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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

21 Apr On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century Book Cover On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century
Timothy Snyder

On November 9th, millions of Americans woke up to the impossible: the election of Donald Trump as president. Against all predictions, one of the most-disliked presidential candidates in history had swept the electoral college, elevating a man with open contempt for democratic norms and institutions to the height of power. Timothy Snyder is one of the most celebrated historians of the Holocaust. In his books Bloodlands and Black Earth, he has carefully dissected the events and values that enabled the rise of Hitler and Stalin and the execution of their catastrophic policies. With Twenty Lessons, Snyder draws from the darkest hours of the twentieth century to provide hope for the twenty-first. Twenty Lessons is a call to arms and a guide to resistance, with invaluable ideas for how we can preserve our freedoms in the uncertain years to come.


Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, has written this short text to try to ensure that the History of the 20th century is never far from our minds, and particularly from the minds of the American people. “History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something….History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.” Snyder’s 20 point guidebook is an interesting attack on Donald Trump although Snyder never mentions the 45th President by name. There are some incredible facts in the book with the author carefully constructing his points and clearly showing similarities with Hitler in the way that he used language to undermine and attack all opposition to the Nazi party. He emphasises the methods Hitler used to destroy democracy in Germany, as well as the approaches used by President Putin to put an end to the fledgeling democracy being established in Russia in the 1990s, such actions are juxtaposed against Trump’s campaigning methods in the 2016 presidential election campaign. Trump’s admission that he never reads a book all the way through is symptomatic of his rhetorical style. He offers a “highly constrained [language] to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the past, present and future.”

Point 8 is particularly important. “Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.” He also has some interesting thoughts on Brexit. “Those who advocated Brexit imagined a British nation state, though such a thing never existed………….Eerily, when judges said that a parliamentary vote was required for Brexit, a British tabloid, called them the “enemies of the people”-a Stalinist term from the 1930s.”  He warns the reader that “self-deception becomes first a seductive habit and then a state of mind. That progression is how tyrannies spread.” He gives his fellow Americans the following warning: “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the last century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience…”

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