On Tyranny: The book for our times.

On Tyranny

With this post I am going to do something that I usually do not do. Most of the content of this post is from someone else. I do this because I think that this particular content is so important.  The following paragraphs are taken from the new book On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder (here is a link to the book on Amazon). He has spent his life studying the rise and the consequences of totalitarian regimes in Europe in the beginning of the last century. His books about the subject are highly readable and have been very successful (His most recent ones have been Bloodlands, about the twin catastrophe of  fascism and communism, and Black Earth, about the holocaust). The subject of his new book is tyranny. Unlike his other books, though, this is not a book on history. Rather, it is a book by someone who has a deep understanding of the path that leads to tyranny and sees us all taking the first steps on it. It wants us to see where we are heading and it gives us the tools that might just enable us to change our direction.

Buy it. Read it. And most importantly: live it!

The book consists of twenty short chapters. In the following I have copied the chapter headings together with the first and last paragraph of each chapter.

Dear Timothy Snyder, thank you for writing this book.


1. 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.


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.”

2. Defend institutions.

It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.


It took less than a year for the new Nazi order to consolidate. By the end of 1933, Germany had become a one-party state in which all major institutions had been humbled. That November, German authorities held parliamentary elections (without opposition) and a referendum (on an issue where the “correct” answer was known) to confirm the new order. Some German Jews voted as the Nazi leaders wanted them to in the hope that this gesture of loyalty would bind the new system to them. That was a vain hope.

3. Beware the one-party state.

The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.


Another early American proverb held that “where annual elections end, tyranny begins.” Will we in retrospect see the elections of 2016 much as Russians see the elections of 1990, or Czechs the elections of 1946, or Germans the elections of 1932? This, for now, depends upon us. Much needs to be done to fix the gerrymandered system so that each citizen has one equal vote, and so that each vote can be simply counted by a fellow citizen. We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted. This sort of work can be done at the local and state levels. We can be sure that the elections of 2018, assuming they take place, will be a test of American traditions. So there is much to do in the meantime.

4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.

The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.


And what happens, asked Havel, if no one plays the game?

5. Remember professional ethics.

When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. 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 labor.


Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of professions think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain confidence and indeed a certain kind of power. Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as “just following orders.” If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously have thought unimaginable.

6. Be wary of paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.


For violence to transform not just the atmosphere but also the system, the emotions of rallies and the ideology of exclusion have to be incorporated into the training of armed guards. These first challenge the police and military, then penetrate the police and military, and finally transform the police and military.

7. Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.


Some killed from murderous conviction. But many others who killed were just afraid to stand out. Other forces were at work besides conformism. But without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible.

8. Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that 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.


Teresa Prekerowa later became a historian of the Holocaust, writing about the Warsaw ghetto and about others who helped to aid Jews. But she preferred not to write about herself. When, much later, she was asked to speak about her own life, she called her actions normal. From our perspective, her actions seem exceptional. She stood out.

9. Be kind to our language.

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.


Christians might return to the foundational book, which as ever is very timely. Jesus preached that it “is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” We should be modest, for “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” And of course we must be concerned with what is true and what is false: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

10. Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.


Post-truth is pre-fascism.

11. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.


We do not see the minds that we hurt when we publish falsehoods, but that does not mean we do no harm. Think of driving a car. We may not see the other driver, but we know not to run into his car. We know that the damage will be mutual. We protect the other person without seeing him, dozens of times every day. Likewise, although we may not see the other person in front of his or her computer, we have our share of responsibility for what he or she is reading there. If we can avoid doing violence to the minds of unseen others on the internet, others will learn to do the same. And then perhaps our internet traffic will cease to look like one great, bloody accident.

12. Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.


In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change.

13. Practice 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 choice to be in public depends on the ability to maintain a private sphere of life. We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.

14. Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware on a regular basis. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.


When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order. To be sure, we might feel that we are doing nothing more than going along with everyone else. This is true—and it is what Arendt described as the devolution of a society into a “mob.” We can try to solve this problem individually, by securing our own computers; we can also try to solve it collectively, by supporting, for example, organizations that are concerned with human rights.

15. Contribute to good causes.

Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. Pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good.


The anticommunist dissidents of eastern Europe, facing a situation more extreme than ours, recognized the seemingly nonpolitical activity of civil society as an expression and a safeguard of freedom. They were right. In the twentieth century, all the major enemies of freedom were hostile to non-governmental organizations, charities, and the like. Communists required all such groups to be officially registered and transformed them into institutions of control. Fascists created what they called a “corporatist” system, in which every human activity had its proper place, subordinated to the party-state. Today’s authoritarians (in India, Turkey, Russia) are also highly allergic to the idea of free associations and non-governmental organizations.

16. Learn from peers in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.


The fact that most Americans do not have passports has become a problem for American democracy. Sometimes Americans say that they do not need travel documents, because they prefer to die defending freedom in America. These are fine words, but they miss an important point. The fight will be a long one. Even if it does require sacrifice, it first demands sustained attention to the world around us, so that we know what we are resisting, and how best to do so. So having a passport is not a sign of surrender. On the contrary, it is liberating, since it creates the possibility of new experiences. It allows us to see how other people, sometimes wiser than we, react to similar problems. Since so much of what has happened in the last year is familiar to the rest of the world or from recent history, we must observe and listen.

17. Listen for dangerous words.

Be alert to the use of the words extremism andterrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency andexception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.


Extremism certainly sounds bad, and governments often try to make it sound worse by using the word terrorism in the same sentence. But the word has little meaning. There is no doctrine called extremism. When tyrants speak of extremists, they just mean people who are not in the mainstream—as the tyrants themselves are defining that mainstream at that particular moment. Dissidents of the twentieth century, whether they were resisting fascism or communism, were called extremists. Modern authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, use laws on extremism to punish those who criticize their policies. In this way the notion of extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny.

18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.


James Madison nicely made the point that tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency.” After the Reichstag fire, Hannah Arendt wrote that “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.”

19. Be a patriot.

Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.


Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today. It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures. A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.

20. Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.


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