On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder

Post-truth is pre-fascism (Timothy Snyder)

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Wendell Phillips)

Timothy Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale and, in 2017, he published On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The timing of the publication is not random: it was a clear reaction to the Trump presidency and the rise of populist movements reaching political power around the world. More than lessons, I would say they are principles to follow that should make it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to rule.

Every lesson is backed by historical events (lessons) that occurred usually in previous tyrannic regimes, mainly in Nazi Germany or Communist USSR. I found some of them particularly compelling. He cites Vaclav Havel and his essay The Power of the Powerless. In communist Czechoslovakia, the regime could survive in the late seventies not because of massive support among the population, but because of an inadequate equilibrium. He uses the example of a greengrocer who has a sign that reads “Workers of the world, unite!” in his shop. The greengrocer does not endorse communism, but he wants to signal to authorities that he will not cause any problems. When many citizens behave like this, an authoritarian regime can go on. That is why his advise, in this case, is: Take responsibility for the face of the world.

While I basically agree with everything he explains, I still feel one should have written this book probably earlier. For instance, when a President started to authorise executions of American citizens without trial via drones. It is difficult not to see this as something a tyrant would do. While there were voices denouncing these facts—see this article from Glenn Greenwald—it is almost sure that had the president been a republican, the concern around this fact would have been much higher (there is a very funny video by We The Internet on this).

But as I was saying, the book is great. It highlights how important individual attitudes and behaviours are. Taking some responsibility for our actions can go a long way into preventing the rise of authoritarian regimes. It is sometimes difficult, after living in relatively peaceful and democratic societies, to keep in mind that this is not a default state. The authoritarian drive awaits in the corner; without the constant vigilance, it can slowly meddle in our day-to-day affairs.

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