Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny”

By Sheldon

I just finished reading On Tyranny. Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. It is a very important book that everyone who harbors anxiety about the future of the United States should read, and read carefully.

Historians, as a rule, hate playing the prediction game. Sometimes one can get them to indulge in a little harmless fun otherwise know as “what if?” What if Hitler had won the Second World War? What if The Russian Revolution failed? What if Robert de Niro had been cast as Han Solo?

But predicting the future? That is a different animal. That’s something for End Timers, certain species of conspiracy theorists, and scammers selling gold coins and truckloads of MREs.  There is a good reason for this; predicting future events is very, very difficult (One brand of applied historian, the intelligence analyst, must do this very thing, perhaps one of the hardest and most thankless jobs in the National Security apparatus). Historians recognize that trying to compare two or more events that appear similar on the surface is fraught with peril. The problem is that if you look at an event closely enough, details emerge that render it unique. Once that happens, it loses its value as a basis for comparison with other events and trends. But if you stay far enough above the niggling details, you can draw useful comparisons. The trick is knowing how far to push that comparison before it breaks down and leads you astray. Many historians have pointed out, correctly, that the current rise of Trumpism is not the same as the rise of Adolph Hitler. This is true; it is not the same. But it is undeniably similar. One cannot let those similarities go unnoticed or unexamined.

So it was with no small degree of amazement on my part that I saw Snyder making some very pointed predictions based on what seem to be a well-balanced analysis. That said, these are not predictions in the forecasting sense, but more like prophetic warnings of the classical prophets of the Hebrew Bible. We are in the midst of dangerous times and, if we do not break some bad habits and transcend certain self-reinforcing social and intellectual behaviors, very bad things will happen.

The “twenty lessons” Snyder refers to were articulated in an article back in November, just after the election. If you don’t feel you have time for the book, this summary will suffice. But you really should read the book. You can get through it in an afternoon. It is concisely written, closely reasoned, and passionate in a way that academic writing too often is not. On Tyranny is really two books in one. As a historian, Snyder cannot help doing what he does for a living and, in quick, broad, but illuminating strokes, he paints a picture of how we got here by drawing comparisons between Nazi Germany, Europe’s rejection of democracy in the 1920s and 30s, and Soviet Russia. He also sketches some of the highlights of what is known about Russian meddling in the U.S. election, and its antecedents in Russia, Chechnya, and Ukraine.

This book is also an activists’ guide. It offers a concrete, cogent, witty, and wise basis for action. Some suggestions are easy, many are not. I will not rehearse them here, but I do believe that this is the single best inventory of necessary actions and attitudes I have yet seen. It is decidedly non-theoretical, as it should be. It encompasses more detailed efforts such as the marvelous Indivisible program that has taken much of the nation by storm. It offers some good advice to help innoculate yourself against the creeping normalizing of our national madness. More staid commenters will consider Snyder’s book “alarmist,” although I will forgive someone sounding an alarm when the smell of smoke is strong and growing stronger.

I also rather like the format of the book. It is small, plain, reminiscent of some revolutionary tract that will tuck discretely into a back pocket. It is a volume made to be read–and re-read–out in the world. If there is any takeaway point, it is that American democracy stands on a razor’s edge. It is up to us to preserve and defend it, reluctant though some may be for this fight. As Hamlet observed (and is quoted by Snyder):

The time is out of joint,
Oh cursed spite,
That ever I was ever born to set it right.

But then he concludes, “Nay, come, let’s go together.”


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