On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century

Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world. And Timothy Snyder wants to push back against this tide. A history professor at Yale University who's written widely on Europe and the Holocaust, he takes an unusual approach in his little book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
Some of the 48,000 boys and 5,000 girls who attended the Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg cheering and saluting Adolf Hitler's speech. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world. And Timothy Snyder wants to push back against this tide. A history professor at Yale University who's written widely on Europe and the Holocaust, takes an unusual approach in his little book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It's not a sweeping historical analysis, but a collection of observations and suggestions on what forms resisting authoritarianism can take. Some of them are simple, like reading more, or not repeating popular phrases, or simply believing in the truth. Some are less intuitive, like making more eye contact. This episode features the lecture he gave in Toronto and a follow-up conversation with host Paul Kennedy. **This episode originally aired February 23, 2018.

"History does not repeat, but it does instruct." That's the opening line of his Timothy Snyder's book On Tyranny — which is anything but a conventional history tome. Professor Snyder wants it that way. He wanted it to look like an 18th century pamphlet: conversational, aphoristic, punchy and to the point. He wants not just to inform, but to provoke thought. To challenge the conventions that social media bubbles have been fermenting for years. And to break those bubbles wide open.

Each chapter begins with a kind of lesson. And the following text is a brief elaboration on each of those lessons. His book hit a nerve and he's spoken internationally about it. The lessons are deceptively powerful. Here they are — you can judge for yourself.

  • Do not obey in advance.
  • Defend institutions.
  • Beware the one-party state.
  • Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  • 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.

If history teaches us anything, he tells Paul Kennedy, it's what the boundaries and direction our moral agency may take. Its lessons should lead not to despair, but to action.

What is patriotism?

What is patriotism? Let us begin with what patriotism is not. It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families. It is not patriotic to discriminate against active-duty members of the armed forces in one's companies, or to campaign to keep disabled veterans away from one's property… The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best… A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.

What is Corporeal Politics?

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

The "Mainstream Media"

Before you deride the 'mainstream media', note that it is no longer mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult. So try for yourself to write a proper article, involving work in the real world: traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything… Journalists are not perfect, any more than people in other vocations are perfect. But the work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.

Post-Truth = Pre-Fascism

Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, may people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. Post-truth is pre-fascism.

Timothy Snyder is a history professor and author. (Tim Duggan Books/Ine Gundersveen)

Timothy Snyder is a world-renowned authority on Eastern Europe and the Holocaust. He is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. His book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, is published by Tim Duggan Books.

Further reading: 

Timothy Snyder is prolific, and you can find a list of his books here.

**This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.


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