[Book Review] On Tyranny

William Blackford, 128 YinD

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder was published early 2017, in part a response to the outcome of the 2016 elections in the United States. The book, written by a respected scholar of Eastern European history and the Holocaust, provides a history lesson on tyranny in the twentieth century, how those lessons can inform our actions today, and how to see and prevent tyranny in the modern age. A scant 128 pages, this book is a quick read that can be obtained through Amazon for less than $6 (Kindle ebook is only $3.99). I borrowed a digital copy for free through a county library subscription in the U.S.

Through the lens of lessons learned from tyrants, despots, and fascists like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, Snyder guides us through twenty ways that we can identify and fight against tyranny today. The book is neatly arranged into chapters with clear themes and lessons, and full of references to seminal works.

Perhaps the best thing this book has going for it is that it advocates action that has real world impacts, and that we can do right now, today. It has some prescriptions and suggestions for how to stem the tide of democratic backsliding and fight against despotic-minded leaders from an everyday perspective.

Educate yourself and read longer articles.

We like to believe that we live in a world where tyranny and oppression are no longer possible. Snyder calls this the politics of inevitability, but as he astutely tells us, “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century.” We must not forget the lessons of the past, nor assume that the future we want will inevitably come to fruition without effort.

This also has a lot to do, Snyder believes, with the type of news to which we expose ourselves. As he puts it, “Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens. Each story on televised news is ‘breaking’ until it is displaced by the next one. So we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean.” When we see someone dismantle something piece by piece, even if it is televised right into our eyeballs, we can still find ourselves surprised that they actually succeeded in doing it when all we are left with are the pieces.

Unless we challenge ourselves to see the ocean, we will drown in it. This means moving away from tweets and Facebook status’ to long articles, books, research, and documentaries.

Subscribe to and support news sources that advocate truth and transparency and expose lies.

One of the themes throughout the book that seems most relevant to me is the importance of truth. As Snyder succinctly writes, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

Snyder says that we have an expectation that our news should be free, and that we just as often get what we pay for. “We find it natural that we pay for a plumber or a mechanic, but demand our news for free […] Why then should we form our political judgement on the basis of zero investment,” he writes.

Find news sources that you believe are not only truthful, but hold politicians and public officials accountable for the things that they say and insist upon transparency. When you do find them, do whatever you can to support them.

Be inclusive, use inclusive language and ideologies.

Snyder’s advice on symbols and ideology is to err on the side of caution. Hateful and exclusionary ideologies can so easily escalate into something so much more than we imagined. Snyder uses the example of how easily people adopted the Nazi symbol of the swastika, and how that symbol spoke volumes and was exclusionary by design. This helped perpetuate the ideologies of the party that created an environment within which horrible atrocities were made commonplace and procedural.

When we are advocating an ideology, or brandishing a symbol, we should think about whether or not that ideology includes or excludes our fellow citizens. This simple guideline can help prevent divisions that are easily exploited by demagogues.

Contribute time and/or money to causes that you believe in.

Since Snyder cites her quite a bit, I think it is appropriate to quote from one of Hannah Arendt’s seminal works to make this point; “[Totalitarian movements] made apparent what no other organ of public opinion had ever been able to show, namely, that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country.”[1]

Voting is great, but even voting may not be enough by itself. Get active. Find an organization that you feel is on your side in the fight against tyrannical governments and leaders and give to them. Give time. Give money. Give your support. Regular volunteering, even an hour a week, can make a huge difference. Don’t be one of the indifferent and inarticulate.

There are some not-so-great elements to the book. The book itself is fairly short, which makes it easily to read and reread, but brevity isn’t particularly conducive to the depth or complexity required to fully explore a topic so vast, and with so many moving parts.

Thankfully, the book is full of references to other works. Within the text, Snyder references a bevy of influential works and thinkers – 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few. As such, the book is an excellent starting point for research on tyranny, totalitarianism, and fascism. I recommend starting a reading list out of Snyder’s references if you want to dive deeper into the complexities of the issues.

Snyder has a tendency to lean towards the extreme at times in this work. He mostly uses Nazi Germany as a reference point, a case study in how tyrants seized power in the past and how that may or may not mirror some present-day actions of leaders, but sometimes he will assert far too forcefully that another holocaust may be right around the corner. Whether this is just playing to his audience or a ploy to sell more books is unclear, but I think that if we read it simply as a stern warning to stop things before they progress further it can be forgiven.

On Tyranny has its flaws, but it is a really good starting point, and a very important one, for a generation that has never had personal experience with the things that Snyder writes about. Is it the best book about tyranny on the shelves? Probably not. But it’s short, easy to read, and most importantly it advocates and suggests actual, real world actions for those who want to fight the spread of tyranny and its associated ideals.

I recommend reading this book. Even if you are already familiar with the complexities and the theories and everything behind these lessons, it is a good reminder to stay vigilant, and to make sure that others do the same, to the best of our ability. Wherever your political loyalties lie, protecting ourselves against tyranny is something that benefits all who value freedom, civil liberties, and truth.

[1] Arendt, Hannah. The origins of totalitarianism, 1966.


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