Books in brief: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

"Snyder’s book is addressed to the American reader, but its message is broader"
April 11, 2017
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder (Bodley Head, £8.99)

As Americans cope with the ascent of Donald Trump, the past offers a warning. “History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something,” writes Yale history professor Timothy Snyder in his new book On Tyranny.

Snyder’s “20 lessons,” covering political parties, paramilitaries and propaganda, are drawn from Europe’s experience of fascism and communism, updated for the age of portable screens. Following paths trodden by Hannah Arendt, Czesaw Miosz and Václav Havel, Snyder has written a manifesto for surviving the political rampages of our time with our rights and freedoms intact. The passages on language and the death of truth, drawing on work by linguistic scholar Victor Klemperer, are especially timely.

Snyder’s book is addressed to the American reader, but its message is broader. Read in Budapest or Warsaw, it will have an especial resonance. He does not mince words on Brexit either.

Some might feel that Snyder is overreacting by invoking the spectre of the SS and the Great Terror a couple of months into the Trump presidency. Yet it is not too early to start heeding his more modest prescriptions: pay for quality journalism and foster trust between neighbours. Slim and accessible, On Tyranny is a book to read quickly, ponder slowly and pass on. I would recommended it for secondary school pupils, too.