Review of Timothy Snyder’s, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century


© Darrell Arnold– (Reprinted with Permission)
http://darrellarnold.com/2018/07/16/on-tyranny/

In bite-sized chunks of two to eight (short) pages Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, offers a practical guide to understanding and possibly averting tyranny. [In his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.]

At 126 pages, this small paperback is a great, quick read that offers lessons Snyder has accumulated over years of studying tyrannies around the world. His advice, accompanied by anecdotal stories from authoritarian regimes in twenty chapters, includes: Defend institutions, Remember Professional ethics, Believe in truth, Establish a private life, Be a patriot.

In Chapter 4, “Take responsibility for the face of the world,” Snyder asserts that “life is political”: “the minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote” (33). In everyday life, then, we should be attentive to our effect on the social and political world around us. In Hitler’s Germany, for example, small delinquencies in the everyday cascaded into increasingly larger ones: those who were able to be stamped as “pigs” were easier to later boycott because they were Jewish; and they were so much the easier to target more egregiously later. After first dehumanizing them in speech and with symbols, it was later possible to completely dominate them.

In Chapter five, “Remember professional ethics,” Snyder mentions both how legal and medical professionals came to the service of the Nazi regime. Professional lawyers helped twist the law to the Nazi’s perverse ends. Medical professionals proved quite willing to participate in ungodly experiments with Jews to advance medical knowledge. Collectives of professionals who are committed to the ethical codes of their professions can offer some resistance to dehumanizing practices supported by a government. As Snyder notes: “Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional” (41).

In Chapter eight, “Stand Out,” Snyder reminds us of great individuals throughout history, like Rosa Parks, who were not afraid to stand out and follow their consciences in the face of opposing political forces and who set positive examples for the struggle against domination. In various historical examples, we see it is all too easy to accommodate those who dominate. However, Winston Churchill in 1940 was another counter-example, as he entered into war to help Poland, which was largely seen by many others as a lost cause. As Snyder writes: “he himself helped the British to define themselves as a proud people who would calmly resist evil…. Churchill did what others had not done. Rather than concede in advance, he forced Hitler to change his plans” (54ff.).

Chapter 10, entitled “Believe in Truth,” begins with the prescient statement: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights” (65). Once truth is disarmed, and people simply reject it as the adjudicating criteria for belief, politics can quickly descend into spectacle. Hostility toward verification dominates. “Shamanistic incantations,” which Victor Klemperer described as “endless repetition” of some key phrases, takes over: Think of “lock her up” or “Build that wall.” Magical thinking also comes to dominate, accompanying the confused view that one particular political leader alone can solve the nation’s ills. As in the German example, people come to accept that one just needs faith in the “Fuehrer.” Our post-truth culture increases our vulnerability to this. In Snyder’s words: “Post-truth is pre-fascism” (71)

To break the spell of magical thinking and incantation, it is important to “investigate” (Chapter 11). Clearly, much of the information that we encounter every day is false. Some of it is purposefully meant to sew confusion. So it is important to learn to think critically about sources of information and to pursue a correct understanding of the world. As Vaclav Havel had written, “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” (78).

In “Practice corporal politics” and “Establish a private life” (Chapters 13 and 14), Snyder highlights the need for contact with people in one’s private life, partially in civil society (churches, clubs, organizations). Since “tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you,” he also advises “try not to have hooks.” Secure private information, for example, on your computer. But also publicly we can join groups that preserve human rights (91). This is related to Chapter 15, “Contribute to good causes”: The contribution can be in time or money, but it is a form of active engagement in shaping the world in accord with our own values and views.

In Chapter 16, “Learn from peers in other countries,” Snyder urges us to not only learn from others but to make friends with those in other countries. And in case the tyranny comes, “Make sure you and your family have passports” (95).

In “Be Calm When the Unthinkable Comes,” Chapter 18, we are urged to consider that demagogues often exploit crises to implement Martial law. In the search for safety, it is precisely in times of crisis that people are often more willing to compromise civil liberties and to allow changes in the constitutional order. Realize this, and counter it if it begins to occur. Understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. In “Be Patriotic,” Chapter 19, Snyder encourages us to serve the ideals of our rights-based democracy, not to be victims of an authoritarian politics carried out by nationalists who are often completely out of sync with the ideals of the nation. Chapter 20 enjoins “Be as courageous as you can”: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny” (115).

Snyder finishes the book with a short epilogue contrasting two views of politics that he views as anti-historical, the “politics of inevitability” with the “politics of eternity.” Inevitability politicians work with a teleological view of history in which the course of history is maintained to be known in advance. It is anti-historical insofar as such a view presumes that there is no real freedom to escape the final end of history. Eternity politicians are anti-historical in another way. They focus on a past, but as an ideal type, not one comprised of real facts. So, eternity politicians refer to the soul of a country, pure, and often under siege by external forces. In contrast, Snyder sees what we might call a politics of freedom under which “history permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something” (125).

This typology is developed further in Snyder’s “The Road to Unfreedom.” Regardless of whether one finds the typology ultimately compelling or accepts Snyder’s apparent moderate liberalism, one may still admire Snyder’s attempt to highlight the importance of human freedom. Those attracted to Snyder’s book, which I hope will be many, are likely to agree with his appeals that we ought to “begin to make history” (126). Otherwise, various authoritarians surely will do it for us.

Since Snyder wrote his book, the possibilities of an increase in authoritarianism, unfortunately, do not appear to be abating. Rather, there increasingly appear to be very good reasons to heed Snyder’s practical suggestions for a politics of resistance.

3 thoughts on “Review of Timothy Snyder’s, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

  1. Churchill’s entry into the war was so unexpected that, when Hitler learned that the UK had declared war, he furiously turned to his foreign minister, von Ribbentrop (who had assured him that the British would never be so foolish as to enter the war on Poland’s side) and demanded “What do we do now?” Oops. We just started World War II.

    I’ll add a 21st recommendation, which sadly is available only to a benighted few of us: design a game demonstrating the idiotic path we’re walking down. Have it ready on the web by October 1st.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Chris. Churchill showed real decisive leadership, and set the tone for the country going forward. As Snyder notes in the book, though Hitler expected Britain to “come to terms after the fall of France.” But Churchill said about the French “Whatever you may do, we shall fight on for ever and ever and ever.” He seems to have helped the British understand themselves as good people who would do what was needed to fight evil. Snyder notes that Churchill said of the period of the air campaign that it was “a time when it was equally good to live or die.” And he communicated about “the buoyant and imperturbable temper of Britain which I had the honor to express.”

    We could use some statesmen now, especially among the Republicans, who would resist our own descent into confusion and the erosion of our democratic norms. Some public figures are doing their part, but among Republican politicians we haven’t seen action, only some rhetoric. The important thing about Churchill is that he followed his elevated rhetoric with elevated action.

  3. thanks for the comments Darrell but I don’t expect any Republicans to show integrity. What’s left of the party is thoroughly corrupt. JGM

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