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Book Review: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

I know we’re only 60 days into the year. But last night I read one of the most important books of 2017.

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is a slim yet essential volume using history to outline methods of protecting American democracy. Even prior to the election “fascism” became a buzzword for Trump and Trumpism. Tyranny, though, is a broader and more conceptually correct term. Snyder is quite familiar with the subject, teaching East European political history at Yale University. He’s written extensively about that and related subjects, including the multiple award-winning Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, an examination of the impact of those two tyrants on the peoples of modern-day Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic states.

Snyder’s 20 lessons began life as a November Facebook post. Neither that nor the fact the book is less than 150 pages diminishes its importance. On Tyranny looks to European history because, he says, “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” In doing so, Snyder adapts his analysis to elements of American culture not present in the European situations.

What are his 20 lessons? His first is “Do not obey in advance.” At first, one might disagree with his assertion that “[m]ost of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” But his analysis speaks to the various efforts at normalizing Trump. “At the very beginning,” he writes, “anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation.” How many of us are doing that or being urged to do so? That, Snyder argues, is what happened under both Nazism and communism.

“Defend institutions,” Snyder urges. He argues that we, like Germans and eastern Europeans, believe that our institutional structures will protect erosion of our liberties and rights. That assumption is unwarranted. Institutions are inanimate entities incapable of defending themselves. As a result, he says, “Do not speak of ‘institutions’ unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf,”

On Tyranny also suggests “Be kind to our language.” It’s easy to see why this is one of my favorite rules. Among other things, Snyder urges we understand the risks of electronic media, including the internet. These windows on current events tend to reiterate the meanings politicians try to give words. How do we combat becoming entranced?

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

Two other rules are somewhat related. “Listen for dangerous words,” Snyder warns. We need to be careful of cries of extremism and terrorism. Equally important is “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” We will see patriotism and fear of terrorism exploited when a national disaster occurs. Tyranny exploits terror and fear to consolidate power. “Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving,” Snyder writes. “It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Snyder addresses today’s “post-truth” and fake news era with two rules. One, “Believe in truth,” argues that one way tyranny prevails is by attempting to change/create reality with lies and people accept those lies on blind faith. Snyder is correct when he says, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” He, in fact, defines post-truth as pre-fascism. The other is simply “Investigate.” We all need to take responsibility for figuring things out for ourselves. We all need to realize that some of what is on the internet is false or, even if it has a smidgent of truth, tailored diatribe. Snyder points to an observation by one of those who battled tyranny in Eastern Europe, Václav Havel, who wrote, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living in truth.”

Personal commitment is also key. “Stand out,” On Tyranny urges. “The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.” Similar, it is incumbent upon us to not ignore symbols of hate. We should remove them and set an example in doing so. After all, “[i]n the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.”

Ultimately, that is the bottom line of Snyder’s “rules.” Twentieth Century Europe teaches that individual integrity, ethics and action are key. On Tyranny teaches that we must be our best selves if we want to protect America and enable it to live up to its ideals. There is no more important message in this moment of history.


Human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

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