Shortly after the November, 2016, election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, books like George Orwell classic "1984" and Sinclair Lewis's eerie "It Can't Happen Here" shot to the top of bookseller lists across the country. Unsettled by what they saw as an unconventional government with unconventional policies, some readers turned to writers like Orwell in order to stay alert to any possible erosion of democracy. A newer title that these same readers might want to add to their reading lists is Yale University historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Though slim enough to fit in your pocket, this bestseller repeatedly drives home a sobering thesis: “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism in the twentieth century.”
“On Tyranny” is an expansion of a popular Facebook post on defending democracy that Snyder wrote following the US election. The less-than-130-page book comprises 20 “lessons,” each with a title as concise as it is thought-provoking: “Do not obey in advance,” “Be kind to your language,” “Establish a private life.” Snyder, an award-winning author of books on mass murders committed by the Nazi and Soviet governments, illustrates his lessons with examples from the two regimes, examples that open our eyes to our misplaced complacency in our current society.
“We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage protects us from [fascism and communism],” Snyder writes. “This is a misguided reflex.” He cites a 1933 editorial from a major German Jewish newspaper: The article asserts that Hitler would neither strip German Jews of constitutional rights, nor create ghettos, nor unleash violent mobs, because “a number of crucial factors hold power in check.” Such ideas were considered reasonable in 1933, as they are today, Snyder writes. His “lesson”? “Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about – a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union – and take its side.”
Snyder never mentions President Trump by name (referring instead to 'the president"). He points out what he sees as dangerous resemblances between our current society and those that gave birth to tyranny. “Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created,” he reminds us. He notes that terrorist attacks were ideal opportunities for would-be tyrants to snatch away citizens’ rights. His example is the Reichstag fire, when the German parliament building burned down one night in February 1933. The next day, Hitler, who had been elected chancellor of Germany, initiated a state of emergency, ordering that citizens could be “preventively detained.” Soon afterwards, he began sending political rivals to “improvised concentration camps.”
In one of the more controversial sections of "On Tyranny," Snyder draws on the theories of Romance languages scholar Victor Klemperer to note what he sees as similarities between the language of "the president" and that of Hitler – a comparison that some critics have decried as exaggerated. In the lesson “Be kind to your language,” Snyder writes: “The people [in Hitler’s discourse] always means some people but not others (the president uses it the same way) encounters were always struggles (the president says winning), or any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader (or, as the president puts it, libel).”
But Snyder does not confine his criticism to Trump. He also identifies flaws in the language of certain news outlets: “When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger network.” The “lesson” he draws from this is good for voters of all persuasions: Turn off your screens for a while. Read and try to express your ideas with your own words.
“On Tyranny” suggests many such simple actions that foster civil society. Smiling or greeting people around you could mean a lot, Snyder writes, because people persecuted under Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini all remembered how their neighbors treated them. In fact, any shared activity or undertaking, even if not at all political, can be good for freedom in society, he writes, citing Czech writer Václav Havel. “Sharing in an undertaking teaches us that we can trust people beyond a narrow circle of friends and families, and helps us to recognize authorities from whom we can learn. [This] can make life seem less chaotic and mysterious, and democratic politics more plausible and attractive.”
And should oppression one day arrive, Snyder advises us to stay calm and “stand out.” Snyder’s rich text, which deserves multiple readings, could anchor us in such moments. “The moment you set an example," he writes, "the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”