On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

by Timothy Snyder

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#1 New York Times Bestseller • A historian of fascism offers a guide for surviving and resisting America's turn towards authoritarianism.

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

On Tyranny 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.

"Mr. Snyder is a rising public intellectual unafraid to make bold connections between past and present." —The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804190121
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 02/28/2017
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 28,660
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

Read an Excerpt


Do not obey in advance.

Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy. Perhaps rulers did not initially know that citizens were willing to compromise this value or that principle. Perhaps a new regime did not at first have the direct means of influencing citizens one way or another. After the German elections of 1932, which brought Nazis into government, or the Czechoslovak elections of 1946, where communists were victorious, the next crucial step was anticipatory obedience. Because enough people in both cases voluntarily extended their services to the new leaders, Nazis and communists alike realized that they could move quickly toward a full regime change. The first heedless acts of conformity could not then be reversed.

In early 1938, Adolf Hitler, by then securely in power in Germany, was threatening to annex neighboring Austria. After the Austrian chancellor conceded, it was the Austrians’ anticipatory obedience that decided the fate of Austrian Jews. Local Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets to remove symbols of independent Austria. Crucially, people who were not Nazis looked on with interest and amusement. Nazis who had kept lists of Jewish property stole what they could. Crucially, others who were not Nazis joined in the theft. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt remembered, “when German troops invaded the country and Gentile neighbors started riots at Jewish homes, Austrian Jews began to commit suicide.”

The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible. It was in Vienna that August that Adolf Eichmann established the Central Office for Jewish Emigration. In November 1938, following the Austrian example of March, German Nazis organized the national pogrom known as Kristallnacht.

In 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the SS took the initiative to devise the methods of mass killing without orders to do so. They guessed what their superiors wanted and demonstrated what was possible. It was far more than Hitler had thought.

At the very beginning, anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation. Do only Germans do such things? The Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, contemplating Nazi atrocities, wanted to show that there was a particular authoritarian personality that explained why such Germans behaved as they had. He devised an experiment to test the proposition, but failed to get permission to carry it out in Germany. So he undertook it instead in a Yale University building in 1961—­at around the same time that Adolf Eichmann was being tried in Jerusalem for his part in the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews.

Milgram told his subjects (some Yale students, some New Haven residents) that they would be applying an electrical shock to other participants in an experiment about learning. In fact, the people attached to the wires on the other side of a window were in on the scheme with Milgram, and only pretended to be shocked. As the subjects (thought they) shocked the (people they thought were) participants in a learning experiment, they saw a horrible sight. People whom they did not know, and against whom they had no grievance, seemed to be suffering greatly—­pounding the glass and complaining of heart pain. Even so, most subjects followed Milgram’s instructions and continued to apply (what they thought were) ever greater shocks until the victims appeared to die. Even those who did not proceed all the way to the (apparent) killing of their fellow human beings left without inquiring about the health of the other participants.

Milgram grasped that people are remarkably receptive to new rules in a new setting. They are surprisingly willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority. “I found so much obedience,” Milgram remembered, “that I hardly saw the need for taking the experiment to Germany.”

