On Tyranny: Final Reflection

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder is very clearly a book written in the wake of the Trump election, Brexit and other worrying events by a historian with experience studying fascist/authoritarian governments. Even without being able to gain that information easily, the book is a combination of useful advice to prevent and survive fascist governments and a look back at influences in societies that allowed this to happen.

He primarily uses the experiences of other survivors of fascist governments to provide examples of effective resistance. There are twenty main pieces of advice, most of which get a few pages of elaboration, but several main themes emerge, especially towards the end of the book.

Snyder stresses that complacency has oftentimes been a major component of fascist states. The first piece of advice warns against ‘pre-emptive obedience’. If citizens allow or ignore the first steps fascist states take towards undermining democracy or dehumanizing their enemies, it has emboldened them to be able to continue down that path. In the later parts of the book, he turns this more to the idea of ‘exceptionalism’ within American society. To believe that fascism will be held back by American institutions and that there is no way that similar corruptions would happen within the American electoral system is disregarding history. While this was not discussed in the book, his examples of how an ‘emergency’ gives an opportunity for a fascist state to implement anti-democratic measures reminded me of the Patriot Act after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While the Bush administration did not perpetuate this attack and did comply with election results, they were allowed to implement state actions that disregarded both American and international laws, while massively increasing government invasion into the privacy of citizens.

This theory of complacency aiding fascism culminates in his critique of views of society and history. After the end of the Cold War, according to Snyder, ideas about ‘the end of history’ emerged and created a narrative that history always progressed to a positive end. This idea has been disproven by the continued conflict of world politics, therefore giving space for fascists to push the idea of history as cyclical to support their aims.

Overall, this is an ideas-heavy book and therefore hard to sum up. These were just a few of the ideas that I felt were most present and therefore worth exploring.

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