BOOK REVIEW

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder: a book review

Portrait of Timothy Snyder TEACHING
Historian Timothy Snyder teaching at Yale U., July 2017. Photo German Green Party. Licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny, a short guide to 20 strategies for citizens to defend democracy, began as a Facebook post after Trump’s election. Many Americans were anxious when Trump’s ideology and style resembled those of 1930s fascists and current autocrats.

US historian, Timothy Snyder, uses the history of 20th century Europe to highlight to 21st century Americans how to cope with Donald Trump’s presidency. 

A Prologue and twenty ‘rules’

Snyder argues in his prologue that democratic regimes have always been at risk of falling to tyranny. Americans (and in my view Britons too) want to believe that their democracy is stable and their institutions are strong enough to withstand attacks. This is a dangerous assumption. Snyder argues that authoritarian governments can destroy democracy. As the Third Reich for example shows, nations can within a few years be on a path toward ruin and, in extreme cases, horrific campaigns of violence like the Holocaust.

What is sauce…

Even though Snyder addresses Americans under Trump’s regime, I argue that the UK now also faces the same threats to its democracy by its current government. We do well if we take the suggestions on how to counter autocratic trends on board.

The rules

  1. Snyder’s first rule is “Do not obey in advance.” This is the worst thing people can do. Tyrants like Hitler rely on obedience in order to be able to bring in anti-democratic policies. See the latest Bills the UK government has pushed through Parliament. They restrict peaceful protest, scrutiny of the executive by courts, reporting of government misdeeds by journalists etc. After facing calls for his resignation, the PM changed the Ministerial Code.
  1. The second rule asks people to “Defend institutions” which autocrats always try to dismantle. It is vital to have democratic institutions for checks and balances on their power. 
  1. Snyder’s third rule is “Beware the one-party state.” This brings to my mind the UK’s current electoral system which gives the ruling party a huge advantage. According to Snyder, despite its two-party system, the US is on the brink of falling into one-party oligarchy. As in the UK with its 2016 EU Referendum and the new Electoral Bill, the Republican Party used voter suppression and gerrymandering to gain power.

    The UK needs to adopt Proportional Representation to make votes matter. Only a minority of the UK voters supported Leave and only a minority of Americans supported Trump. Lies, data theft and media targeting influenced the vote. We see in the UK now that it is only a very small group of the very rich who actually benefit from Brexit. Jacob Rees-Mogg supposedly made £7million on the back of the Leave vote. 
Flag of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging
The flag of the ultra-right Afrikaner Resistance Movement. Photo, Fry1989, licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
  1. “Take responsibility for the face of the world” is Snyder’s fourth rule. People must refuse to display signs of hate, othering, division to show uncritical loyalty to rogue leaders. These are symbols of obedience (see rule 1). Some leave supporters drew swastikas on their flags. Like the gold stars for Jews in Nazi Germany, symbols are used by tyrants to suppress whole groups of people.
  1. Snyder’s next rule is to “Remember professional ethics” in the face of a government claiming they no longer apply. The UK’s PM broke his own law and changed the Ministerial Code to get away with it. Under the Nazi government, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen had to put their ethical obligations aside. That is how they ended up participating in the Holocaust. Professional ethics must come before obedience to government. 
  1. In Snyder’s sixth rule, he tells readers to “Be wary of paramilitaries” which autocrats often use for their own private ends. I describe in the next paragraph that the UK cannot be too complacent just because we don’t have armed militia roaming the streets.
  1. In the seventh rule, Snyder asks Americans to “Be reflective if you must be armed.” Both the Nazis and, as we see in the Ukraine war the Soviets, use police officers and soldiers for their mass murder campaigns. Although far removed from murderous campaigns, nevertheless the UK must watch out for the extra powers this government is giving the police in the Policing Bill. The controversial ‘stop and search’ rights are now not even conditional on suspicious behaviour. It will make it even more likely that ethnic minorities, especially black men, will be targeted. 
  1. In the eighth chapter, Snyder says that readers must “Stand out.” Just like numerous heroes in the resistance against the Nazis, we should not go with the flow. I see that rule as a call to make sure that we are seen and that our opposing voices are heard. ProEU and anti corruption, anti racist and climate campaign groups must carry on showing their opposition to policies they disagree with.
  1. In chapter nine, Snyder tells readers to “Be kind to our language.” Tyrants, and for example the UK Leave leaders changed the meaning of words like “the people.” They want to make citizens feel that everyone agrees with their policies and will benefit from them. Instead of simply watching mainstream news, Americans should read books in order to refine their capacities for analysis. Sadly, the current UK mainstream media (and tabloids) can often not be relied upon to report unbiased news. Judges being called “enemies of the people” also remind us strongly of the Hitler media. 
  1. In chapter ten, Snyder wants us to “Believe in truth.” Donald Trump never distinguished between truth and fantasy, making delusional promises, just like the Leave campaign: talking about lowering taxes, increasing spending, and reducing debt all at the same time and basing politics on loyalty and emotion rather than reason and policy. This strategy allowed him to win people’s support without actually needing to help them in any way – in order to support the truth.
  1. In the next chapter, Snyder asks readers to “investigate” to get to the truth. They should check what they read online and, like in the UK, support alternative, high-quality journalism. He also warns about speaking only to one’s own bubble.

