Timothy Snyder, ON TYRANNY (2017)

Subtitled: “Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” and published in February 2017 by Tim Duggan Books.

This is the third book I’ve read or reread recently with a numbered agenda, following the Zakaria book covered in previous post, and Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, posted here.

Timothy Snyder came to attention a few weeks back as the author of a highly unfavorable review – discussed in this post, http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2022/01/09/ls-a-killer-review/ — of a new book by Jonathan Gottschall, which in passing also criticized an earlier work by Steven Pinker. (Both Pinker and Gottschall responded, pointedly, in letters to the NYTBR where Snyder’s review appeared.)

So who’s Snyder? A prominent historian of the 20th century, apparently, with previous books about the Holocaust, about Hitler and Stalin, and so on. He had a bestseller with the title here, so thin I bought a copy and read it through in a couple hours (taking notes). Like Zakaria’s, Snyder’s is also a timely book, published just a few months after Donald T**** won the election in 2016. Snyder obviously has him and his tendencies in mind as he compiles this brief history of fascism in the 20th century, with advice on how to avoid it.

The book is 126 pages long, and has a preface and 20 chapters, so each chapter is pretty short. Further, each chapter consists of a title, then on the same page a thematic summary in a sentence or two, and then one to 8 or 10 pages of explanatory text with examples.

It would be easy to simply copy the chapter titles and the thematic summaries here, but that would be tantamount to plagiarizing, so I will attempt to boil down both his summaries and texts into one or two lines about each topic, along with my own notes about his texts.

As an example, though, here’s the title and summary of the first chapter:

1, 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 adapted in this way is teaching power what it can do.

Now my summary of the book:

  • Prologue: History and Tyranny
  • The founding fathers took care to avoid the dangers evident from history—tyranny, power by a single individual or group. Like them we can contemplate other examples from history. Yet we know that the history of modern democracy is one of decline and fall. Examples 20th century. Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization, p12, (see quote below). Democracy will not protect us from such threats. But we can try to learn from history.

1, Do not obey in advance

  • Don’t mindlessly submit to an increasingly repressive government, as happened with Hitler and the Austrians in March 1938, then in November with Kristallnacht. Stanley Millgram showed it can happen to anyone, in his famous 1961 involving electrical shocks. People can be told to do anything, and many will.

2, Defend Institutions

  • We need institutions to preserve decency, and they don’t protect themselves. Choose one you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side. Example of how Jews were sure Hitler would not deprive them of their rights, 1933. Yet some revolutionaries do intend to destroy institutions and say so.

3, Beware the one-party state

  • Support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Democracies have collapsed when one party seized power. When you vote for the last time, you won’t know it. The American system supposedly has checks and balances, yet now the less popular party suppresses voting, claims fraud, etc. When annual elections end, tyranny begins. We need to fix the gerrymandered system. Paper ballots.

4, Take responsibility for the face of the world.

  • Be aware of swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Beware symbols of loyalty, even lapel pins.

5, Remember professional ethics.

  • Maintain professional commitments, so political leaders cannot subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor. If professionals during Hitler’s reign had followed norms, the Nazis would have had a harder time of it. Beware “just following orders.”

6, Be wary of paramilitaries.

  • When men with guns 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. Most governments seek to monopolize violence. But the candidate in 2016 was novel, by encouraging mob violence.

7, Be reflective if you must be armed.

  • If you carry a weapon in public service, know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. The Soviet Union’s NKVD officers executed some 600,000+ as enemies of the state. The Holocaust began over shooting pits in eastern Europe. Only a few committed actual murders, but many more were complicit. Other actions were carried out by ordinary police, following orders.

8, Stand out.

  • Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow. In the 1940s many Europeans and some Americans, like Charles Lindbergh, were willing to coexist with the Nazis, but those who did not are the ones remembered today. Churchill refused to cooperate with Hitler’s grand partitions. He did what others had not.

9, Be kind to our language.

  • Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books. Politicians all have their cliches—my people; struggles; treason. News is always ‘breaking.’ We get everything on TV, a collective trance. Author cites works by Bradbury, Orwell, (in which the language is limited to prevent the thinking of certain concepts), Dostoyevsky, Kundera, Lewis, Roth, even Rowling. Works that inform arguments here: Orwell, Arendt, Camus, and others. Jesus.

