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

New York 2017

Review by Laurie Chisholm

This is my kind of book! It is short (126 pages) and tightly focussed on its theme. The twenty lessons are all articulated by lessons from history and Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale University. I’m sure he knows enough to fill volumes but he carefully selects and focusses the information so that it supports the lesson he is trying to convey. His comments show deep insight into the way things developed in the past but he also points to the present, including messages from the current US President.  His message is “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”.  There are plenty of works written against tyranny (such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipeligo), but I have assumed that these belong to a past world not relevant to today. However, Snyder argues that signs of a move towards tyranny are all around us today, so it is up to all of us to ensure that the move doesn’t become full-blown.
Based on the observations of Victor Klemperer, he describes four modes in which truth dies:
    1. Open hostility to verification, such as the President’s antagonism to the media.
    2. Shamanistic incantation, such as “lock her up” or “build the wall”.
    3. Magical thinking, such as promising to reduce taxes and increase spending.
    4. Misplaced faith
I’m now motivated to go back to those classics with increased interest.



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