In 2017, after one of the most contentious presidential elections our nation had experienced up to that point, Timothy Snyder wrote a little book capturing both history and the warning it provided to the current time. On Tyranny’s full title is: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. In it, Snyder starts with a Prologue offering historical context framing what follows. The book starts with a wake-up call at the top of the Prologue:
“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”
The meat of his book (weighing in at a trim 126 pages including both the Prologue and Epilogue) is contained in the 20 lessons he drew from the previous turbulent century. They are summarized in his chapter titles as follows:
- Do not obey in advance.
- Defend institutions.
- Beware the one-party state.
- Take responsibility for the face of the world.
- Remember professional ethics.
- Be wary of paramilitaries.
- Be reflective if you must be armed.
- Stand out.
- Be kind to our language.
- Believe in truth.
- Make eye contact and small talk.
- Practice corporeal politics.
- Establish a private life.
- Contribute to good causes.
- Learn from peers in other countries.
- Listen for dangerous words.
- Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
- Be a patriot.
- Be as courageous as you can.
Many of these seem obvious. As an historian, even in 2017 he saw how crucial his warning was and hoped that by putting it together in an easy to read (and easily accessible) book, perhaps the public could learn from history before it was too late. Whether we’ve passed the point of no return at this juncture (in 2022) remains to be seen, but his lessons can still provide some insight into what we are facing.
In reading Snyder’s book, I was taken back to my childhood. Although I didn’t grow up during the horror of WWII and the world-wide authoritarian threat it posed, I had a deep understanding of what happened both from my extended family’s discussions and from my Sunday school classroom where each year Holocaust survivors came and told us their personal stories. To us, those events weren’t something that happened in a long-ago past in a foreign land. They happened to people we knew and loved. Their stories terrified us, but they also made us understand how easily something like that could happen again given the right mix of personalities and motives. The refrain “never again” ran through my head then, and it all came back as I read Snyder’s book. The threat of tyranny isn’t just one thing. It’s a combination of things that can happen anywhere if people allow it. Reading his book also made urgent the plaintive calls to the public asking what they thought the “good Germans” should have done in the build-up to WWII, pleading with them to please do that now or it may be too late.
In his Prologue, Snyder provides an explanation of how and why various democratic civilizations have failed through the ages using concrete examples from the last century. In every case, fear and deep inequalities stemming from increasing globalization were part of the catalyst. He also provides a lead-in to the specific lessons he outlines and applies to our current world.
Chapter 1: Do not obey in advance.
A central tenet of this is that in most cases, the people welcome the authoritarian willingly. In effect, they teach the authoritarian how to take over and by providing their services, help them do so. Snyder identifies this as anticipatory obedience which a process by which a population doesn’t resist and goes along with a new authority to their own detriment.
Chapter 2: Defend institutions.
The institutions of democracy require a democratic society to defend them. They clearly cannot stand on their own without the support of the people and are crucial for a democratic society to function. These include things like fair courts, a free press, public education, etc. Snyder shows a vivid historical example where one of the targeted populations (German Jews) didn’t believe that the Nazis would follow through with their threats because their society had laws and institutions to protect them. Unfortunately, without fervent support those institutions were torn down, and history shows what happened after that. Snyder warns that while an individual person may not be able to defend every institution, it’s crucial that each of us defends at least some institution that we care about such as our local newspaper, a labor union, or even a particular law – a particularly salient suggestion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the fallout that has created.
Chapter 3: Beware the one-party state.
For democracy to work in a party based system, at least two viable parties are needed. At the present time, we have one party trying to preserve democracy, and the other trying to destroy it. In a one-party state, something that effectively existed across the south from the time of the Civil War until the Civil Rights changes of the 1950s and 60s, people do not have a choice. Without any choice over their governance, democracy cannot function. A central tenet of our democratic republic is that the people have the right to consent to their government. They cannot consent if they have no valid input.
Snyder uses vivid examples from Twentieth Century Europe and Asia. He illustrates the dangers of one-party rule and provides a warning that we may be headed in that same direction if we don’t end the gerrymandering that plagues our elections.
Chapter 4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
This one is interesting and urgent. Snyder provides a warning to not normalize the symbols and expressions of hate that have become so ubiquitous over the last several years. It’s incumbent on every one of us to take the symbols down and call them out whenever and wherever we see them. He aptly observes that “the symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow.” Society functions as a series of actions, and politics runs through all aspects of our lives whether we want them to or not. The symbols and expressions we support are far more than a momentary event. They inspire action that defines our future reality. Snyder’s vivid examples in this section show how even seemingly innocuous symbolism could have a dramatic and potentially dangerous downstream effect.
Chapter 5. Remember professional ethics.
This section is frightening in showing how quickly an authoritarian regime can overtake a society if the professions fall in line by abandoning their ethical standards. If the German civil servants, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen had held to their professional ethics rather than adhering to the barbaric and unethical demands of the Reich, it’s possible that WWII might have either been avoided or severely curtailed. Although this book was published prior to the Trump administration’s reign of terror, we have since seen the damage that even a few strategically placed ideologues can inflict when those below them fall in line and abandon their ethics.
