“The mistake is to assume that rulers who come to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions.”
In On Tyranny, Yale History professor Timothy Snyder offers twenty principles for resisting authoritarian government, drawing cautionary examples from twentieth century European history. It grew out of a Facebook post Snyder made in the aftermath of America’s 2016 election. In it, he attempts to bring his wide knowledge of European history, and the collapse of democracies, to bear on the current political moment.
On Tyranny follows an arc that moves from the early days of rising authoritarianism, through the arrival and culmination of overt authoritarian government. Snyder’s first principle is “Do not obey in advance,” and the final principle is “Be as courageous as you can.” On that last point, he offers only one sentence of explanation: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” In between, he offers, and expounds upon, suggestions such as “Remember professional ethics” and “Investigate” the truth for yourself, detailing how the compromise of such values led to problems in the past.
A significant number of the examples used in On Tyranny are drawn from Nazi Germany. This makes sense given that this is part of Snyder’s area of expertise, but will no doubt prove problematic with some readers, for whom comparing anything at all to Hitler or Nazism is tantamount to hysteria. But central to Snyder’s argument is that the collapse of German democracy is not as unique as we might like believe. “Never again” is a commitment to remember and prevent such tragedies, not a statement that such things are no longer possible. Combine that with a certain strain of American exceptionalism that holds that the United States’ love of freedom makes such a thing impossible, and you have a dangerous brew. However, fascist Italy, Communist and modern Russia, and Czechoslovakia also provide cautionary examples that show this is not merely about the Holocaust. Synder is also explicitly concerned with the current political moment, and when relevant, he provides contemporary American examples of things that might be cause for worry.
Snyder is perhaps a little too dismissive of the internet. This is not to say that he does not make valid points about the vulnerabilities it opens us up to. But he warns against it even as he cites the example of Ukrainian success at countering Russian attempts to disseminate misinformation online. Moreover, he completely misses the warning sign that authoritarian states often seek to control the internet, in order to keep dissidents from sharing information, or spreading the truth about what is occurring in their country. Whereas the Nazis only allowed state-sanctioned radiobroadcasts, and banned listening to overseas stations, modern dictators seek to control television programming and internet access. We should be just as concerned about authoritarian attempts to control the internet as we are about curtailments in freedom of the press.
On Tyranny is a brief tract that can be read in an hour, but offers up thoughts and ideas that deserve much longer attention and consideration. It is a very short and accessible primer on the warning signs of authoritarianism, and the early actions that can be taken by ordinary people to guard against it. It is by no means comprehensive, but is excellent food for thought nevertheless. Think of this as politic disaster preparedness. You hope that you’ll never need that earthquake kit in your closet, but if the big one hits, you’ll be happy you prepared.