On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), by Timothy Snyder


Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who has admirably and bravely immersed himself in chronicling (and setting right) the World War Two totalitarian horrors–the staggering number of murders–in eastern Europe, most notably in his Bloodlands (see elsewhere in this blog for a review of this awful and true history comparable to Berlin Diary and The Gulag Archipelago), has in this dismaying year of Trump written a short and unerring handbook on how liberal democrats should resist tyranny, especially young Americans watching screens and perhaps well nigh oblivious not only to dark history but to humankind’s swampish origins and persisting savagery, especially of uncivilized human nature.

In short, Snyder urges Eternal Vigilance and To Live Free Or Die. On Tyranny is the latest press conference of the Framers outside that Philadelphia Convention Hall–those miraculous idealistic champions of human rights and cynical designers of the Separation of Powers resurrected in spirit in On Tyranny–in which Ben Franklin says he and his colleagues have created a Republic, if only we can preserve it.

Snyder is writing urgently about that preservation in a century beyond the imagination of the Framers.

It is a small book of but 124 pages–little more than an hour to read–brimming with dire wisdom. It could be sewn into the lining of your coat for concealment on monitored streets. Indeed, historian Snyder, fittingly serious, ends with a final call–the ultimate lesson for resistors–to “be as courageous as you can”:

“If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

He goes on to remind us:

“In fact, the precedence set by the Founders demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it. Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to facism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.”

Trump is never mentioned by name. But he lives in Snyder’s pages in selective references to Trump’s characteristic dangerous campaigning. Snyder both gives an authoritative and superb historical context for this moment in our political history and writes a work of universal wisdom.

A listing of the titles of Snyder’s  brief chapters–his advice for small and large actions of resistance–conveys his call to action:  Do Not Obey in Advance; Defend Institutions; Beware the One-Party State; Take Responsibility for the Face of the World; Be Wary of Paramilitaries; Be Reflective If  You Must Be Armed; Stand Out; Be Kind to Our Language; Believe in Truth; Investigate; Make Eye Contact and Small Talk; Practice Corporeal Politics; Establish a Private Life; Contribute to Good Causes; Learn from Peers in Other Countries; Listen to Dangerous Words; Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives; Be a Patriot; Be as Courageous As You Can.

On Tyranny is a most valuable book by a true expert on the contingency we face both in the moment and always.