Updated on April 14, 2017
15. ‘On Tyranny’ by Timothy Snyder
I downloaded On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century immediately after watching this video, so I recommend you watch it too if you want to be totally convinced to read this powerful and informative book.
On Tyranny looks at the current state of modern, mostly American politics and teaches us lessons from the past so that we don’t fall into the same errors in the future. It’s also very short, so you get a lot out of just a couple of hours’ reading.
I’m going to have to pepper this review with lots of quotes, because Snyder seems to be a master at encapsulating huge and complex concepts in short, pithy sentences. Let’s start with this one:
“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
That gives you something an idea of the tone of this book. Snyder is clearly not a fan of Trump’s politics (probably the understatement of the year), but this book isn’t just a singular attack against that man: it’s a systematic deconstruction of the frameworks that allow people like Trump to come to power, frameworks that in some cases are intentionally built, and in other cases arise out of natural (yet avoidable) human reactions to certain events.
Snyder breaks down his book into twenty ‘lessons’ contained within very short chapters, with a useful little summary at the beginning of each. In these chapters he outlines the ways in which tyrants come to power, and what the average citizen can do to stop them. For example, Lesson 11 is ‘Investigate’. Tyrannical leaders control and manipulate the media (or gag it) so that only their message gets across; the way to combat this is to always seek out multiple sources, find evidence for the things you read, and support investigative and print journalism with real money. I also liked Lesson 12, ‘Make eye contact and small talk’, especially with people on the other side of the debate, or with people you’re being told to fear; and Lesson 15, ‘Contribute to good causes’, which advocates supporting charities, NGOs, or any organisation (political or not) that promotes organised and civil society. Even brewing good beer counts!
“If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.”
The chapter ‘Be a patriot’ includes a wonderfully ferocious breakdown of Trump’s various nefarious activities, using the repeated sentence structure “It is not patriotic to…”. But it isn’t just US politics that come under fire – there are also mentions of the UK’s Brexit mess, and the rise of extreme-right parties elsewhere in Europe, like France. Throughout, Snyder draws comparisons with history, particularly World War Two, German Nazism and Russian Communism, and shows the ways in which our modern politics correspond to what has happened before. In some cases the similarities are creepy: for instance, some people commenting against Brexit were dubbed “enemies of the people”, the exact phrase used during Soviet show-trials.
Reading this book is not a comfortable experience. It will unsettle you and make you genuinely worry about the state of the world. But it won’t leave you floundering in a sea of despair. Snyder offers tangible solutions, things we can all do to halt the advance of tyranny, starting with admitting that the ‘politics of inevitability’ (the belief that the world will eventually move towards liberal democracy, no matter what we do) has made us complacent, and that our ideals are something we will have to work for, in defiance of those who are in a position to exploit, frighten and confuse us. Lesson 20 simply states, ‘Be as courageous as you can’.
“If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, than all of us will die under tyranny.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy On Tyranny here.