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.