Well-applied history

In his opinion piece for the News (“TENREIRO-BRASCHI: Misapplying History,” April 14, 2017) Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi ’19 criticizes Yale professor Timothy Snyder for his recent book, “On Tyranny,” for “misapplying history” in drawing parallels between President Donald Trump’s America and Germany in the 1930s. Tenreiro-Braschi’s critique is flawed because he both misunderstands the place of history in academic and public discourse and misinterprets Snyder’s publications with a book seeking a wider audience and impact.

Snyder’s thoughts are sorely needed considering the populist movements currently sweeping the globe. When Sean Spicer makes a statement like, “Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” the post-factual society Snyder warns of feels all too real. Snyder’s counsel to “believe in truth” is not merely a “platitude” (as Tenreiro-Braschi calls it), but a call to action. Tenreiro-Braschi argues that Germany of the 1930s and the contemporary United States are too dissimilar to allow for Snyder’s historical comparison and subsequent recommendation that Americans take precautions against a potentially authoritarian government. Tenreiro-Braschi calls this “the fallacy of historical resemblance” when a historian “asserts that any two historical moments that share vague similarities should be treated as equivalent.”

This is a superficial and incomplete read of Snyder’s message. Snyder asserts that present-day Americans should carry with them an understanding of the political mechanisms by which Hitler seized power to avoid allowing similar behavior in our society. Snyder further notes that we must guard against similar historical forces — politics of emergency, a retreat from globalization and attacks on the press — at play in both political moments. These similarities are more than “facile historical connections,” as Tenreiro-Braschi labels them. Snyder does not assert equivalence, but rather offers suggestions to accompany his comparison of two societies in turmoil. 

Tenreiro-Braschi further disparages making policy suggestions based on historical parallel as a “misapplication” of academia, thus attacking the place and utility of history in an educated society. This idea is profoundly disconcerting. The power of history is in its ability to guide our understanding of unpredictable current events and policy decisions, not to predict, which Snyder never claims to do. If the type of analysis Snyder presents in his books is fallacious, then what is the place of history at all? Why consider the past if comparisons cannot inform our understanding of the present and future?

An appreciation of our incredible faculty would both greatly benefit Tenreiro-Braschi and perhaps cause him to reconsider the tone of his article. This is not to diminish Tenreiro-Braschi’s right to disagree with a professor (or anyone for that matter), but to maintain logical consistency and interface respectfully with faculty members and peers.

Steven Lewis ’18

Steven Lewis is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at steven.lewis@yale.edu