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Book Review/Reflections: On Tyranny

Book cover: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder provides twenty lessons that society can learn from the tyrants of the 20th century. The book was recommended to me by rts of Facing the Challenges of Mental Health. This post is less a book review and more a follow-up to a what is… post I did recently on the psychology of tyranny.

It’s a short book, and each lesson is 1-3 pages. There’s enough background info provided to understand the basis of each of the lessons, but it’s not an overwhelming amount of history. Many of the essons reference Nazi Germany, although other examples are used as well. The focus isn’t on the specific atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, but rather the chillingly skillful ways they used to bring people on board.

The first lesson is not to obey in advance. For this lesson, Snyder describes psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment in which participants were instructed by the experiment to deliver a series of electric shocks to other individuals. The premise was that these others were involved in a “learning” experiment, and when they gave wrong answers, the experimenter would indicate to the participant to deliver a “shock.” The shocks weren’t actually delivered, but the “learner” actors behaved as though they had actually received a painful shock. Study participants continued following instructions to deliver “shocks” until participants feigned death.

One line in the book quite interested me, and while I hadn’t thought of it that way, it’s true: “The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens.”

The book encourages us to stand out: “Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom…” Snyder also urges us to be individual in our way of speaking and to read books, and speak to our peers in other countries (thank you, blogosphere!).

On Tyranny was published in 2017, but much of it applies very well to 2020. “Be wary of paramilitaries.” Check. “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” There’s been a lot of that going around. Listen for dangerous words like extremism; “The feeling of submission to authority might be comforting, but it is not the same thing as actual safety.” Um, National Guard?

The book sent me off down a bit of a rabbit hole with these lines about the Soviet Union:

“Collectivization, when completed, brought starvation to much of the Soviet peasantry. Millions of people in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia died horrible and humiliating deaths between 1930 and 1933. Before it was over, Soviet citizens were butchering corpses for human meat.”

I remember learning about the Soviet Union in History 12, and famines, government cruelty, people getting shipped off to the gulags, and scads of people dying on the Eastern Front during WWII. I don’t remember learning about the Holodomor, a government-created famine (there was no actual lack of food) that killed millions of Ukrainians. It’s recognized as a genocide by multiple countries, including my own. And yes, the cannibalism was real.

Humanity has shown time and again how easy it is to slip into horror. It’s happened in the distant past, the recent past, and in some places, the present day. We’re not as distant as we might like to think from tyranny and wide-scale harm as we might like to think. So these 20 lessons matter, both now and in the future. We can do so much better.

On Tyranny is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

25 thoughts on “Book Review/Reflections: On Tyranny”

  1. The number of people who have never heard of the Holodomor is shocking, although I seem to have seen a lot of “Why have I never heard of the Holodomor?”-type posts on blogs and Twitter lately, which maybe indicates growing awareness of it.

      1. To be fair, the history syllabus is potentially enormous and the time available is limited. Just as an example, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are my favourite period of British and European history, yet we learnt almost nothing about them at school.

  2. Great review. I actually read this one about a year ago. The lesson of “beware of paramilitary groups” freaked me out over the course of this year, especially during the street battles in cities like Portland in the U.S. You’re right – we’re far closer to tyranny than we’d like to imagine many times. Another book that enlightened me about our current politics was “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” I highly recommend it.

  3. Our current political climate (I’m in the U.S.A.) terrifies me. When others in this country voted a narcissist with misogynistic, racist tendencies — that he didn’t even try and hide! — into the White House, I literally wept (something I’d never done as the result of an election)… but I did not harbour thoughts of hatred towards those who supported him.

    My husband and I have since watched numerous documentaries about the rise of tyranny proceeding the World Wars, and I felt literally sick; each time thinking, “F*ck, history is repeating itself.”

    Having lost the election, Trump refused to accept the outcome… and has raised nearly 200 million (thus far) for a 2024 campaign.

    His supporters have threatened violence against election officials (and volunteers); and he has repeatedly stated that legitimate news outlets are nothing more than “fake news” machines.

    I have never been a fan of ignorance, nor bullies… but I can no longer just ignore them either. It is terribly frightening.

    1. The refusing to accept election results really does take things to a new level. If it were someone more skillful in Trump’s place, things could turn really, really ugly.

  4. “The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech…”

    Yes, this is something that many of us here do not even agree with, but since Senator John McCain (RiP) gave up on campaign finance reform, it’s been a non-starter. 🙁

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