On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  • Title: On Tyranny
  • Subtitle: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
  • Author(s): Timothy Snyder
  • Publisher: Crown
  • Year: 2017-02-28
  • ISBN-10: 0804190127
  • ISBN-13: 9780804190121


In “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Timothy Snyder explores the significant lessons that can be drawn from the darkest moments in history to help us navigate the challenges of the present. Drawing on his expertise as a historian specializing in the rise and fall of totalitarian regimes, Snyder offers valuable insights and practical guidance to counter the emergence of authoritarianism.

Structured into twenty concise chapters, each lesson examines a different aspect of tyranny and offers suggestions on how to resist its influence. From the importance of defending institutions and the rule of law, to the dangers of complacency and the necessity of truth-telling, Snyder provides a roadmap for citizens to protect their rights and freedoms.

One of the strengths of “On Tyranny” is its ability to distill complex historical events into manageable concepts that readers can easily grasp. Snyder effectively highlights the similarities between past and present threats to democracy, urging readers to become more vigilant and proactive in safeguarding democratic values. By examining the successes and failures of resistance movements throughout the twentieth century, the book imparts practical strategies and insights that readers can apply in their own lives.

Furthermore, Snyder’s writing style is accessible and thought-provoking, making the book an engaging and informative read. Each lesson is succinctly presented, allowing readers to absorb the material without feeling overwhelmed. Additionally, by including various personal anecdotes and historical examples, Snyder makes the lessons relatable and applicable to contemporary circumstances.

In conclusion, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” is an essential read for anyone concerned about the state of our democracy. Timothy Snyder’s compelling and concise analysis provides readers with the tools to recognize and resist the encroachment of authoritarianism. By drawing on historical lessons, the book encourages us to confront the challenges of today with knowledge and a determination to preserve the values that underpin a functioning democracy.


Book Review

Defending Democracy: "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century" by Timothy Snyder

In “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” eminent historian Timothy Snyder delivers a profound exploration of the lessons learned from the rise and fall of totalitarian regimes and offers essential guidance on preserving democracy in the face of contemporary threats. With succinct and accessible chapters, Snyder’s book resonates as a timely and indispensable manual for citizens seeking to protect their rights and resist authoritarianism.

Snyder’s expertise is apparent throughout as he draws upon historical events to illustrate the importance of maintaining democratic institutions. Lesson 1, “Do not obey in advance,” serves as a wake-up call, encouraging readers to question authority and not blindly follow orders. By referencing Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Snyder illuminates how seemingly minor acts of obedience can accumulate and breed tyranny. This serves as a stark reminder of the individual responsibility we hold to resist the erosion of democratic values.

Moreover, the author emphasizes the significance of defending institutions and the rule of law in Lesson 2, giving examples such as the diversion of power in post-First World War Germany and the fragility of the Weimar Republic. Snyder vividly underscores that democracy is not an immutable entity but rather a collective effort to build, sustain, and improve upon. This extends to his discussion of Lesson 5, “Remember professional ethics,” where he examines the role of professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, in upholding moral and ethical standards rather than submitting to oppressive ideologies.

Snyder masterfully intertwines history with contemporary relevance, leaving the reader with an enhanced understanding of the shared struggles we face. In Lesson 6, “Be wary of paramilitaries,” he provides historical examples of the dangers posed by private militias that can disrupt the normal functioning of society. By citing the infiltration of militias in nations like Ukraine and Russia, Snyder reveals the corrosive influence these non-state actors can have on democratic processes.

One of the book’s standout chapters is Lesson 15, “Contribute to good causes.” Here, Snyder delves into the importance of active engagement in civil society to combat the perils of tyranny. He underscores how the collective efforts of citizens can lead to positive change, recounting the Civil Rights Movement in the United States as an example of ordinary people mobilizing for justice. Encouraging readers to support institutions and organizations that promote democracy, Snyder reminds us that individual acts, no matter how small, are decisive in shaping the world we live in.

Snyder’s evocative writing style enriches his work, engaging readers emotionally and intellectually. The book’s brevity, along with its clear and concise prose, allows for seamless comprehension of complex concepts. Each lesson is deliberately concise, ensuring that readers are not overwhelmed by a deluge of information. Furthermore, the inclusion of personal anecdotes and stories from Snyder’s own experiences adds a relatable touch to the historical analysis, grounding the lessons in everyday realities.

On Tyranny” culminates in a rallying call for vigilance, resistance, and the relentless pursuit of truth. The lessons presented are not merely theoretical but rather practical strategies that can be implemented in our daily lives. This approach renders “On Tyranny” a vital resource for those seeking to navigate the present challenges to democracy. Its call to action encourages readers to be vigilant and proactive in safeguarding democratic values.