    Then Snyder concentrates on how citizens can preserve freedom in their everyday lives. These are linked to making a stand in the open. 
  1.  “Make eye contact and small talk” to remind acquaintances and friends that they will not let politics destroy private lives. Do not withdraw into your home to avoid contact. Of course, the COVID 19 pandemic made people keep a distance between family members and friends outside their own household. This made it more difficult to keep the personal contact Snyder recommends.
  1. The same difficulty applies to the next rule to “Practice corporeal politics” and protest together in the streets. To bring about change, one cannot just sit at home and simply hope for change.
    It is sad to see in the UK how few people join protests like SODEM who have just been targeted by the police due to the new Policing Bill.

    Steven Bray and the SODEM campaigners stand in Whitehall every Wednesday to hold MPs and the PM to account. People who can’t travel to London could form their own local action or join a local campaign group. The right to protest is a Human Right and a BBC research project showed that 3.5% of a population coming out in peaceful protest can influence a government. That is why most authoritarian governments clamp down on protests.

    Is the UK still a democracy, when a single protestor can be silenced? 
  1. Snyder’s rule to “Establish a private life” refers to digital privacy. Security services in the US have found that during the Trump campaign personal data was used to target people on social media. The Leave campaign also employed Cambridge Analytica to influence people. Snyder warns us to stop the government crossing a line and ensure they don’t use our data against us.
  1. Chapter 15 asks citizens to “Contribute to good causes” both with time, effort and money. Organisations in the UK like Amnesty and Liberty help citizens both to fight oppressive policies and also to exercise their freedom of association to help sustain civil society. 
  1. In his 16th chapter, Snyder tells his readers to also look to the rest of the world and “Learn from peers in other countries.” Americans tend to forget that other countries are tackling problems similar to theirs, and most Americans do not even have passports. This is a problem because it limits Americans’ perspective and political imagination – it’s also part of why they tend to assume arrogantly that American democracy cannot collapse. In fact, Snyder notes, Russian and Ukrainian journalists were able to analyse Trump’s campaign more accurately than American ones, because Russia and Ukraine have already seen their democracies toppled by Trump-style propaganda and nepotism.

Nearing the end of democracy

In the last four chapters, Snyder warns citizens about a key turning point on the road from freedom to tyranny. I believe that the UK has reached this point, when our government stops gradually accumulating power in the background and instead starts taking huge steps to topple democracy all at once.

  1. In chapter 17, “Listen for dangerous words,” he points out how the Nazis and other tyrannous governments have used propaganda words like “extremism”, “terrorism”, “emergency” and “exception” to suspend the rights and freedoms that allow democracy to function.

    In the face of a terrorist attack or other national emergency, for instance, they will declare that all citizens must give up their rights for the sake of the nation as a whole. But this is usually a trap, and authoritarians usually never give these rights back, even long after the emergency has passed.
  1. In chapter 18, Snyder looks at the most famous example of such a power grab: the mysterious fire at the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament) a month after Hitler came to power. Hitler declared a national emergency, started suspending citizens’ rights and jailing his opponents, and then convinced the parliament to give him absolute dictatorial power.

    Hitler never gave any of these powers up – ultimately, the fire (which historians think the Nazis probably started) gave Hitler a pretext for completely dismantling German democracy in a matter of days. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin used a similar tactic several times in the late 1990s and early 2000s: he exploited terrorist attacks launched by his own secret police in order to destroy institutions and opposition groups. Donald Trump has openly declared his admiration for Putin and his intention to use the same “terror management” strategy, so citizens must be ready and vigilant.
  1. In other words, as Snyder argues in the next chapter, every citizen must try to “Be a patriot.” They must remember what is really in the national interest – the preservation of democracy – and refuse to let Trump’s government convince them that whatever he happens to want for himself is best for the country as a whole. 
  1. Patriotism can even mean self-sacrifice: in his brief final chapter, Snyder tells citizens to “Be as courageous as you can” because “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

Last words

In his Epilogue, Snyder warns against two political tendencies that he calls the “politics of inevitability” and the “politics of eternity.” Ignoring the past, many citizens simply assume that history is a consistent progress and democracy will never fail them. This is the “politics of inevitability.”

Recognising that things seem to be getting worse, others start fixating on an idealised past that never existed. This is the “politics of eternity,” which Trump exemplified with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Johnson and the Leave campaign’s nationalistic language served a similar purpose. Both of these ideologies rely on a misunderstanding of the past and a mistaken assumption that the future is already determined.

In reality, Snyder concludes, people’s political choices do have the power to shape the future, and Americans must step up to defend their democracy unless they want to see it disappear.

A final warning

I have set out Snyder’s rules in more detail than I would normally do in a book review. However, I consider his argumentation and recommendations to the point in the UK’s current political situation. I recommend people read this relatively short book. I hope Britons reading the book recognise the parallels between Trump’s USA and Johnson’s Brexit Britain and follow Snyder’s guidelines before we decline into tyranny.