Just read: 'On Tyranny' by Timothy Snyder

Just read is a blog where I blog about something I just read. Here are all of the entries. And here are all of the entries that are specifically about books (i.e. IRL books, not like comic books, you know?).


This will be a pretty short blog for a pretty short book.

Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny is a look at the current state of American politics and how it compares to political moments in various countries at various times in the past. Snyder is a Holocaust historian and is especially expert in the history of Eastern and Central Europe, so his knowledge of the rise and power of anti-democratic states in Germany, Russia and Czechoslovakia is encompassing.


At only 125 pages, this book is small enough to fit in a back pocket, and some of its lessons feel important enough to keep them that close at all times -- and it only costs between $4 and $6 on Amazon, depending on whether you prefer Kindle or paperback. On Tyranny promises "20 lessons from the 20th century" on its cover, but I prefer to think of each of these 20 chapters as a full-on, dual-purpose crash-course in How To Not Accidentally Stand Idly By As Your Country Becomes A Fascist State. The first task of each chapter is to introduce a way in which you can visibly see and predict the dissolution of democracy based on how democracies of the past have failed. Each chapter's second job is to tell you what you can do to help prevent that from happening. The book's bite-sized presentation is handy for its brevity; On Tyranny is a quick-paced read, so it serves as a good introduction to historical reading or to critical reading of current American politics (which is an introduction I certainly needed myself).

"We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats [as fascism and communism]," Snyder writes in the book's introduction. "This is a misguided reflex. In fact, the precedent 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 fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience."

That old adage of learning from the past, or otherwise being doomed to repeat it, is more or less the basis of this book. For example, the book's third lesson is called "Beware the one-party state." It outlines how Nazis and communists whose political parties performed well in elections in the 1930s and 1940s then proceeded to "slice off layers of opposition one by one" en route to assuming full control over a government without any competition from an opposing party. Many people who voted for these parties in those initial elections had no idea they were voting in the last truly free election for decades. Many people who voted for these parties -- perhaps as a way of displaying their different viewpoints in politics or culture -- undoubtedly died under the tyrannies they helped nudge toward power.

This lesson applies to American politics in a pretty obvious way, too. As Snyder writes, "every lever of power at the federal level" is currently controlled by the party that is actually less popular in our country, along with a majority of state governorships. While Republicans can win elections, they cannot govern particularly well -- as we have seen so far during Donald Trump's first year in office. "The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular with the society at large, and several that are generally unpopular -- and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it." 

That third lesson ties quite directly into the book's eighteenth lesson, for me. "Be calm when the unthinkable arrives." Snyder writes that modern tyrannies are formed and maintained by exercising in terror management. They exploit terrorist attacks as excuses to consolidate power and make the life of governing without opposition easier for themselves. It's "the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book," Snyder writes, for an authoritarian to claim that the correct and needed response to a sudden disaster is to destroy a system of checks and balances, to end the public's freedom of speech, or to abolish opposition parties. Snyder explains specific ways in which Hitler and Putin used terrorist attacks -- some real, some manufactured by Hitler and Putin themselves -- in Germany and Russia to make themselves more powerful.

Finally, the last lesson I'll highlight is one that served as a useful reminder to me. Lesson eleven, simply titled "Investigate." Snyder stresses the need to read and support print journalists, who are allowed the luxury of developing a story on a page and in readers' minds. Digesting news articles about important or catastrophic events via the Internet or via television broadcast makes the news feel more like a spectacle or piece of entertainment than a form of enriching learning. Rather than reflect on the news, we're more likely to quickly yearn for more drama. Spending less time online also allows us to avoid the collective or tribe-like mentality that exists in "response pieces" to news stories, during an age where everyone needs to have a unique opinion in order to generate clicks for ad revenues. It also allows us to more effectively avoid the portion of information that exists on the Internet for the sole purpose of harming or misinforming us. 

You probably could have read On Tyranny's intro and first and second lessons in the time you took to read this blog -- you'd already be about 25 pages deep into a 125-page book. It's really not a big thing to digest, and I highly recommend it as a first bite into a historical viewpoint on the current state of American politics.

On Tyranny is available for only $4 to $6 as an IRL book and an e-book on Amazon. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.