I’ve been in the midst of an unusual reading jag lately. Just the other day, I wrapped up Anne Applebaum‘s Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, a travel journal of her journey through Eastern Europe in 1991, first published in 1994 and recently reissued with a new introduction; I picked this up after finishing her most recent book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, and she’s become one of those writers whom I think I’ll be reading every word of. (Fortunately I won’t have to wait for her next book; she writes a weekly column for the Washington Post.) Next on my bedside table is Timothy Snyder‘s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, this to follow up on Snyder’s monograph On Tyranny from last year, which I read in a quick afternoon recently. Like Applebaum, Snyder is a public intellectual and a historian of the same region; before the publication of On Tyranny, he was best known for Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and is a member of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience. Both writers are extraordinarily graceful and are possessed of incontrovertible expertise, indefatigable research skills, and an admirable dry wit. I’d have reviewed both Applebaum’s and Snyder’s recent books here, but in my haste to evangelize I loaned out my copies of these books to friends and family and therefore don’t have them readily to hand.
Applebaum and Snyder share a few affinities with myself which perhaps leave me open to a particularly personal admiration of their work. We are all of the same historical generation (I was born in 1962, Applebaum in 1964, and Snyder in 1969), and we each have two children. These seem rather trivial coincidences, but I’m not sure that they are. Apart from the Vietnam War — an outgrowth of the Cold War itself — the major historical event of our early lives was the failure of Soviet-style Communism and the opening of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This happened when I was 27. (And as it happens, the most recent film I’ve enjoyed was The Death of Stalin, directed by Armando Iannucci — born 1963.)
It’s hard to describe for those who are younger just what it felt like to live in an America in the midst of the Cold War, when the arms race was in full swing and TV movies like The Day After reminded us that the end was just around the corner. In the 1970s we also had the appearance in the West of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to reveal to us the depth of the horrors of the gulag under Stalin; the Soviet government’s treatment of the writer and that book was a reminder that such governments still existed among us and constituted a real threat. The shock of the quick and relatively non-violent collapse of the Soviet regime, both in the USSR and in the countries like Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of the Eastern Bloc, was a shock to the soul. I can’t speak for Applebaum and Snyder, but it had seemed until then that there’d be no end to the East/West conflict in my time, that I’d live most of my life with the same geopolitical angst.
In 1990 I decided it was time to see the region for myself, and for six weeks I traveled through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, in those pre-EU days gingerly negotiating a welter of customs and border guards along the way. Partly I was drawn there by my own ethnic background; my grandparents had emigrated to the US in the early 20th century from Ukraine, Lithuania, and Slovakia (as we know them now; both Applebaum and Snyder amply demonstrate that the placenames of these nation-states have historically been arbitrary fictions). Otherwise, I’d been intrigued by Timothy Garton Ash‘s journalism about the region. It was astonishing to experience the sheer joy that you could still find in the streets of Prague and Budapest, the cheerful welcome that Americans and their dollars received in beer halls, cafes, restaurants, and hotels; it was in Prague that year that I attended my first and until now only Rolling Stones concert, and saw Vaclav Havel standing next to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on a balcony of the Prague Castle. Two years later — at about the same time Applebaum was travelling through regions somewhat further north and east — I spent nearly twelve months teaching English in a small Moravian town of 4,000 people.
I was in that town when Czechoslovakia split apart at midnight on January 1, 1993. Czechoslovakia, too, had been something of a national fiction as well, carved out of Central Europe at the end of World War I by the victorious powers, but in hindsight it may have been the first inkling of the extreme nationalism that is only now reaching full bloom in Hungary, Ukraine, and other states. The new Czech Republic/Slovakia border was only a few miles away, and there was little celebration on either side of the new border crossing, especially among my now-Czech, formerly-Czechoslovak acquaintances and friends. There were differences between the two states of course; they shared a common language, but of distinctly different dialects; Bratislava had its eyes set on the east, Prague and Brno on the west. Havel delivered a distinctly subdued, even mournful New Year’s Day address that day, almost as if he could foresee that this was the end of one world and the beginning of another, more angst-ridden geopolitics after the miracle of the Velvet Revolution.
It seems that Snyder and Applebaum recognize that as well. It may have been this peculiarly historical and personal perspective that has led to their ability to recognize the increasingly authoritarian, tyrannical nature of world politics, not least here in the US as well. Of course, today’s tyrants won’t resemble Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or Mao; they couldn’t. History doesn’t repeat itself, but we can learn from it about our present situation. As Snyder told Süddeutsche Zeitung in an interview last year, “The main advantage that we have is that we can learn from the 1930s. Again, it’s very important to stress that history does not repeat. But it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance.”
These days I’ve also been drawn to early American history; as a native Philadelphian I was used to being reminded of the history of the United States, and the principles upon which it was founded, every time I walked around the city, in which history can be found on every streetcorner: in architecture and buildings, physical reminders of those principles and the people who fought for them. Not too long ago I introduced my daughters, aged nine and eight, to this same history, and of course their ancestral forebears are my own as well.
This is why I hear quite clearly Applebaum and Snyder’s call for resistance to Donald Trump and his administration, a president and administration seemingly dedicated to the destructions of those institutions — the free press, the judiciary, Congress, civic organizations — that are necessary to the rule of law as conceived by the founders of the United States. It’s also why I appear to be giving away so many of their books to my friends and family. In order to change or defend anything, you have to understand why you must change or defend it, and some of the reasons for this can be found in history. So I read Applebaum and Snyder; I supplement them with Richard Hofstadter and Susan Jacoby; I turn again to Havel and Timothy Garton Ash.
For quite some time I found it difficult to read books; I’m as susceptible to the charms of Facebook, iPhones, and the internet as anyone else; they’re bright, shiny things that move and make noise. We’re fascinated by them as children, as well we should be. But there comes a time when we have to grow up.