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By Steve Geiger (reviewer)
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
by Timothy Snyder
(Tim Duggan Books, 2017)
"In politics, being deceived is no excuse." — Leszek Kolakowski
Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He has written previously on the topics of: Nationalism, Marxism and Modern Central Europe, Wall Around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in the United States and Europe, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Belarus 1569-1999, and Politics in Life and Death (in Czech). He has written about the holocaust, Stalin and Europe, Ukrainian history, and the Balkans as Europe.
Do not be intimidated by these titles. On Tyranny is exceptionally readable, it is not a history so much as an imperative for anyone interested in our flawed democracy. It is a primer on the ability authoritarianism has demonstrated for replacing democracy in ancient and modern times. It is comprised of 20 short chapters, each being instructional and imperative with Chapter 1 entitled, "Do Not Obey in Advance." He then provides examples of how in 1932, Jews naively cooperated with the Fascists hoping that their conformity to the new authority would aid their tribe. He calls it anticipatory obedience. History proved them wrong.
This book is small, measuring 4-1/4" x 6-1/4", 126 pages long, but do we really need a long discussion on this topic as it relates to the current political climate? It would seem that Professor Snyder chose this format because he felt the urgency of the subject and wanted a sound, simple, but dire warning and felt the need to get it in print in 2017.
I quote a sample here from the Prologue to the book in the hope that you will get a copy published by Tim Duggan Books under Penguin Random House.
"History does not repeat, but it does instruct. As the Founding Fathers debated the Constitution, they took instruction from the history they knew. Concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse, they contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire. As they knew Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants. In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they . . . called tyranny. . . . The good news is that we can draw upon more recent relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome. The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall. Since the American colonies declared their independence from a British monarchy that the Founding Fathers deemed 'tyrannical,' European history has seen three major democratic moments: after the First World War in 1918, after the second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989. Many of the democracies founded at these junctures failed, in circumstances that in some important respects resemble our own."
That's about as dense as it gets.
People dislike history because they see it as dry, distant events, divorced from their reality. This tiny book is full of relatable examples of how our democratic institutions are being destroyed before our very eyes. You can read it in three or four hours, but you might take longer as you will be inclined to re-read paragraphs as you realize how the impossible horror is possible. You get the democracy you deserve. If we don't change Congress in 2018, we have only ourselves to blame.
Steve Geiger was a Captain in the USAF and flew 225 missions from U-Tapao, Thailand and Anderson, Guam.