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 upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights. “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” P66. Truth dies in four modes: hostility to verifiable reality (how presidents tell lies); shamanistic incantation (endless repetition, as of insulting nicknames, and of “build the wall” and “lock her up”); magical thinking, the open embrace of contradiction (reducing taxes for the wealthy won’t increase the national debt; a disease killing thousands will vanish; the vote is always rigged), abandoning reason (how Hitler never lied); and misplaced faith (e.g. in claims like “I alone can solve it”). Once that point is reached, evidence becomes irrelevant. Now we have “post-truth”, which Orwell captured decades ago; a fascist attitude toward truth. Post-truth is pre-fascism.

11, Investigate.

  • Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.
  • It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. In 2016 the president attacked the media and reporters, sought to prevent criticism; “enemies of the people” and “fake news.” Hannah Arendt in 1971 thought facts would overcome falsehoods, p74. This is no longer true with computers, and our Facebook feeds. That’s why we need print journalists. Seeing news online just promotes spectacle. Derision has become “mainstream” media; actual journalism is hard work. Try it yourself. Or write a blog. Don’t get your news for free. Be careful what you transmit to others.

12, Make eye contact and small talk.

  • This is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand who you should and should not trust. People who’ve lived in fear of repression remember how their neighbors treated them. Gain trust. Try to affirm everyone.

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. Protests can succeed when people mix among groups of people not previously their friends. Nothing is real that does not end of the streets. Example of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s.

14, Establish a private life.

  • Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware on a regular basis. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.
  • One concept of totalitarianism is the erasure of the difference between public and private life. The cyber-attacks in 2016 were a step toward this; email bombs. The appeal of secrets draws society toward conspiracy theories. The better reporters understand this, but not millions of Americans. Arendt considers this the devolution of society into a mob.

15, Contribute to good causes.

  • Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. Pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good. One element of freedom is choice of association, not just about political matters. Doing so helps create a civil society. Enemies of freedom are hostile to non-governmental organizations.

16, Learn from peers in other countries.

  • Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Journalists from eastern Europe were not surprised by the president’s campaign in 2016. The same tactics were familiar there. Americans were gullible. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17, Listen for dangerous words.

  • Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism, of notions of emergency and exception, of the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. The essence of fascist government is the idea of the exception, and the idea of a permanent emergency. Beware those who say you can only gain security at the price of liberty. The government’s job is to increase both freedom and security.

18, Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

  • Modern tyranny is terror management. Authoritarians exploit terrorist events in order to consolidate power, to end checks and balances, to dissolve opposition parties, suspend of freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial, and so on – this is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
  • Recall how the Reichstag fire in 1933 was Hitler’s opportunity. Putin came to power similarly, by declaring war on the Muslims in Chechnya. Russian hackers on French television that led to the November 2015 attack on Paris. And so on.

19, Be a patriot.

  • Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it. Patriotism is not mocking war heroes; dodging the draft; avoiding paying taxes; using campaign contributions to finance one’s own companies. –Etc., p112-113, long list of things (Trump) has done. A nationalist might do all these things; a nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and feels toward others only resentment. A patriot wants the nation to live up to its ideas, for us to be our best selves. To be concerned about the real world.

20, Be as courageous as you can.

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

Epilogue: History and Liberty

  • Our time is out of joint. We had thought the future held only more of the same. The ‘end of history’ away from communism. The politics of inevitability. A teleology: a narrative leading to a goal. Communism failed, but that didn’t mean our story was true. Yet we assumed a status quo. Now we have made a mess, and we own it.
  • The second idea about the past is the politics of eternity: Longing for past moments that never really happened. National populists are eternity politicians. Proponents of Brexit longed for a nation-state that never existed. Now we have “America first.” And MAGA. These prevent us from thinking about the future. We debate good and evil rather than possible solutions to real problems.
  • The danger now is the passage of the first to the second, “from a naïve and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.” 124. Both of these are antihistorical. We’ve raised a generation without history. What will happen next? Rather hope they become a historical generation. But young Americans will have to know some history to make their own.


Page 12:

Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them. Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people. They put a face on globalization, arguing that its complex challenges were the result of a conspiracy against the nation. Fascists ruled for a decade or two, leaving behind an intact intellectual legacy that grows more relevant by the day. Communists rules for longer, for nearly seven decades in the Soviet Union, and more than four decades in much of Eastern Europe. They proposed rule by a disciplined party elite with a monopoly on reason that would guide society toward a certain future according to supposed fixed laws of history.

This entry was posted in Book Notes, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.