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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Must be read by all who care about America and its future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Timothy warns us that historical cycles, inevitable good ends and eternal dangers are myths that lull our minds to sleep. They allow us to float with the tide. This is a necessary read for those living during the Trump administration.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this articulate explanation of the current seemingly unexpected and shocking events that are actually very predictable given the current American views.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read book for the Trump era.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Scares me to death! unfortunately I think he hit the nail right on the head! I think our country is in for some hard times ahead!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book articulates for me what I felt but could not express rationally. Read it and see for yourself
TrueBlueCoondog More than 1 year ago
This little book is THE most important reading for today's American. A concise, non-biased realities presented based in FACT. Warning: it is full of mirrors. I am purchasing 2 additional copies to mail to my Senators!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A quick read - a must read! Especially during these times of chaotic democracy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Be warned vulnerable Patriots. Looks can be deceiving. Your strong man might actually be your greatest enemy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The most important book I have read this year! It is a quick read, but recommended reading for all!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would recommend this to anyone wishing to understand our current political moment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ex .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A short well-written book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A "highly" recommended read for fellow Americans who love our country are truly concerned about our nation's current state of upheaval, dissension and division under the Trump administration. Thought-provoking and chilling - I read it in one sitting and I'm tempted to buy multiple copies to share with others. (...Should be mandatory reading for all members of Congress at this time.)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sadly the book is so true. Well written and easy to read . All high school and college students should read .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Don’t miss this. Tune into author interview/presentations on YouTube or BooK-TV.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a quick read but a must read. Calm, practical, insightful.
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Anonymous 10 days ago
Timothy Snyder demonstrates an unparalleled concise writing style in this great summary of the political dangers all Americans face now by referring to the past for comparison to the current rise of totalitarian styles of government. Anyone who does not see the parallels between the rise of Donald Trump and the rise of Hitler need to go back and read this book again.
Anonymous 3 months ago
A MUST READ!!! For everyone! This little gem of a book should be given out to every student in school and every single person with a pulse.
Anonymous 3 months ago
A MUST READ!!! For everyone! This little gem of a book should be given out to every student in school and every single person with a pulse.
Rosemary-Standeven More than 1 year ago
It is often quite clear when there is a dictatorship, when tyranny has taken over, when there is no free speech, and people live in fear of the government. What is not always clear, is how the country got to that point. Say, there was a military coup, or invasion or other revolutionary take-over, with guns and violence – then yes, that is how the dictatorship came into being. One day free – the next in chains. But many dictatorships start slowly, and insidiously. The rights of citizens and the freedoms that everyone has taken for granted disappear one by one, until one day the citizens wake up and it is too late – the dictatorship has already taken firm hold. This book is a warning against the latter case. It gives twenty markers of tyranny in its infancy – twenty changes to identify and oppose. The book was published primarily in response to the presidency of Trump, but also in response to the many populist and far-right movements that seem to be springing up all over the globe. Trump is not a dictator, and there is every possibility that he will get bored and go away of his own volition, but the precedents that he is setting in his time in office are already starting to erode American – and indeed world – democracy: the aggressive nationalism, the cries of ‘fake news’, the demonising of minority groups, foreigners and experts, … If Trump goes, will that necessarily mean a return to sanity and a free country? Or will the damage already done be too deep? What could come next? Likewise, in Britain a populist movement encouraged by lies, misdirection and a vain hope that any change will be better than the status quo, has lumbered us with an ill-conceived Brexit that will damage the country for at least decades to come – economically and spiritually. As Remoaners, we, who oppose Brexit, are daily, forcefully reminded that ‘the PEOPLE have spoken’, and that it is undemocratic to question the WILL OF THE PEOPLE. There is talk of there being riots and civil war if the WILL OF THE PEOPLE is not obeyed. Unfortunately, nobody actually knows what the will of the people is, apart from a nebulous desire of 38% of the potential voting public to leave the EU – but not how nor why we should leave. Two quotes I particularly liked were: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true then no-one can criticize power”, and “A nationalist will say ‘it can’t happen here’, which is the first step towards disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.” To oppose tyranny requires many, many people being aware of the danger signs and acting on them. I am reminded of a poem by Pastor Niemöller, who was imprisoned in Dachau: "First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me." Another version updated for the Trump era can be found at https://qz.com/702497/the-famous-poem-by-an-anti-nazi-pastor-rewritten-for-donald-trumps-america/ The book is well-written and very thought-provoking. It needs to be widely read and acted on, but – as one other reviewer pointed out, the people who most need to read this book, probably won’t. It is a call to watchfulness and a reminder of the dangers of apathy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Actually a 4.5....very good!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This should be circulated like Thomas Paine's pamphlets. Helpful to any revolutionary spirit.