Book Review – On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century




BOOK: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

AUTHOR: Timothy Snyder



Timothy Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale University, who specializes in the study of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. He has a reading or speaking knowledge of eleven European languages. The man knows what he’s talking about.

On Tyranny is a quick read. You can get it for $3.99 on the Kindle, and a paperback copy is only $4.99 on Amazon. It’s not an academic work; it’s really an argument for applying historical knowledge, and an alarm, a call to action for the citizens of the United States (and, for that matter, the rest of the world). In the prologue, he warns us, thus: “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy lead to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. One advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.”


What follows is a collection of short essays, twenty pieces of advice and instruction. The chapter titles are themselves a fairly useful summation of the book, as well as good words to live by:

Do not obey in advance.

Defend institutions.

Beware the one-party state.

Take responsibility for the face of the world.

Remember professional ethics.

Be wary of paramilitaries.

Be reflective if you must be armed.

Stand out.

Be kind to our language.

Believe in truth.


Make eye contact and small talk.

Practice corporeal politics.

Establish a private life.

Contribute to good causes.

Learn from peers in other countries.

Listen for dangerous words.

Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

Be a patriot.

Be as courageous as you can.


Some of the insights here are, to my mind, fairly obvious: exhortations about the importance of reading (and a short suggested reading list—not at all a bad thing, of course), the importance of charitable organizations, travel being fatal to small-mindedness, the need for courage in difficult times, criticism of reality television, and so forth. Others of these short essays offer a bit more depth: discussion of the work of Hannah Arendt and Vaclav Havel; historical parallels drawn from Hitler, Stalin, and Mao; and the epilogue, explaining the dangers of the politics of inevitability and the alternative dangers of the politics of eternity, concluding with an apt quote from Hamlet: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever was I born to set it right!” along with Hamlet’s conclusion…fatalistic, optimistic, determined, accepting? “Nay, come, let’s go together.”


If you’re looking for advice on how best to set it right, together, this book is worth a read.  And even if you think the warnings within regarding authoritarianism are overblown, historians have something to teach us about the past and about our present…it’s worth your time and consideration to engage.


RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best: 4 Whistles




Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at


Lead-in art courtesy of wan wei /



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