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

 tl;dr – On Tyranny is a good read to find out how your freedoms are being destroyed and how to preserve them.  

You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.

What is the book about?

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is written by Timothy Snyder – Professor of History at Yale and award-winning author of books on Fascism & Communism  .

via GIPHY

Timothy Snyder has written this book as a response to the growing wave of anti-democratic feeling across the globe. Specifically, the rise of Donald Trump as the President of the USA in 2016 has  triggered for him to look at the lessons of past atrocities to help us prepare for the future.

What does this book cover?

On Tyranny is a relatively light weight book, weighing in at about 120 pages. The content though is far more heavy.

Timothy Snyder has identified 20 lessons (as is mentioned in the title) and expanded on most of them. These lessons draw heavily from tyrannical regimes in history – Nazis, Soviet Russia and a few others. These lessons are

  • Do not obey in advance
  • Defend institutions
  • Beware the one-party state
  • Take responsibility
  • Remember professional ethics
  • Be wary of paramilitaries
  • Be reflective if you must be armed
  • Stand out
  • Be kind to our language
  • Believe in truth
  • Investigate
  • Make eye contact and small talk
  • Practice corporeal politics
  • Establish a private life
  • Contribute to good causes
  • Learn from peers in other countries
  • Listen for dangerous words
  • Be calm when the unthinkable arrives
  • Be a patriot
  • Be as courageous as you can

The last chapter consolidates all the learnings we have had.

What did I like?

On Tyranny is a good read. Liberals and intellectuals will love this book (I count myself one)  while the rest of populace will probably ignore or discount this book.

I liked the way Timothy Snyder calls back to tyrannical regimes in the past to make us understand the learnings behind their rise and fall. While this book is a direct attack on Trump and his policies, there are a lot of takeaways for us living in other countries too. Many politicians across the world use many of these tactics to consolidate their hold on power and we should start fighting against such individuals.

What did I not like?

There are a couple of problems I have with the book.

The first is its brevity. I was surprised by its content in that it was way more terse than I expected. Most of the lessons would have been better with more details and examples from the past. The second problem is how personal it gets. While I get that Trump is an anomaly and should be resisted, this book comes out as an attack on him directly. I feel that some amount of dispassion would have better served the author here.

My Recommendation

I recommend this book strongly for liberals, intellectuals and anyone who is worried about the growing power of regimes. The rest of the population can safely steer away from it since it is not going to be of too much value to them.


Also published on Medium.