Nonfiction Book Review: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Nonfiction Book Review: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Cover of On Tyranny|Timothy Snyder

If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.

Vaclav Havel

We Have the Advantage of Learning from Their Experiences

This is a powerful book which is hardly longer than a television maintenance manual. It sells for only $3.99 on Kindle. The author is Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale University. He’s a historian and academic specializing in the history of  Central and Eastern Europe.

Snyder warns us of new threats to our political order. They are threats “not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century.” He goes on to say that “we are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.” The difference is that we have the advantage of learning from their experiences.

The experiences to which Snyder refers are the failures of democracy in Fascist Italy in the 1920’s, Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, Soviet Russia during the Great Purge of 1937-1938, and the purges in communist eastern Europe of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

In twenty short lessons, Snyder illustrates how responsible leaders, professionals, and citizens can succumb to totalitarian rule before they wake up and realize that it has happened. The author contends that knowledge of history can provide the antidote for what could happen in the future.

The Politics of Inevitability

Snyder suggests that two ways of considering the past can lead us into a future of tyranny. The first is the politics of inevitability. That’s the idea that history can move in only one direction, namely toward liberal democracy. The belief that progress is inevitable allows us to forget the lessons of the past. When the myth is shattered, as it was in the 2016 election, we are shocked and at a loss to make sense of what we have experienced.

A typical response to the shattered belief that everything will turn out well in the end is the conclusion that nothing turns out well. It stems from the perception that time moves in repeating cycles regardless of what we do.

The Politics of Eternity

The second way of thinking, the politics of eternity, is a self-absorbed longing, free of facts, for moments in history that never happened. The politics of eternity envisions a time when the nation faced unstoppable foes, such as the Nazi and Soviet regimes of the 1930’s–a time of danger and external attack upon the purity of the nation. The political discussion revolves around identifying what is good and what is evil, rather than on possible solutions to real problems. There is a constant sense of emergency in which planning for the future almost seems disloyal. “How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate?”
Snyder argues that both positions–inevitability and eternity–are antihistorical and concludes:

If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. This is not the end, but a beginning.

Enforcement of Professional Ethics Could Have Prevented Atrocities Committed Under the Nazi Regime

Snyder provides numerous illustrations of how we can learn from history. One of those is how responsible citizens missed the opportunity to stem the tide of tyranny and prevent the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime. Lesson 5, Remember Professional Ethics, provides a particularly chilling reminder of the importance of legal and ethical practice that undergirds democratic society.

If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial,
If doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent,
If businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery (in exploiting labor of concentration camps and inmates)
If bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder,
Then the Nazi regime would have  been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.

Snyder explains in an earlier chapter that in the rare cases in Nazi Germany where local police refused the order to murder jews, they did not punish the policemen.

Professional Groups Should Engage in Conversations About Norms and Rules that Bind Them at All Times

Snyder encourages professional groups to engage in ethical conversations regarding their common interests, with norms and rules that bind them at all times, without exception. This will give them confidence and power to resist deviating from their ethical practices to “just follow orders,” even when they are told that the situation is exceptional.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is a book that should be read and discussed among all citizens wishing to preserve the democratic principles upon which our country was founded. Snyder makes a convincing argument for encouraging and supporting young Americans to “become a historical generation, rejecting the traps of inevitability and eternity that older generations have laid before them.” And, in my opinion, it probably would not hurt for some of the older generation to brush up on  our history and examine the validity of our long-held assumptions.

“Nay, Come Let’s Go Together”

Snyder quotes from Hamlet, the hero of the Shakespearean drama. The author says that Hamlet is “rightly shocked by the abrupt rise of an evil ruler.” He further suggests that these words should resonate with those of us who fear the rise of tyranny and are faced with the reality that we must do something about it:

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right.

It is the second part of the quote that gives us hope and courage. For it will ultimately lead us to a brighter future:

Nay, come, let’s go together.

For more non-fiction book reviews on politics, see Fire and Fury and A Higher Loyalty.





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