Book Review: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

We tend to think of history as a record of a bygone era, a tale to be studied and dismissed by nerdy scholars in old libraries who have nothing better to do with their lives. Unfortunately, this treatment of history is prevalent in the mainstream. Fortunately, people like Timothy Snyder exist to epitomize the importance of studying historical patterns and applying the lessons learned to our lives.

Timothy Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale University and a best-selling author. He has written numerous books, mainly focusing on European history in the twentieth century. On Tyranny is a compilation of twenty lessons learned from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the twentieth century. Snyder analyzes techniques used by Hitler and Stalin that ranged from the decimation of institutions to the limiting of language, and more importantly, how conformist actions of the citizenry enabled descending into totalitarianism at a surprisingly fast pace. This book is one of those historical works which serve as reminders of how inhumane humanity can get, as portrayed by the Holocaust and the Holodomor, among other episodes of mass violence in this period. This book tells its readers what to do to avoid such brutalities from happening again, based upon what people did not do in situations when the Nazi government consolidated power and carried out systematic killings of Jews or when Soviet Russia enacted collectivization policies and starved millions in the bread basket of Europe.

The book is broken up into twenty short sections that start with the advice that Snyder has for readers and explanations with specific historical examples. Snyder’s purpose for publishing this book in 2017 is evident: he saw clear patterns between the beginnings of fascism, communism, and Nazism in twentieth-century Europe and the 2016 political climate of Donald Trump’s candidacy and eventually his presidency. I would argue that even though Trump is not president anymore, all the comparisons still apply. He enabled our courts, politicians, and voters to take extreme, and inherently anti-democratic positions. Only future historians will be able to tell the exact damage Trump’s actions and legacy will have on American life.

This book is concise, with clear lessons and examples which do not require any previous academic studying (though I sure hope everyone does know what the Holocaust was). Words like ‘tyranny’ are thrown around in political discourse rather carelessly, but Snyder does the words and the concepts justice. Not only does he enhance our understanding of history overall, but also emphasizes the importance of reading, investigating, conversing, and making eye contact with our neighbors. Above all, he advises us to be courageous and stand out. It was the fear of being the only one who dissents, that led many soldiers and police officers to carry out executions of Jewish people even if they did not have any Nazi beliefs. It was the need for assurance that led to many willingly giving up their freedoms after the Reichstag Fire in 1933 in Germany to allow Hitler’s government to become the Nazi regime we despise today. Do not trade in your real freedoms for a false sense of security. Not obeying blindly and questioning helps us become better citizens, neighbors, and participants in democracy. After all, individual actions make or break democracy in a system based on individualism. The genius of Snyder’s historical writing is found in the inspiration one feels as a reader upon finishing this book—Snyder puts the power to change tides in an average person’s hands with realistic advice that can be practiced right away.

I picked up this book in the summer of 2021 for a history book club, and since then have referenced it over and over again because of its clarity of message. History always instructs, but it is rare to find such clearly laid out instructions. I highly recommend this book to history lovers, and especially recommend this book to those who dislike history. For we do not need to know all of history, but just enough to see patterns and make better decisions. Just enough to ensure we do not commit the atrocities of the twentieth century.

On Tyranny was also released as a graphic novel in 2021, with illustrations by Nora Krug and updated contemporary political examples by Snyder. If you are a visual and auditory learner, Timothy Snyder’s YouTube channel has video lessons further exploring the lessons, among many other informative and engaging lectures.