Timothy Snyder Keynote Lecture

Defending freedom against the rise of authoritarianism

On 4 December 2018, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the Keynote Lecture "The defence of freedom against the rise of authoritarianism" given by Timothy Snyder on the occasion of the publication of his latest work entitled The Road to Unfreedom (Galaxia Gutenberg).

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University and member of the Vienna Institute of Human Sciences. He specialises in the history of Europe, particularly the Holocaust and totalitarian regimes. He has written numerous books on dictatorships, including Land of Blood: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2011), which won him the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought (2013), On Tyranny: 20 Lessons to Learn from the 20th Century (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2017), a compilation of universal lessons on the rise of tyrannies and the ability of citizens to fight their establishment. He has just published El camino hacia la no libertad (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2018). He writes articles for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The New York Times Review of Books and The Guardian.

"The victory of liberal democracy seemed definitive with the end of the Cold War. Observers showed confidence in a peaceful, globalised future. But that faith was unjustified. Authoritarianism returned to Russia, as Putin found a set of fascist ideas he could use to justify rule by the rich. Since 2010, the current has spread from east to west, aided by the wars waged by Russia: physical warfare in Ukraine and cyber warfare in Europe and the United States. Russia found allies among nationalists, oligarchs and radicals around the world, and its drive to dissolve Western institutions, states and values was echoed in the West itself. The rise of populism, the British vote against the EU and the election of Donald Trump were Russian objectives, but the fact that it achieved them exposes the vulnerability of Western societies."


On 4 December 2018, Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, gave a lecture at the Rafael del Pino Foundation entitled "The defence of freedom in the face of the rise of totalitarianism", held on the occasion of the presentation of his book "The Road to Unfreedom". Snyder began by asking how we have moved from democratic systems to authoritarianism. To answer this question, Snyder pointed out that freedom depends on our sense of time, because freedom depends on the future. Our political leaders, however, have killed the future. Today it is very difficult to talk about the future because some try to defend the status quo, while others talk about a past that never existed. Yet no one talks about the future of their countries. This is a common denominator of authoritarian leaders. How did we get into this situation? What happened after 1989? According to Snyder, it was a strange time because of the important coincidences that took place there: the end of communism, the introduction of the ideas of neoliberalism and the creation of the European Union by the Maastricht Treaty. These are all major events that happened simultaneously by chance. From then on, we thought of the ultimate triumph of democracy and the policy of inevitability, in the sense that we all believed in progress and that the future would be the same as the present because there was no alternative to democracy and the market economy. This way of thinking, however, is problematic, partly because it is not true and partly also because this is changing and we are moving to the politics of eternity, which is a way of not taking responsibility. In this sense, instead of thriving, we think of destiny, so that time is not an inevitable line, but a cycle that repeats itself over and over again because someone comes along and takes away what we have achieved. In America, for example, we talk again about America becoming great again, about someone saving us from communism. We also think that technology is not our enemy, that technical progress is synonymous with intellectual progress and that the internet would make us better people. However, that makes us caricatures of ourselves. Trump understands this very well and uses it to keep us attached to the past. The best example of the politics of eternity is Russia. When Obama referred to Russia he said it was nothing more than a regional power, because that was the politics of inevitability. Russia, however, was already somewhere else, it has gone to the extreme of the politics of eternity and, from there, it is trying to seduce us. Russia is the capital of no future and its leaders act as if there is no future. Why? Snyder lists five reasons. First, Russian leaders realised that the policy of inevitability was wrong, that capitalism would not bring democracy. Second, local news died. When they don't exist, that vacuum is filled by the mainstream media elsewhere. People then begin to distrust them because they don't know them and therefore don't believe them. Thirdly, there are the radical differences in income levels. If there is inequality, that means there is no social progress, which causes people to stop believing in the future. Then there are hydrocarbons. The ruling class depends on its export, so the future is global warming. Finally, there is the problem of Putin's succession. Nobody knows what will happen when Putin dies. In this context, Russian elites have found a new way of governing based on mistrust. They tell citizens that they are always lying, but that the rest of the world is lying too. The idea of Russia is negative nationalism. The same is true of Russia's foreign policy. If you say the whole world lies, how do you confront the EU or the US? Well, what you do is try to break them down by making them a parody of themselves. Russia, that's why it's behind Trump, behind Brexit. Every extremist political force in Europe owes something to Russia. This clashes with the politics of American inevitability based on American democratic exceptionality, on the belief that the free market will bring democracy - which it will not - and on trust in technical progress, when the truth is that the decline of democracy coincides with the development of the internet and connectivity. As this policy of inevitability fails, Trump tries to lure people with the discourse that the bright future can return to the country, when, in reality, Trump is against everything that brought that future in the past. Moreover, according to Trump, what is wrong with America is the people who come from outside. This is an example of nostalgia for the past and causes nothing to be done for the future. Trump is a product of the less democratic side of American life. He was elected only because of his reputation in the media. He is nothing more than a traditional showman. Russia used American technology to tilt the election in Trump's favour. The European Union, for its part, also has a policy of inevitability, which is a great idea. European nations are very old and smart and learned from the experiences of the two world wars and the inter-war period. That is what makes it dangerous for Russia, and that is why Russia is trying to weaken it. To do so, it is trying to exploit a weakness. The Europe that coalesced around the idea of becoming strong as a continent is a collection of elements from different empires that, when they broke apart, coalesced to make themselves stronger. Russia is spreading the idea that, to become strong again, these former imperial states must regain their own personality. As Russia itself is doing.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.