On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
by Timothy Snyder
On Tyranny is a short little book. I don’t think it needs to be longer – it’s easy to read, succinct, and is meant to serve as a warning. If anyone wants to learn more about any of the twenty lessons, there are plenty of resources for that. It’s simply “HEY. This happened before. And this happened before. And this happened before and YOU NEED TO SEE THESE SIMILARITIES.” It was a very quick read, but has left me with a lot to think about.
The format is simple: Twenty sections, each beginning with a lesson title and a short summary paragraph, then going into more detail in the next two to three pages. For example:
Do Not Obey In Advance.
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
The next few pages talk about Austrian Nazis rounded up Jews and used them as forced labor, before the German government told them to. When Jewish businesses were marked as such, people immediately started avoiding them. Anticipatory obedience. (Relate this to the suddenly overt racism and Nazi marches we’re now facing in the US – where that used to be hidden.)
Take Responsibility For The Face Of The World.
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
The next pages talk about propaganda, and signs. If we tolerate swastikas, we imply that we accept them. That we support them. And if the oppressed groups that those swastikas are aimed at see everyone around them supporting them, who do they look to for help? All it takes is one person deciding to scrub off or paint over the swastika, for people around them to realize that’s a thing that can be done. This plays into another section, which talked about Standing Out. Do the thing that makes you stand out – whether that’s standing up for a minority, or scrubbing swastikas off walls, or attending a protest. If you don’t stand out, you’re too easily ignored as part of the problem.
This book had lots of holds at my local library – while I was sad to have to wait so long, I was pleased that so many people wanted to read it. I was 35th in line at one point! Just knowing that so many people want to read it is a little reassuring. The author has written several books on the Holocaust, WWII, and the rise of Hitler, so he knows what he’s talking about, and it shows in his writing.
On Tyranny is a quick read and does an amazing job of boiling a lot of complicated concepts down into very succinct little points. I definitely recommend it as a jumping off point. Just don’t let it be all you read.
From the cover of On Tyranny:
The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We 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.