Timothy Snyder: Holocaust Education is Test of Democracy








Renowned Historian Sees Lessons from Holocaust as important in era of rising Authoritarianism

Holocaust education can provide an important test of democracy, said the renowned historian, Timothy Snyder. “Democracy is about self-correction. It’s about reflection, and Holocaust history is an opportunity to reflect, and to correct,” he said, speaking to a virtual audience for the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights. “The better countries are able to do that, whether it’s the history of the Holocaust, or the history of slavery, whatever it might be. I think with more, the more hope we can have for the democratic future,” he added.

Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, and author of several books including On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century and Black Earth: Holocaust as Warning, was speaking on the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, in Ukraine, which until recently ignored its own complicity in the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews in September, 1941. Snyder warned against the reluctance of countries like Ukraine, Lithuania and other former Soviet-bloc countries to take responsibility for their own actions during the Holocaust, saying “It perverts the whole purpose of commemoration…to look at history, take responsibility.”

Snyder was interviewed by Arthur Berger, a board member of The Olga Lengyel Institute (TOLI) and former senior official at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He spoke of similarities between the rise of fascism in the 1930s and today’s popular demagogic leaders. “Authoritarians, in Europe and the US, have easy answers to difficult problems. They invite people to forget about history and only focus on their impulses in the present. They provide lies which are more comfortable than the truth, getting people to form tribes and polarize politics.”

“Lessons from Holocaust history can be applied elsewhere, to other events in other countries, “ said the Yale scholar. “They set a high standard which we should try to apply to other causes, like for instance slavery and voter suppression,” he added.

Social Media, Conspiracy Theories and Antisemitism

The Yale scholar singled out social media for the international proliferation of hatred and antisemitism. “The rise of conspiracy theories has a lot to do with the way social media works. Social media is not designed to educate, but to gather attention. It seeks out the negative prejudices. People very quickly get drawn into these traps.”

As an example, he cited the long-held canard that a Jewish conspiracy runs the world. “This myth has had an enormous revival on the internet, thanks to the internet because it’s an idea which explains everything.”

“The net effect of social media in the 21st century has been to make democracy a lot harder, and it has been to make conspiracy theorizing a lot easier,” said the historian.

Raising the challenge of confronting the surge of hate on social media, he explained that, “Humans can be educated to be morally aware. But you can’t teach algorithms that. You have a world where quantity, not quality, dominates. And unfortunately, in that world, this particular conspiracy theory has come back with a vengeance.”

Asked about the connection between these conspiracy theories and real-world events, Snyder cited the attacks on synagogues, Black churches, and the January 6 storming of the Capitol building, “People build beliefs on the basis of images on social media. From the virtual world they act out in the real world.”

Lessons from the Holocaust

Speaking about the danger to democracy today and lessons from the past, Snyder noted how Hitler would brandish the free press as “an enemy of the people,” and a “lying press,” refrains echoed today by the extreme right and its leadership., “I think January 6th(assault on the Capitol) is more like the Beer Hall Putsch (the failed coup by Hitler in November 1923). It is more like the failed coup attempt, but what a failed coup attempt is, is the one that comes before the successful coup attempt…This is all the more reason to be looking out for the Reichstag fire type of thing.”

“History can sometimes help us see a pattern which is really here, but has escaped our notice.”

Asked by Berger if he is optimistic about the future of democracy, Snyder responded, “Democracy is a project, not a heritage….Democracy is something you have to push towards…you can’t inherit it from the past, you can only seize it from the future.”

Snyder’s widely-read book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century launched this week as a graphic edition illustrated by Nora Krug. For organizations like TOLI, whose mission is Holocaust education programs for teachers, the book can be a valuable resource for educators and students.

View the full interview here.


For more information about The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), please contact info@tolinstitute.org

TOLI is located at 58 East 79th Street in Manhattan. (get directions)