On Tyranny Themes

The main themes in On Tyranny are the importance of history, democracy and the individual, and the workings of tyranny.

  • The importance of history: The book builds its arguments on the assumption that history can and must inform present-day politics.
  • Democracy and the individual: Snyder’s lessons are directed at individual citizens of democracies, outlining practical day-to-day actions that can ward off the forces of tyranny.
  • The workings of tyranny: Snyder draws on the history of Europe in the twentieth century to describe how tyrants rise to prominence and maintain their power.

Themes

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Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258

The Importance of History

Snyder opens the prologue to On Tyranny with the observation that “history does not repeat, but it does instruct.” While Snyder is clear that history is not necessarily cyclical or inevitable, he suggests that it does offer precedents and lessons, which should not be ignored. Studying history enables readers to trace patterns through different geographies and time periods and to recognize such patterns in their own environment. Armed with this knowledge, people can take action to defend against the worst development in political history—the rise of authoritarian regimes. However, the two biggest stumbling blocks to this learning are a misplaced sense of history itself and anti-historical political views.

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On Tyranny suggests that people often tend to glorify the past and imagine times which were simpler, ignoring the challenges which accompany every historical period. Citizens also sometimes overlook the fact that historical narratives are constructed and that a single historical text or view cannot be considered the whole truth. Another stumbling block to understanding history is the view that the truth is always subjective. While people’s realities do differ, some values, such as liberty, peace, and justice, are universal. A historical narrative that justifies or condones the demolition of such values must be viewed with suspicion.

Anti-historicism, or the tendency to deny that historical events can be materially and critically analyzed, is dangerous, because it keeps people from heeding the warnings of history. As Snyder discusses in the epilogue to his book, anti-historicism fixates on the future or the mythical past rather than examining contemporary political reality. Anti-historicism refuses to see history as a narrative and denies verifiable reality. For instance, Donald Trump’s promise to make America great “again” imagines a time when America was unequivocally great. Such a time stands out of historical time and ignores America’s complex history of race relations, economic depression, and other struggles.

Snyder’s text suggests that tyrants encourage anti-historicism because it insulates people from their own reality. In fact, authoritarians do not want people to study history at all, and thus they promote anti-intellectualism. Therefore, it is all the more important for citizens around the world to study varied historical texts, develop a “three-dimensional” understanding of history, and build “mental armory” against the process of tyranny.

Democracy and the Individual Citizen

One of the striking aspects of Snyder’s manifesto is that it places the individual at the center of the task of upholding democracy. Snyder is categorical in his assertion that the actions—or failures to act—of individual citizens matter more than is often assumed. Individual citizens are the building blocks of institutions and polities, and their every choice is a kind of vote. Therefore, it is the individual’s responsibility to defend democracy every way they can. Snyder’s focus on the individual is all the more important because, as he observes in chapter 2,

We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks. This was the very mistake some German Jews made about Hitler and the Nazis after they had formed a government.

The truth is that institutions do not run automatically. As the examples of extremist governments throughout history show, institutions such as impartial courts can be subverted by tyrants in a matter of months. The individual’s defense of democracy becomes all the more crucial in the face of this fact.

Democratic institutions are not abstract, infallible entities; nor is democracy a periodic voting exercise. As abolitionist Wendell Phillips stated, liberty needs to be maintained through “eternal vigilance” against authoritarianism. The conscious individual citizen needs to exercise this vigilance constantly. There is another reason that Snyder emphasizes individual duty to democracy—an individual can make a difference. Whether it was Winston Churchill, who changed the course of the Second World War with an unpopular but wise decision, or young Teresa Prekerowa, who helped a Jewish family escape certain death through an act of kindness, individuals can break the status quo. Throughout the book, Snyder underscores the gravitas that interpersonal actions have, whether it be a smile or a handshake to a neighbor. Snyder notes in chapter 12 that memoirs of the victims of various tyrannical regimes of the twentieth century “all share a single tender moment” of kindness and compassion. By prioritizing kindness and democratic action at the granular and individual level, people can create meaningful change in their societies and protect against tyranny.

The Workings of Tyranny

Whether it is Russia in the twenty-first century or Germany in the 1930s, tyrannical regimes often use similar operating procedures to consolidate their power. Snyder traces these similarities with precision, uncovering for the reader the very architecture of tyranny. The degree of the brutality inflicted by such regime vastly varies, from the horrific genocide committed by the Nazi regime to the massacre of Chechen Muslims enacted by Putin’s Russia to the growing xenophobia under Donald Trump’s administration. However, the elements of tyranny are uncannily similar in each regime.

One of these elements is the context in which authoritarian leaders seize power. The ascension occurs in an atmosphere of public dissatisfaction, when portions of the public feel stymied by real and perceived inequalities. At such times, a bombastic and seemingly dynamic leader who promises transformation becomes all the more attractive to people. Secondly, once in power, the leader seizes on what Snyder calls “a moment of shock” to crush opposition and limit or suspend individual rights. This moment can be real or manufactured, as is suspected in the cases of the Parliament fire of Berlin in 1933 and the Russian bombings of 2000. While the fire enabled Hitler to essentially suspend all civil liberties, the bombings enabled Putin to curtail the free press and the power of regional governments.

Another feature of tyrannical governments is their jealous guarding of power. Tyrannical governments seek to delegitimize all opposition once in power, both to stymie criticism and to ensure their own perpetual reelection. Snyder notes that in the murderous program called the Great Terror of 1937-38, the Soviet secret police murdered 682,691 alleged enemies of the state, culling all the government’s critics in one brutal streak. In contemporary America, Donald Trump often uses invectives against democrats and journalists who criticize him. The scale of injustice is different, but the impulse to silence one’s critics is similar. Authoritarian governments also dislike charities, non-governmental organizations, and democratic institutions, because they decentralize power and allow people to form relationships outside the government’s purview. Thus, tyrannical governments demand absolute power.

Authoritarian regimes also maintain power by positioning myth over verifiable history, propaganda over truth, rhetoric over logic, and meaningless symbolism over concrete action. Snyder notes that authoritarians like symbols, such as Hitler’s appropriation of the Swastika, and repetitive language, like Trump’s chants in favor of building the wall. Snyder observes that these are diversionary smoke-and-mirrors tactics that enable tyrants to inspire extreme emotions without ever taking action to improve the lives of citizens. Along with diversion, tyrants also rely on divisive politics. By using symbols and markers, such as the Nazis’ distinction between “Aryan” and “Jewish” people, tyrants alienate minorities and promote hatred. Division is yet another form of diversion.

Finally, most tyrants strengthen their hold over society incrementally, thus lulling people into a false sense of security. What begins as an increased use of symbols and propaganda slowly devolves into minor limitations of liberty for the good of the nation. By the time tyranny shows its true face, a society is already in the grip of authoritarianism.

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