Chapter 6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
Snyder’s opening to this section says it all, almost as if he had envisioned the next four years:
“When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.”
Snyder provides several examples from the last century on how the paramilitary threat enabled the rise of authoritarian regimes. The only thing that saved the U.S. from total annihilation under the former president is that the military didn’t fall in line. Still, the paramilitary threat in the U.S. is significant, and the ubiquity of arms amongst the general public is pathological and cause for continued concern.
Chapter 7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
As our police have become more militarized, this is a particularly visible warning. The same goes for the military, including National Guard troops. The line between justified force and authoritarian overreach is a fairly thin one, and in times of crisis it’s far too easy to cross it without realizing it.
Snyder uses multiple examples of how authoritarians used their armed agents such as the German SS and the Soviet NKVD in the last century. In every case, while the top of the command chain issued the orders, those who followed were murderers executing what a military in a well-functioning democracy would deem unlawful orders. Further, these armed forces relied on additional support from the local police, lawyers, and civil servants to operate their reign of terror. Had the local forces resisted, they could have prevented much of the destruction, but they were afraid.
Chapter 8. Stand out.
Tyranny cannot succeed if people don’t fall in line. Standing out was the crucial for the civil rights movement. Imagine if there had been no Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr.
Snyder provides a deep dive into how far Germany got because too many people refused to stand out. He stresses that sometimes just a few individuals are needed to break through the status quo to entice others to also not go along with a takeover. Standing out can be difficult, but it’s necessary for democracies to work.
Chapter 9. Be kind to our language.
This is a big one, and it’s something that each one of us can do. Words matter, and the more we hear or see something, the more likely it is to become ingrained. This is why propaganda is a favorite tool of authoritarian leaders. Social media has increased the power of propaganda through sheer repetition. Rather than repeating dangerous memes or sayings that an authoritarian may use to attract their followers, it’s important to use language in helpful, not harmful ways. Repetition of the propaganda even to disagree further ingrains the dangerous messages they contain. Because of this, it’s important to debunk or dismantle propaganda without repeating the harmful messages being disseminated.
Instead of spending so much time online or scrolling on social media, it’s important to read in-depth articles and books, especially in an era where book banning accelerates. Curiously, the books that are banned are often the ones that are the most worth reading. In this section, Snyder provides several recommendations of books that can stimulate thinking and reasoning that are well worth reading.
Expanding the language, not contracting it is important, and finding new ways to express ideas can help make them more attractive. Snyder warns us all to be wary of those who try to restrict our use of language.
Chapter 10. Believe in truth.
This lesson seems self-evident, but in a world where truth is constantly under attack, it takes some effort to separate fact from fiction. It takes reasoning and critical thinking. Most importantly though, to abandon truth destroys freedom and any ability to dissent, something that is central to our Constitution.
While Snyder provides examples from the previous century, he also closely examines how Trump made a show of attacking and denying the truth throughout the 2016 campaign and election. Although the book was written in early 2017, Snyder’s examples served as prescient warnings that came to fruition throughout the previous administration and beyond. Those who want to enact tyranny use their fictional narratives to attack truth and eliminate individual freedoms.
Of particular note in this section are the four modes by which totalitarians dispose of the truth, which Snyder observes Trump used in abundance:
- Open hostility to verifiable reality – i.e., they liberally lie.
- Shamanistic incantation – i.e., repetition of the lies.
- Magical thinking – i.e., they openly contradict themselves.
- Misplaced faith – i.e., this is exemplified by the “only I can solve it” response to any problem.
Most chilling is how Snyder ends this section:
“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Chapter 11. Investigate.
This chapter is all about not taking things at face value. That doesn’t mean to be cynical in a snarky, unproductive way though. Snyder encourages those who care about preventing tyranny to read extensively from reputable sources. It’s important to hone one’s skills to not blindly accept something just because it makes them feel good. It takes effort to fact check and ensure that the information one takes in is truthful, and Snyder warns that it’s harmful to propagate disinformation, even innocently.
The remaining chapters are important from a societal perspective and encourage positive connections with others. This includes how we communicate with one another through in person contacts and in the language we use in speaking and writing. Even something as seemingly innocuous as small talk makes a difference. When interacting with others, we need to be present and engaged. Showing genuine interest in others and in their situations helps to break down barriers.
Never forget that words matter. The old adage of sticks and stones from childhood when applied to the schoolyard bully still makes sense, but when tyrants weaponize language without resistance, it can dis-empower a society.
This mighty little book packs a lot of useful information in bite-sized history lessons that serve as a warning of where societies have gone wrong and gives us a model for what we can all do differently to protect our democracy. The last century was a turbulent one, and so far, the new century is building to crises that we couldn’t have imagined even a generation ago.