On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

This post could equally well have appeared under the “solutions” section: so many people I’ve spoken to in recent months – even years – feel frustrated with the current political situation, but powerless to do anything about it or just confused. This book by Snyder is written as a sort of handbook for resisting tyranny and while it certainly works as such, it can also be read as a guide to being a responsible, politically aware participant in a modern society.

Snyder is a professor at Yale who specialises in the 20th century European history. Not surprisingly then, the book is informed by his extensive knowledge of the tyrannies of that period and geographical area. As he says: history can familiarise and it can warn. Especially refreshingly for a person born in the Soviet Union, he draws not only on the lessons of Nazism – the usual reference point for most Western scholars -, but also Communism. Although written clearly with American audiences in mind, much of it is universal – and we should all be concerned with what happens in the US anyway.

The text is divided into 20 short chapters, ranging from the relatively obvious and more specific to the theme of the book (beware of the one-party state, defend the institutions, be courageous) to the more unexpected and widely applicable: believe in truth, investigate things, be mindful of your language, make new friends, defend your privacy.

It may be counter-intuitive to recommend a how-to book as a remedy for the rise of populism and authoritarian tendencies: isn’t this in itself a form of simplifying and generalising things to a dangerous degree? I believe it depends on who, how and why is doing it. Precisely because this book is such an easy, quick read, I feel it’s a gift. If you’ve ever read anything by Snyder, you know his books tend to be both emotionally and intellectually demanding. This slim volume is probably the most accessible thing he has ever written and will therefore have a much wider readership. The author’s moral and intellectual rigour is still very much present and we should be grateful that a person of his stature has undertaken what is essentially a public service. Hopefully, many readers will be compelled to investigate further.


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    • 2

      I guess it’s less relevant for people like you who are very aware of history and current affairs anyway. But I consider myself to be reasonably well informed and I still found it helpful and informative and also validating. It’s like when someone articulates your thoughts in a much more intelligent way than you yourself ever could.

      • 3

        I read it and particularly enjoyed the chapter on language. I’m glad I read it – though I think he should have added a chapter on the dangers of wearing mainstream perfumes.

  1. 5

    I intended to buy his Bloodlands book but read a scathing review of it by Adam Gopnic In the New Yorker and gave up on it. This looks good and I agree with you- it’s fun reading a more eloquent and polished version of your own opinion. Following your list of fiction, I ordered the book Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (hadn’t heard of her before you mentioned her subsequent book). Sounds like my thing so thanks in advance. Hope you are able to enjoy the summer despite your rigorous schedule.

    • 6

      I read the Gopnik review (the one that talks about both Bloodlands and Black Earth?) and while it’s critical, I didn’t think it was that scathing. But I haven’t read either of those books, because I’m a coward, so cannot say much on them specifically. I’ve always found Snyder intellectually very impressive, however (his conversations with Tony Judt are scary), and I feel a deep respect and gratitude to him for understanding – and communicating, over and over again – that the horrors of WWII didn’t stop at the German Eastern border. It is astonishing how much of the academia, not to mention general public, still ignores the existence of Eastern Europe (and Soviet Union/Russia, although in a different way).

  2. 7

    Thanks for this, I read it on a flight and did take a modicum of empowerment from the action-driven style. Your blog is one of my sources for thought-provoking books (if not YA… yet) and I return here regularly.

    • 8

      Oh, thank you! It still surprises me that people do actually find it useful sometimes and actually, you know, come back. And I’m genuinely moved when people take time to comment. But more on topic: this Snyder makes for good plane reading – short and snappy and non-sleep inducing.

  3. 9

    Your book lists are very good and we share a lot of principles / tastes, so I come here as much to be challenged as to be confirmed I admit. Also on the Sisley moisturizer bandwagon at the moment – although I admit to being partial to the mask texture still.

      • 11

        I’m pretty sure I picked up the Penguin Little Black Classics here, they’ve been a bite-size delight. Somehow I’ve stumbled recently upon Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, which reads madder now. I also reread Michael Frayn’s Democracy, and just bought Oslo, the play. Kassabova’s Border was another recent one, so they’re all non-fiction… Maybe times are asking for realism. The last fiction writer I truly enjoyed in terms of a walk-in authorial universe was probably Tana French. I feel about literary education the way you feel about capsule wardrobes – more is more.

  4. 12

    Just finished reading On Tyranny- thanks for bringing it to my attention. This book should be required reading for high school students in every country.

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