On Tyranny is a short but powerful book that looks at how democracies can turn into tyrannical regimes.
The book, by eminent historian Timothy Snyder, is a guide and warning as to how easy it is to slip into tyranny.
Snyder wrote the book in response to the election of Donald Trump. After the insurrection attempt on January 6, 2021, his book looked even more prescient.
It’s a common misconception that democracy is the endpoint of governance. That once a country has become a democracy it will always remain one.
A quick look at the history books says otherwise. Ancient Athens was once a thriving democracy and fell into oligarchy. The Roman Republic was overthrown by Julius Caesar and became an autocratic state.
Even in recent years, there have been multiple examples of parties elected to office that have rolled back democratic freedoms. The most obvious example is Hitler in Germany.
This On Tyranny summary will look at the key lessons we can learn from this book and how they will help us to spot the emergence of would-be tyrants before they take charge.
Table of Contents
On Tyranny summary
- 1 sentence summary – On Tyranny looks at the telltale signs of a would-be tyrant, how to spot them, and how we can mobilise to protect ourselves against them to preserve democracy.
- Author – Timothy Snyder
- Pages – 126
- Year published – 2017
Takeaway 1 – The truth is important
It’s estimated that Donald Trump told more than 30,000 lies while he was President of the United States.
Just typing that number is astonishing, considering he was the most powerful man in the world.
Everyone knows politicians lie from time to time, but Trump took it to another his lies. His lies were so common, and in some cases, outlandish, that it became apparent how unfit for public office he was.
Trump was allergic to the truth. Unless it suited his goals, he was happy to lie and spread mistruths than admit to the facts.
When a leader starts to lie, this is a sign they could be a tyrant. The fact that Trump lied so frequently and about small things, were warning signs while he was running for President, never mind once he was elected.
This is one of the first steps in regards to how democracies die. The truth is important. Without it, it’s not possible to have a coherent debate, as people are coming from different starting points.
Trump’s willingness to supply his base with mistruths was one of the reasons for the attack on the capital. What they saw, didn’t relate to what Trump was saying and they retaliated as a result.
The truth is important, without it society cannot function. When the truth is subverted and lies take precedence, it’s a slippery slope toward tyranny.
Takeaway 2 – Democracy is defeated from within
One of the most common misconceptions about the rise of tyrannical regimes such as the Nazis is that it happened outside of democracy.
That it was a singular event instead of a gradual process. This misconception is one of the main reasons democracies are prone to be overthrown.
Hitler attempted a putsch in Munich in 1923, but it was repelled and he was imprisoned. The experience convinced him that to take power, he had to go through democratic means.
Ten years later, the Nazi party won the largest share of seats in the Reichstag and Hitler became Chancellor. Following the Reichstag fire four weeks, after he was sworn in, he passed the enabling act to limit democratic freedoms.
A year later, he declared himself Führer and set in motion the events that lead to the Second World War and the Holocaust.
None of this was inevitable, but the rise of Hitler was through democratic means, not outside of it.
We often think the end of democracy will be obvious, like a swift blow to the head. Instead, we should think of it as death by a thousand cuts.
Democracy gets pulled from pillar to post. A tyrant emerges who promises simple solutions to complex problems and slowly reverses freedoms and rights.
A modern-day example is what’s happening in Hungary and Poland as explained by Anne Applebaum in Twilight of Democracy.
Slowly but surely, power is being entrenched in the hands of a few people. The result could be like Vladimir Putin in Russia. A democracy in all but name, an oligarchy in reality.
If we want to prevent the rise of tyranny, first we must protect our democracies by electing respectable and law-abiding leaders, rather than those who’d rather concentrate power in their own hands.
Takeaway 3 – Words can be the first sign of tyranny
It may seem strange, but words are one of the first signs a regime is heading toward tyranny.
But when you think about it, this makes perfect sense. How do governments communicate? With words.
The words they choose to use are a reflection of the path they’re willing to tread. When words such as traitor are bandied about with impunity, the writing is on the whole.
This is the language that was used in totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and it resulted in millions of people suffering.
Today, the words might not be as obvious, but if you look closer you can notice them. In the 1950s, a scare over Communists was created by Joseph McCarthy.
This turned out to be misplaced, but it helped the American people view communism as evil. Communism was discredited following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But the words Marxist and Communist have re-entered the political arena. Little evidence suggests that politicians in America are either Marxist or Communist, but this hasn’t stopped some figures on the right from throwing these terms around.
The problem with this is that it discredits the opposition and attempts to delegitimise them. Democrats like AOC and Bernie Sanders are not Marxists, but miscrediting them is an attempt to brand them as a threat to America.
This is a sign of authoritarianism. When we hear words like these, it’s important to take a step back and consider whether they’re correct, or an attempt to silence the opposition and inflame tensions.
Debate is necessary for a healthy democracy. The more we move away from debate and into ideological battles, the more perilous the future of democracy becomes.
- “The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.”
- “Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share.”
- “What might seem like a gesture of pride can be a source of exclusion. In the Europe of the 1930s and ‘40s, some people chose to wear swastikas, and then others had to yellow stars.”
- “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.”
- “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual – and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.”
On Tyranny review
This On Tyranny summary has looked at Timothy Snyder’s book on the lessons we can learn from the twentieth century and how they apply to our age.
One of the lessons of history is that although it doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. The events may not be the same, but they can be similar.
The rise of Trump may not have mirrored the rise of Hitler, especially as he was voted out of office, but there were some similarities.
While Snyder’s book is short, it does convey a lot in these pages. The lessons are clear, concise and backed up with historical examples.
By looking to the past we can see how these tyrants rose to power and look for the warning signs in our own political leaders.
Just because democracy seems to have prevailed against other forms of governance, does not mean that will always remain the case.
Plato makes this argument forcefully in his Republic. Democracy is the easiest of all political systems to slip into tyranny.
All it takes is the election of one charismatic demagogue to start unpicking democratic norms and the path to tyranny is set.
This is why Snyder’s book is so important to read. Complacency is our worst enemy when it comes to protecting democracy.
The past four years have shown that populists and would-be tyrants can win elections. The goal of the coming years should be to ensure this was a one-off instead of the norm.
Who should read On Tyranny?
I believe everyone should read this book. It’s short but useful and anybody will be able to read it in a day or two.
The lessons Snyder presents are vital to heed. If we’re to protect democracy, it requires all of us to be engaged in the democratic process.
Even if you’re not politically minded, On Tyranny will provide you with an insight into how to protect the freedoms we’ve all come to take for granted.