On Tyranny

Updated: August 13, 2022

Timothy Snyder dives into the history of 20th-century Europe to show us what might happen in the future if our political orders are undermined. He shows how the rise of authoritarianism is a choice we make and how we can defend ourselves against it.

Favorite quotes from the book:

As they knew, Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them. Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people.

Milgram grasped that people are remarkably receptive to new rules in a new setting. They are surprisingly willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority.

The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions — even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.

Any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.

Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do.

If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.

Some killed from murderous conviction. But many others who killed were just afraid to stand out. Other forces were at work besides conformism. But without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible.

It is those who were considered exceptional, eccentric, or even insane in their own time — those who did not change when the world around them did — whom we remember and admire today.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.

When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew.

People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.

For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.

History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.