienna humanities festival takes the form of a series salons (for which 19th century Vienna was famous) bringing together leading figures from academia, the arts and culture. About half of the events are held in English.

The festival started last night with a 30-minute lecture by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Snyder is a meticulous researcher specialising in the 20th-century history of central Europe. But he is so much more:  a gifted writer, a brilliant speaker, and an inspiring educator. 

For him, history is not only there to explore and explain the past, but to provide a structure to understand it and analyse the present and the future. Despite spending many years of his research on arguably the darkest chapters of world history emanating from Europe and taking place in the heart of this continent, or perhaps because of it, Snyder is not a pessimist or fatalist. He believes in the power of agency, driven by a sense of individual human responsibility. We can and must distinguish between good and bad (or at least between better than bad and downright evil) based on the solid pursuit of facts and a fact-based pursuit of truth. Here Snyder is emphatic: facts exist, truth exists and all of us, but young people, in particular, deserve to be encouraged to pursue both from a normative perspective, i.e. taking a view, even if it might vary individually of what they consider good and bad.

In his latest book The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder speaks about two views of history that seem to have dominated the intellectual and political worldview after the fall of the iron curtain. The first is “inevitability” as exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”. This view claims that there is no alternative to the route leading from where we were. to capitalism and liberal democracy. The only room for discussion is the extent to which the capitalist order needs mitigation and regulation. The view that it needs rather little of both, fuelled the crisis of 2008 and the political response of bailing out the banks. Snyder believes that there were other alternatives, but the inevitability view blocks us from considering them. Criticising this worldview is also what Snyder sees as his mild criticism of Obama and Hilary Clinton.

The other worldview is the “cyclical view” of history. This is the view that history is an ever-repeating cycle of intranational and international conflict and victimhood and cannot ever truly progress. Gains for all will always be temporary phenomena as sooner or later history will repeat itself as tragedy or farce, and we must not be fooled by it. This is the view propagated by the Putins and the Trumps of this world who gain and maintain power not by claiming to be able to improve their people’s lives but by explaining whose fault it is that those they govern are suffering. 

To do this, they make use of time honoured techniques such as the so-called  “active measures” which the Russian authoritarians employed already in the 19th century. Here the manipulator finds some disposition in the target and gets them to do something that is not in their interest. Our dispositions to be at least a little bit racist, misogynist and threatened by open displays of homosexuality are candidates for employing this technique.  And the internet and social media have given the potential effectiveness of active measures an enormous boost. 

Snyder identifies the Russian government as the main villain of the peace – perhaps a little too much. He says that fascism was based on “The One Big Lie” (i.e. everything is the fault of the Jews), while the politicians exercising power under the cyclical view of history today work by the propagation of the many medium-sized lies. At the same time, they discredit the belief that there is such a thing as the truth and encourage the view that everybody lies anyway. As the author Peter Pomerantsev has put it succinctly in the title of his excellent book on Putin’s Russia: “Nothing is true and everything is possible”. 

Snyder rejects both the inevitability view and the cyclic view of history. The future of human affairs cannot be predicted for certain. Here he joins Karl Popper’s theses as expressed in The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism.  Snyder emphatically believes in the power of agency by individuals and organisations to shape the future.  Ideas and actions based on an understanding of the structure of history which is accessible to us all are important to make the exercise of that agency beneficial. (Snyder in contrast the general accessibility of the study of history with the study of advanced physics which is not accessible to everybody.) He emphasises the importance of fact and the need to proceed on an understanding of what is good and what is bad, or at least what is a little bit better and a little bit worse and what is truly evil. Finally, the importance of fact-based high quality local investigative journalism is crucial to give such an effort a chance to succeed and allow liberal democracy to flourish.

Unlike some other academics, Snyder takes his role as an educator as seriously as his job as an historian. Shakespeare’s Hamlet describes the world into which the Danish prince is thrown and says: “Time is out of joint”. These words contributed to Snyder feeling compelled to write The Road to Unfreedom (The similarity to the title to Viennese School economists Friedrich Hayek’s seminal Road to Serfdom may not be entirely coincidental, although Snyder comes from a very different school of thought than Hayek). Becoming a historian who - controversially for the members of his profession- looks at the present and the future through the lens of a thorough and structured analysis of the past. Snyder does so in a sharp-eyed yet moving and entertaining way. He may not be right in every aspect, but Snyder makes an invaluable and lasting contribution to a most important debate of our time. 

Snyder’s lecture was followed by a conversation with the Director of the Institute for Human Sciences Prof. Shalini Randeria who probed his ideas carefully and critically bringing China India and other key world players into the debate and allowing Snyder to clarify some of the concept and ideas he raised in his lecture and his book. He did so with great clarity, modesty giving occasional glimpses of a fine sense of humour. The interview rounded up another memorable evening with one of the great historians, communicators, and educators of our time. Thoughtful, thought-provoking an entertaining.

Note: A number of error corrections and editorial changes to improve the readability of this text have been made several hours after it was first published.

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