Thinking On Tyranny: A Review

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is an ambitious book. Given the publication date and the events that likely inspired it, Snyder distilled in a narrow interval a series of lessons gleaned from his scholarship and that of prominent European minds, namely the late Tony Judt. An eminent historian of France, Judt co-authored Thinking the Twentieth Century, a far-ranging, yet taut intellectual history with his junior Central/Eastern Europeanist colleague Snyder. (That book has an unconventional structure for a work of history, quite successfully presented as a series of dialogues between the two men; at the time Judt was afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig’s disease. The book was not published during Judt’s lifetime.) Discussed among the many other subjects covered in the book — liberalism, socialism, Keynes’ & Hayek’s economic visions, Zionism, etc. — are the near-simultaneous European developments of authoritarian fascism & totalitarian communism.

Which brings us to On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

One might very well consider On Tyranny a further epilogue of a creeping distopia foreseen in the dim outlook that concludes Thinking the Twentieth Century. Without once using the name of the gimcrack northeastern megalomaniac-racist living in the White House today, Snyder presents his readers with guidance for an era of emboldened, social media-steroid-injected, no-longer-creeping authoritarian fascism. The lessons are briefly contextualized or developed, once in as few as two pages (“Make eye contact and small talk” — a meditation on small gestures as canaries in the social mine.) Most of Snyder’s examples are drawn from Europe, no surprise given his specialization and previous work, with occasional gestures toward the US, and still fewer to the rest of the world outside those regions. The breadth of example is disappointing for anyone hoping for a more diverse mosaic of political philosophy, modern history, & dissident example. There’s nothing substantial to quibble with in the lessons themselves; they’re fine lessons for all eras, not simply the dumpster fire of the early twenty-first century.

The book concludes with an epilogue, History and Liberty,” concerned with two strains of antihistorical thinking Snyder classifies as the politics of inevitability” and the politics of eternity.” In describing the first, Snyder notes that in the many decades leading up to our present moment, Americans have indulged themselves in a sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy.” One need only be passingly familiar with the ever-popular City upon a Hill narrative of American history (in both its conservative & liberal expressions) and the political marketing machines that associate candidates with these feel-good fantasies to see what he’s driving at. Snyder diagnoses this teleology as a self-induced intellectual coma.”1 He claims that, by embracing a politics of inevitability, we have raised a generation without history.” This late-Gen Xer notes plenty of older Americans seem to have forgotten or dismissed their own historical learning as confirmation bias allowed them to throw their shoulders out of joint patting themselves on the back for their roles in real-yet-precarious historic advances. As one might expect, this leaves many Americans vulnerable to the the second strain, the politics of eternity, a seduction by a mythologized past [that prevents us from thinking about possible futures.” Snyder worries this is the direction America is headed.

The question I’m left with is: who is Snyder’s audience for this book? I read it, of course, but needn’t have; I read plenty of Václav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Hannah Arendt in college. I expect a fair number of liberally-educated folks have read some work by political dissidents (in the US or elsewhere) at one point or another, though I may be disappointed in that belief in reality. At best, Snyder’s lessons serve as a primer for young folks whose humanistic education has been sacrificed on the altar of STEM, or as helpful reminders for established people in STEM fields who may not have received much humanistic education but have some benefit of lived experience.

I think this is where Snyder’s European examples reveal themselves as well-chosen to the task at hand. They are aligned both with both Snyder’s own specialization & with what history of authoritarianism & totalitarianism Americans are likely to know or at least percieve a familiarity. What history Americans know is frequently sketchy & often misinformed or poorly developed thanks to the mercantilist priorities of America’s education system, but the scaffolding is likely sound enough for Snyder to drape these lessons around it. This book could have particular success if assigned as a semester-concluding meditation following a deeper dive into twentieth-century history in a university classroom. (Ideally, these lessons would be fleshed out by readings that engage dissidents like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Liu Xiaobo, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and Anna Politkovskaya.) But this audience is not enough — the lessons of Snyder’s book demand transmission to those without access to university classrooms. If we are to remain a viable democracy, no longer can we begin civics education in college.

For Americans hung over from indulging in triumphalist popular narratives of their own history, Snyder’s book might be an opportunity for them to apply some new (or forgotten, for us older folks) understanding to a moment very much in need of thoughtful action. It’s a first step in that direction, and even with its blind spots and constraints from brevity, it merits 3.5 stars. In respect to its connection to Thinking the Twentieth Century and Judt’s well-justified concerns, I’ll round up to 4 stars.

  1. He’s right.↩︎

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