I’ve lived my whole life in democratic countries. I’ve never experienced what it’s like to live under a dictatorship, thankfully. But these days, I’m worried. Democracy here in the US and around the world seems more fragile that it used to, or maybe I’m just more aware of its fragility.
That’s why On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century feels so important and so relevant. It’s a slim little book that could easily fit in your back pocket. It’s brief, but powerful.
It’s written by Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He’s the author of several books about the history of central and eastern Europe including Russia, Ukraine and Poland.
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
By Timothy Snyder
Crown, New York, 2017
On Tyranny draws on Prof. Snyder’s extensive study of the 20th Century’s two great systems of autocratic government, fascism and communism. The book contains twenty practical lessons that can help us spot the signs of our own slide towards tyranny. And it gives practical steps we can all take to help stop and reverse that slide.
Each lesson starts with a clear call to action followed by brief illustrations from 20th Century thinkers like Václav Havel or events such as the Reichstag fire of 1933. Most of them are only a few pages long.
“6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
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.” [p. 42]
A few years ago, I might have thought this book was unnecessary, even a little over-wrought. I admit I’d fallen into the trap of what Snyder calls “the politics of inevitability,” the idea that history was moving irreversibly towards liberal democracy. I thought democracy was one of the ideas that conquered the world.
“10. Believe in truth.
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” [p. 65]
But I’ve lived through the Trump presidency here in the US, watched an orchestrated onslaught of Republican-driven voter suppression in State legislatures across the country, and seem democratic backsliding in places like Hungary, Turkey and elsewhere. I’m no longer as confident about the strength or the future of democracy as I once was.
“13. Practice corporeal politics.
Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.” [p. 83]
At its heart, On Tyranny is a call for engagement: for each of us to observe clearly, think critically and act purposefully to protect our democracy and its institutions.
It’s a call for courage.
“18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.” [p. 103]
You can read On Tyranny in a single sitting. It’s worth re-reading regularly.