On Tyranny Characters
The main characters in On Tyranny are Timothy Snyder, Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin.
- Timothy Snyder is a Historian at Yale and the author of On Tyranny. He uses his expertise in recent European history to inform readers about the threat of authoritarianism.
- Adolf Hitler was the ruler of Nazi Germany and the most vicious authoritarian in recent history.
- Donald Trump was the forty-fifth president of the United States. Snyder identifies Trump as having authoritarian tendencies and ambitions.
- Vladimir Putin is the president of Russia and an authoritarian ruler whose tactics Snyder uses as examples.
Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
American historian Timothy Snyder is an expert in twentieth-century Europe and the author of On Tyranny. Snyder’s areas of interest are the fascist and extremist communist movements of mid-twentieth-century Europe. He often draws connections between the growth of such movements and the rise of right-wing governments in contemporary societies. In On Tyranny, Snyder uses a prophetic and often pithy writing style which often addresses readers as “you” and exhorts them to take action against the growth of tyranny in today’s world.
The dictator of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, Adolf Hitler is known as one of history’s worst tyrants. Not only did Hitler initiate World War II by attacking Poland in 1939, he also planned and executed the Holocaust, the massacre of six million European Jews, along with millions of communists, political dissidents, and minorities, such as the Roma people. Hitler and his politics are often referenced in Snyder’s text in order to point out chilling similarities with contemporary right-wing movements and to illustrate how tyrants consolidate power. Just as many Americans believe in their exceptionalism and the infallibility of their democratic institutions, some Germans initially believed that Hitler would never actually enact his propaganda against Jews. However, Hitler’s atrocities highlight how a popularly elected leader can destroy democracy to horrifying ends.
Snyder refers to Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, as simply “the president” and perceives him as a grave threat to American democracy. Using strategies borrowed from fascist and communist oligarchs, the president tries to damage institutions such as courts, the free press, and the Constitution. Snyder notes that one of the defining political stratagems of the president is his deliberate use of falsehoods to blur the line between lies and truth and discredit his critics. Another disturbing characteristic is the president’s propensity to incite his followers to violence. The president also promises to “make America great again,” evoking a return to a mythical past that never existed in the first place. He also frequently makes misogynistic and racist remarks that are divisive in nature. According to Snyder, Americans must not underestimate the danger the president poses to American democracy and must act urgently to resist his authoritarian tendencies.
Russia’s president from 1999 to 2008 and again from 2012 onwards, Vladimir Putin is described by Snyder as having an authoritarian style. Snyder criticizes Putin’s tyrannical tendencies and his use of violence to secure power. According to Snyder, Putin, a former member of the Russian secret service, possibly carried out a series of bombings to create a moment of crisis in Russia and blamed the bombings on the minority Muslims of Russia’s Chechnya region. Not only has Putin used such violent tactics to strengthen his own position, he has also attempted to topple governments in France and Ukraine. Snyder also states that Putin may have tilted the 2016 election in the United States in Trump’s favour by leaking information to denigrate Trump’s main opponent, Hilary Clinton. According to Snyder, Trump admires Putin’s tactics, which confirms Trump’s tyrannical tendencies.
A Polish historian who was a teenager in the polish Capital of Warsaw during the Holocaust, Teresa Prekerowa is cited by Snyder as an example of the rare, brave individual who stands up to tyranny. After Warsaw’s Jewish population was forced into a cramped ghetto, most non-Jewish people chose to look the other way. However, young Prekerowa would secretly bring in food and medicines into the ghetto and eventually helped a Jewish family escape. Though an adult Prekerowa thought her actions were “normal,” Snyder notes that they were extraordinary.
Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of Britain between 1940 and 1945 and later between 1950 and 1955. Snyder uses Churchill as an example of an individual who breaks the status quo with an unpopular but just choice. After France was defeated by Germany, Churchill had the choice to leave World War II and safeguard British interests. However, he chose to keep fighting the Germans, a decision which historians believe turned the course of the war. When Churchill refused to back out of the war, the Germans began bombing Britain but were blocked by the Royal Air Force. Ultimately, the Germans were forced to turn their attention away from Britain and attack their ally, the Soviet Union. The irate Soviets joined the allies in return, and the geopolitical balance tilted against Hitler for the first time. According to Snyder, Churchill was exceptional in that “he forced Hitler to change his plans.”
A survivor of the Holocaust and a German scholar, Klemperer is the author of the influential work The Language of the Third Reich (1947). In this book, Klemperer deconstructs and studies the role language played in securing the Nazis’ stranglehold of German society. Snyder uses Klemperer’s observations to trace similarities between the linguistic and rhetorical style of fascist dictators and that of Trump. Snyder also quotes from Klemperer’s bestselling memoirs.
Vaclav Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the erstwhile country’s dissolution in 1992 and the first president of the Czech Republic, from 1993 to 2003. Havel was also a well-known political dissident and writer. Snyder quotes from Havel’s writing throughout On Tyranny and discusses in detail Havel’s theory that by accepting the symbols of fascism, people enable the game of fascism to continue.
Hannah Arendt was a German-origin American political theorist who has greatly influenced Snyder’s work. Fleeing Germany in the 1930s after the Nazis began cracking down on intellectuals, Arendt went on to write several influential books including The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Snyder refers to Arendt as a “great political thinker” and explores Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism as “the erasure of the difference between private and public life.”
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