On Tyranny Summary

On Tyranny is a 2017 book by historian Timothy Snyder about the threat authoritarianism poses to democracy and the possible defenses against it.

  • The book’s occasion is the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Snyder draws on his expertise in twentieth-century European history to offer a series of lessons about resisting the rise of authoritarian rulers.
  • Snyder emphasizes the importance of thinking critically, studying history, speaking precisely, forging local social connections, maintaining privacy, and defending institutions, among other recommendations.
  • The book uses historical examples of authoritarians, especially Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin, to illustrate the risks of tyranny.

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Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1314

At the beginning of On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder dispels the American assumption that totalitarianism is a thing of the past. In fact, history shows that democracies throughout the twentieth century have been easily overthrown; therefore, Americans need to actively defend the elements that build democracy. Drawing from the history of the fascist and communist governments of the mid-twentieth century, Snyder offers readers twenty lessons in resisting tyranny.

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To prevent the collapse of democracy, Snyder’s first rule is “do not obey in advance.” He cites the phenomenon of “anticipatory obedience,” whereby large sections of the public begin obeying an authoritarian regime even before its orders become enforceable. Such abject obedience enables tyrants throughout history, such as Adolf Hitler, to carry out their brutal agendas with impunity.

In his second rule, Snyder exhorts people to “defend institutions.” Democratic institutions, such as courts and a free press, are invaluable in checking tyranny, but people often assume these institutions are indestructible and do not require support. However, history shows tyrants compromise these institutions from within and subvert them to carry out their agenda. Therefore, people must defend institutions actively.

Like institutions, a multi-party system also ensures decentralization of power. Therefore, Snyder’s third guideline is to “beware the one-party state.” A tyrannical government in power establishes the dominance of a single party, as in the case of Nazi Germany. Is such a situation possible in the United States, with its strong two-party system? The election and subsequent politics of Donald Trump, whom Snyder refers to only as the president, suggest the possibility is not unimaginable, with the Republicans in 2016 controlling “every lever of power at the federal level,” despite being the “less popular” of the two parties.

Referring to the rejection of symbols of hate, Snyder’s fourth rule demands that citizens “take responsibility for the face of the world.” Every choice a citizen makes is a “kind of vote”; therefore, by rejecting xenophobic symbols like the Swastika of the Nazis or the Soviet depiction of a prosperous farmer as a pig, citizens vote against hate and exclusion.

Fifthly, Snyder asks people to “Remember professional ethics.” Tyrants ask professionals to forget their best practices for the service of a larger good. When professionals comply with the authoritarian agenda—as doctors, lawyers, and business owners did in Hitler’s rule—they become brutal agents of the state. Snyder points out that had all lawyers in Germany followed their professional ethic of “no execution without a trial,” many lives could have been saved.

According to Snyder’s sixth guideline, people must be “be wary of paramilitaries,” or secret armed groups like the Nazi SS, which authoritarian governments deploy to carry out their most brutal actions. Since these groups are extra-governmental, they also prove to be above accountability. In America in 2016, Trump used his private security team to ban dissidents from rallies, a trend Snyder cautions against.

The caution is even greater for members of the police force and army, says Snyder in his seventh rule: “Be reflective if you must be armed.” Just as doctors and lawyers must be loyal to their professional ethics, soldiers, too, should be loyal to their country and its people, rather than to rulers who ask them to target the public.

Snyder’s eighth rule is “stand out. Someone has to.” Every example of resistance to tyranny counts, whether it be Winston Churchill’s crucial decision to keep fighting the Nazis in 1941 despite the defeat of France or Polish high-schooler Teresa Prekerowa’s decision to help a Jewish family escape the Warsaw ghetto. In both cases, someone stepped up and showed that the status quo can be broken.

Snyder’s ninth rule is to “be kind to our language.” Tyrants often misuse language to suit their ends. By accepting the misuse of language, people buy into the warped reality projected by tyrants. For instance, when Germans began to parrot Hitler’s use of “the people,” they began to accept his reality that there was only one German people and that Hitler was their only savior.

In the tenth and eleventh rules, Snyder suggests ways in which readers can tell extremist propaganda from facts. In his tenth guideline, Snyder asks people to “believe in truth.” Though authoritarian leaders like Trump propagate “magical thinking” and try to blur the line between truth and falsehood, people can discard any statement which is illogical, contradictory, or based on “faith” rather than reason. Chapter eleven exhorts readers to “investigate” to learn the truth. People should read and support long-form investigative print journalism rather than only depend on online sources for news.

People must “make eye contact and small talk” to build a community whose bonds cannot be easily undone by divisive authoritarian politics, according to Snyder’s twelfth rule. This strategy also helps dispel the alienation of those who may be feeling oppressed in the present regime, such as minorities.

In his thirteenth guideline, Snyder suggests readers “practice corporeal politics” and physically participate in protests instead of passively sitting in front of screens.

Snyder’s rule 14 is to “establish a private life” by protecting one’s information online and establishing offline modes of communication. With personal data up for sale, the lines between private and public can easily collapse, a scenario which authoritarian governments desire.

Protest is not always expressly political, states Snyder in his fifteenth rule, “contribute to good causes.” Citizens can also protest by funding and supporting charities and causes in which they believe. Not only does this promote fair values—it also helps citizens build connections that exist outside governmental hierarchies.

“Learn from peers in other countries,” states rule sixteen. According to Snyder, most Americans do not even have passports. Americans should form a global world view rather than being insular, since this will help them see a pattern between the events happening in the United States and other countries.

Snyder’s seventeenth rule asks readers to carefully “listen for dangerous words,” specifically the loaded terms like “terrorism” that authoritarian governments use to topple democracy. Governments can use terrorist attacks as an excuse to ask citizens to sacrifice their democratic rights at the altar of safety. However, citizens must resist this demand for an “exception” as it is a fallacy that freedom is the price of safety. In fact, it is the job of governments to keep people safe while protecting their democratic rights.

Extending logically from the previous rule, Snyder’s eighteenth rule advises people to “be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” An example of a government using exceptional circumstances to usurp power was the anonymous fire at the German Parliament that enabled Hitler to declare an emergency and suspend civil rights to protect the safety of “the people.” The state of emergency continued until the end of World War II. While Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has emulated Hitler’s tactics in order to limit free press and federal rule, Trump seems to subtly emulate Putin in turn.

Therefore, Snyder says the unthinkable may arrive in America, too, and when it does, citizens cannot afford to submit in fear. Instead, as he exhorts in chapter nineteen and twenty, citizens must respectively “be a patriot” and “be as courageous as you can” in bad times. Being a patriot is about doing what is right for the country and its people, rather than serving the will of autocrats. Being courageous involves being ready to sacrifice and die to preserve democratic ideals.

In the epilogue, Snyder exhorts people to be balanced in their views and to steer clear of the anti-historical approaches of the “politics of inevitability” and the “politics of eternity.” While the politics of inevitability looks forward to an inevitable golden future, the politics of eternity aspires to an idealized past. Rather than live in the imagined future or past, Snyder suggests that people change the course of history in the present through active choices.

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