On Tyranny
Read in 21 min.
Listen in 27 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny

Looking to history to help detect signs of tyranny

Not that much time has passed since the reign of twentieth century totalitarian regimes came to an end: we can learn from history, through fascism, nazism, and communism, and take lessons from them to help us retain our freedom in an era, such as the present one, where democracy is constantly being put to the test. On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder, references regimes of the past through reflections and anecdotes, to provide a small manual for modern-day citizens, to help them become more aware, proactive, responsible, but above all, trained to recognise tyranny from the very first warning signs, and not give in to it. The book provides 20 lessons, each one focussing on a fundamentally important concept, such as patriotism, information, institutions, language, symbols, resistance, and truth.

On Tyranny
Read in 21 min.
Listen in 27 min.

Look to history for warning signs, and avoid repeating past mistakes

There are two anti-historical ways of looking at the past. The first, which we have allowed ourselves to accept for some time now, is that of the politics of inevitability, according to which history can only move in one direction: liberal democracy. Convincing ourselves of this, we lowered our defences, and paved the way for the very regimes that we had convinced ourselves would never be able to return. This type of politics is like a self-induced coma: once accepted, we are convinced that the story was indeed inevitable and, therefore, no longer relevant; that nothing can really change, and that chaos is sooner or later absorbed by a self-regulated system.

The second is that of the politics of eternity, which does look to the past, but does so in an egocentric way, devoid of any concern about the real facts. There is a desire to go back to past times, even though they were actually disastrous, or never actually existed in the first place. Brexit is an example of this, in that it was the product of the desire of one group of people to return to a British nation that never really existed: from the British Empire, Great Britain transitioned straight into becoming a member of the European Union. 

If we don’t analyse history properly, it will be easy to move from an already ingrained type of politics based on inevitability, to a politics of eternity, from inertia, because we think that progress is inevitable, and continuing to do nothing, because we think that history moves in continuous and repetitive cycles.

The only thing capable of interrupting these mechanisms is history itself: history affords us the opportunity to glimpse patterns and warning signs, and thus act responsibly. It never repeats itself in exactly the same fashion, but it can forewarn and instruct subsequent generations.

Referring mainly to the United States, the author provides 20 lessons selected from events occurring in the twentieth century, adapting them to the circumstances of today. He argues that regimes, such as fascism and communism, were born in response to globalisation, and the inequalities (either real or perceived) that it created, and the apparent inability of democracies to deal with them. 


The key ideas of "On Tyranny"

Look to history for warning signs, and avoid repeating past mistakes
Obedience, opposition, oppressive parties: there needs to be a fair dose of mistrust and determination amongst citizens
Democracy is defended by institutions, non-governmental organisations, and people's open-mindedness
From professional ethics, to the use of symbols: support for democracy is also a matter of responsibility
The symbology of language: finding your own voice, and not falling into the trap of words
Truth, and the constant search for facts and sources, are the real weapon against tyranny
An active political life must be led in and among the people, but without ever compromising our privacy
Those who have guns have great power: it is important to oppose ambiguous or exceptional demands
Courage and patriotism are the two key concepts to fighting for freedom
Take-home message
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