On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder [A Review]

In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder condenses what he believes to be the key lessons from the historical and contemporary instances where democracy has been subverted, crippled and destroyed. In a short, impactful book, Snyder spares over-analysis in favour of prescription; to motivate the otherwise complacent on whom the saving of democracy will depend, or to prepare them for the moment they did not believe would come. In an era where the countries assumed to be the safehouses of democracy have shown the world their vulnerability, and several others have shown real fragility, On Tyranny has become a best-seller. If democracy survives its current challenges, will the lessons contained in this book have a role?

Timothy Snyder begins his book with a warning; that the history of democracy is a history of failure. The twentieth century witnessed much of this failure as three bursts of democracy – following each World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union – were for the most part unsuccessful. A recent spate of divisive and problematic elections and referendums – not to mention the subversive activity of autocrats hoping to destroy the call for democracy at home by poisoning it abroad – has led some to suggest that democracy is in decline in the West. Snyder’s message here is that there are powerful lessons to learn from past failures and we will be best served by acknowledging these lessons and changing our perspective and behaviour accordingly. It may even save us. Snyder argues that these lessons will give those who want to preserve democracy the advantage when the unthinkable happens.

When I began reading On Tyranny, I wondered if Snyder would only speak in general terms or would he cite specific examples and call out those he sees as responsible for the present political situation. Especially when, in Lesson 3: Beware the One Party State, he says:

A party emboldened by a favourable election result or motivated by ideology, or both, might change the system from within.

However, I need not have worried:

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. We believe that we have checks and balances, but have rarely faced a situation like the present: when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level, as well as the majority of statehouses. The party the exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular with society at large, and several that are generally unpopular – and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.

In fact, Snyder pulls no punches. When many refrain from comparing any contemporary politician or political manoeuvre to Hitler and the Nazis, arguing that it is either inexact, unfair or unhelpful; Snyder has no such qualms of making such comparisons where he can justify them.

Like Hitler, the president used the word ‘lies’ to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself.

Of course, while we may distil the past century to discover some fundamental lessons, the world has rapidly moved on. Some would argue that the internet has changed the game. Despite the book’s subtitle, Snyder is not oblivious to this. In fact, devotes a fair bit of this small book to the media. Snyder defends print media and celebrates some aspects of the mainstream media while critiquing others. He is critical of the impact of the internet and social media on democracy via the erasure of privacy, but reminds the reader that in the internet age we are all the ‘media’ and we all share the responsibility for the virality of truths and falsehoods.

Before you deride the “mainstream media,” note that it is no longer mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult.

Brevity, which followers of this blog will know is not a strength of mine, is a strength of Snyder’s and to his credit. Like some of the great political treatises, On Tyranny can be easily read in an afternoon – each of its lessons span just a few pages with wide margins – before it keeps you up half the night. While it is very tempting to go through his twenty lessons and discuss each, I am going to limit myself to just three.

First, Lesson 5: Remember Professional Ethics. This lesson had an impact on me because it answered a question that had been on my mind. Due process has many virtues, but one of its necessary weaknesses is how long it can take. My concern was whether due process can really save democracy when efforts to subvert, impede and ultimately discredit due process can take hold so rapidly.

Snyder’s response is to argue that even tyrannical regimes need at least the façade of due process in order to achieve its aims.

It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labour.

What is required to stop them from executing their plans, Snyder argues, is for people in those positions to not forget the ethics of their profession.

If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.

In Lesson 9: Be Kind to Our Language, Snyder reminds us that authoritarians have always been very effective and deliberate users of language.

Victor Klemperer, a literary scholar of Jewish origin, turned his philological training against Nazi propaganda. He noticed how Hitler’s language restricted legitimate opposition: ‘The people’ always meant some people and not others (the president uses the word in this way), encounters are always ‘struggles’ (the president says ‘winning’) and any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was ‘defamation’ of the leader (or, as the president puts it, ‘libel’).

The power of their words only increases with every repetition even when we are challenging them. The style and format of 24-hour news reinforces it further. Snyder reminds us that the classic totalitarian novels – Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – warn of the dominance of screens and the suppression of books. Snyder’s proposed solution is to differentiate ourselves:

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.

For good measure, Snyder provides a suggested reading list.

Snyder’s Twenty Lessons do not stand in isolation. There is some overlap in their messages and they have been placed in a deliberate order to lead from one to the other and to provide a cumulative effect.

Lesson 18: Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives is worth sharing for being the most frightening chapter. Snyder shows the historical precedents of how real, fake and questionable acts of terrorism have been exploited to suspend democracy, seize power and destabilise neighbours. While Snyder begins with the example that immediately comes to mind – the Reichstag Fire – he mostly wants to make an example of one Vladimir Putin.

Snyder shows how Putin plotted and exploited terrorism in Russia to seize power and destabilise the country. Putin then immediately set to work at destabilising others. From the Ukraine to France, Germany and now the US; Putin’s regime has attempted to hack elections, manufacture moments of fake terrorism, exploit real terrorism, spread propaganda, escalate a civil war in Syria with the aim of flooding Europe with refugees while providing financial support for far-right European political parties in the hope of pushing Europe towards fascism.

The previous September [2015], the German government had announced that it would take half a million refugees from the war in Syria. Russia then began a bombing campaign in Syria that targeted civilians. Having provided the refugees, Russia then supplied the narrative. In January 2016, the Russian mass media spread a story that a girl of Russian origin in Germany who had momentarily gone missing had been serially raped by Muslim immigrants. With suspicious alacrity, right-wing organisations in Germany organised protests against the government. When the local police informed the population that no such rape had taken place, Russian media accused them of a cover-up.

As far-fetched as such a strategy might sound when you try to summarise it, it has been incredibly effective!

When the American president and his national security advisor speak of fighting terrorism alongside Russia, what they are proposing to the American people is terror management: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy. The Russian recap of the first telephone call between the president and Vladimir Putin is telling: The two men “shared the opinion that it is necessary to join forces against the common enemy number one: international terrorism and extremism.”

I don’t give ratings of books on my blog; I do in private and on Goodreads and am very reluctant to give high ratings. But On Tyranny was a five-star book for me, despite leaving me with some questions which, given its brevity, is probably inevitable.

Its analysis is both persuasive and troubling. What respite it offers comes not in the form of optimism but prescription. For many of us in the West, democracy was something we could comfortably take for granted; it worked away quietly in the background while we got on with our lives. Some argued that the less you feel the government’s presence, the more it must be functioning well. Few of us get actively involved unless we are personally affected.

But if democracy in the West is truly facing a crisis, then it will need those who haven’t thought about it much in their lives, who haven’t experienced its absence, to stand up and fight for it. Action is the ultimate lesson of Snyder’s book. He urges us to fight complacency and indifference by remembering professional ethics, to believe in truth and to search for it, to expand our social circle and meet people different to ourselves, to establish and defend our private life in our interconnected world, to be courageous, to be patriotic and to be calm when the unthinkable happens.

On Tyranny is a best-seller. Presumably, it has been widely-read. The real test will be whether it changes people’s behaviour.

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