In conclusion, Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” delivers a pertinent and powerful examination of the dangers of authoritarianism and offers invaluable guidance on defending democracy. The book exemplifies Snyder’s expertise as a historian and serves as an urgent call to arms to protect the principles upon which our societies have been built. It is an essential read for those concerned about the state of our world and provides the tools necessary to counter the threats that face us all.

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The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience."

Key Ideas

In “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Timothy Snyder presents key ideas that are crucial for understanding and countering the threats faced by democracies today. Here are some of the key ideas explored in the book:

  1. Vigilance and Resistance Snyder emphasizes the importance of staying vigilant and actively resisting the erosion of democratic norms. He warns against complacency and encourages readers to question authority, stating that democracy is not a given but a constant struggle that requires citizen participation.

  2. Defending Institutions Snyder highlights the significance of protecting institutions such as the judiciary, the press, and the rule of law. By examining historic examples where the corrosion of institutions paved the way for authoritarian regimes, he emphasizes the need to safeguard these frameworks that uphold democratic values.

  3. Beware of Authoritarian Techniques Through lessons like “Beware the one-party state” and “Use social media wisely,” Snyder demonstrates how authoritarians exploit specific techniques to consolidate power and manipulate public opinion. By analyzing tactics employed by past dictators, he helps readers recognize and resist these strategies to prevent their recurrence.

  4. The Value of Truth Snyder underscores the importance of truth in preserving democracy, cautioning against the manipulation and distortion of facts. He underscores the danger of disinformation and urges individuals to become responsible consumers and defenders of truth.

  5. Civic Engagement The author highlights the significance of civic engagement as a means to protect democracy. Snyder encourages readers to actively participate in civil society, support meaningful causes, and engage in peaceful resistance against injustices, drawing inspiration from historical examples like the Civil Rights Movement.

  6. The Dangers of Silence Snyder highlights the detrimental consequences of remaining silent in the face of injustice. He argues that only by speaking out against abuses of power and defending the rights of marginalized groups can individuals actively contribute to preserving democratic values.

Each of these key ideas is conveyed through concise and illustrative lessons that speak to the dire consequences of tyranny seen in the twentieth century. By contextualizing historical events and providing practical advice, Snyder empowers readers to recognize the warning signs of authoritarianism and take action to safeguard democracy.

In summary, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” examines the lessons learned from historical events to inform our understanding of and resistance to contemporary threats to democracy. Its key ideas stress the need for vigilance, the defense of institutions and truth, and the importance of civic engagement and dissent. By imparting these lessons, Timothy Snyder equips readers with the knowledge and tools to actively participate in protecting democracy and preventing the recurrence of authoritarianism.


Target Audience

The book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder is targeted towards a wide audience concerned about the state of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism. It is recommended reading for the following audiences:

  • General Readers The book appeals to general readers who are interested in understanding the historical lessons of the twentieth century and how they can be applied to contemporary politics. Snyder’s straightforward and accessible writing style makes this complex subject matter easily comprehensible to a broad audience.

  • Activists and Advocates “On Tyranny” offers practical guidance for those actively engaged in promoting and defending democratic values. Readers who are passionate about social and political justice will find inspiration and concrete strategies for resistance and civic engagement.

  • Educators and Students This book is an excellent resource for educators teaching courses in political science, history, or sociology, providing a strong foundation for discussions on authoritarianism and its threats to democracy. It encourages critical thinking and can serve as a catalyst for classroom debates and exploration of the relevance of historical lessons to contemporary issues.

  • Citizens Concerned about Democracy In an era where democratic institutions are being challenged, “On Tyranny” provides a wake-up call to citizens who want to understand the current political climate and actively contribute to protecting democratic values. It encourages readers to become more informed and engaged in their societies.

  • History Buffs History enthusiasts interested in the twentieth-century struggle against tyranny will find “On Tyranny” to be a thought-provoking and illuminating read. By analyzing past events, Snyder connects historical narratives to present-day challenges and provides a richer understanding of the fragility and resilience of democracy.

“In conclusion, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” is recommended reading for a diverse audience. It appeals to general readers seeking to understand contemporary politics, inspires activists and advocates, provides educational value to students and educators, empowers concerned citizens, and captivates history enthusiasts. Timothy Snyder’s clear and concise style, combined with his insights into the lessons of the past, make this book an indispensable tool for those who wish to actively engage in the defense of democracy.”

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