Book Review: ‘On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century’

Ben Miles

Timothy Snyder is a history professor at Yale University and a prolific author, having written tomes such as “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” and “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” his latest and shortest (a pamphlet-like) book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” (published in 2017) is especially relevant to the tumultuous times, in which we are now living (and dying).

In the age of a once-in-a-century pandemic and civil unrest the likes of which we haven’t experienced since the 1960s, Professor Snyder’s tiny treatise has huge implications. Though the United States hasn’t been the scene of such widespread to-the-streets actions since the 60s, the attempt by authoritarian-minded leaders to tamp-down on demonstrations—as we’ve seen in Washington D.C. and Portland, Oregon—has been carried through in repressive regimes in various parts of the world, throughout the 20th century.

In Lesson 1 of “On Tyranny,” Professor Snyder advises, “Do not obey in advance.” He instructs that “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” As the year 1938 began, Adolph Hitler was fully in power in Germany and was moving to annex Austria. Once the Austrian chancellor yielded to this threat it was, according to Professor Snyder, the “anticipatory obedience” of the Austrians’ that determined the fate of Austrian Jews. The phrase, “ anticipatory obedience,” writes Professor Snyder, “means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation.” Therefore, reflect and question authority in order to avoid the totalitarian trap of anticipatory obedience.

Another eerily portentous warning comes in section 10 of “On Tyranny,” which has the heading “Believe in truth.” At the onset of this portion of the booklet, Professor Snyder writes: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” Here the Professor outlines how “truth Dies” in four modalities. 1. Open hostility to verifiable reality. 2. Shamanistic incantation, which is steeped in “endless repetition, designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.” The 2016 presidential campaign was riddled with such incantations as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary,” along with repetitive chants like “Build that wall” and “Lock her up.” 3. This mode is referred to by Professor Snyder as “magical thinking,” wherein there’s an obvious “embrace of contradiction.” For example, promises of tax cuts for all, while at the same time “eliminating the national debt and increasing spending on social policy and national defense.” Then there’s the final mode in killing truth; that is, “misplaced faith.” We see this in claims such as “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.”

Among the “Twenty Lessons” are simple acts that can subvert tyranny. Here are several pointers that Professor Snyder offers: Investigate—figure things out for yourself; Practice corporeal politics—make new friends and march with them; Establish a private life—have personal exchanges in person; Contribute to good causes—be active in organizations that express your own view of life; Listen for dangerous words—be alert to the words “extremism” and “terrorism”; Be a patriot—set a good example of what America means for generations to come; and Be as courageous as you can be—if none of us is prepared to face death for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

In this unique epoch of dystopian threats, “On Tyranny” is a guidebook on what must be done to undermine authoritarianism and the tyrannical mayhem that history has demonstrated is certain to occur in the grip of totalitarian rule.

What: “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century.”
Copyright 2017.—a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
By Timothy Snyder
ISBN: 978-0-8041-9011-4
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-8041-9012-1


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