A new book written by history professor Timothy Snyder, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” is beginning to reach an audience outside academia.
The book, which applies lessons from European history to the current political landscape, was published on Feb. 28 and expands on a Facebook post Snyder wrote eight days after Donald Trump was elected president that quickly went viral. At just 128 pages, the book offers 20 maxims for anyone who feels unsure about how to navigate recent events. Each maxim — such as “Believe in truth,” or “Be wary of the paramilitaries” — is accompanied by cases from recent history, a tactic by which Snyder said he hopes to make unfamiliar current events more familiar to an American audience. The book is currently both a New York Times and a Washington Post best-seller.
“For me, this book is the little thing that I can do. I can remember the seven days before I wrote the 20 lessons, and I felt awful,” Snyder told the News. “[Right now] the personal is political because everything that you do is political. When you’re in the middle of an authoritarian regime change, disengagement is itself participation.”
The 20 lessons highlight the importance of community building, diligence, personal responsibility and skepticism to a healthy civic culture. A populace is only powerless, Snyder writes, if it fails to protect certain values whose importance has been historically proven.
While Trump is not explicitly named in the book, the timing of “On Tyranny’s” publication, as well as Snyder’s comments on the book it, have indicated to many that Trump was the motivating force behind the book. Snyder said his new work aims to address a unique challenge for which Americans may be unprepared. The 2016 election was a moment of reckoning with American exceptionalism, Synder said, adding that he hopes his book will be a call to action.
“The most dangerous thing to think is that life has collapsed around us, [that] we can’t do anything. Of course there are things that we can do,” Snyder said. “People not so different than us have faced similar or greater challenges and have useful things to say about them.”
Reviewers have caught onto the book’s instructive purpose: a Feb. 24 Washington Post review praised the book for providing “actionable lessons” that can be practiced on a daily basis and, as a March 23 article in The Guardian pointed out, by people living outside the U.S. In London, in reaction to the United Kingdom’s rising trend of populism, some university students have taken to displaying entire chapters of Snyder’s book on city streets, in the form of posters.
Snyder said he does not draw on any particular example in European history, but rather uses the whole history of democratic failure in both Europe and the U.S. to inform his argument.
“If it were up to me, I would be trying to write my next [academic] book,” Snyder said. “That’s what I would like to be doing. I will start doing that when I think it’s appropriate to do so. But right now I can’t. I have to be doing this.”
“On Tyranny” has been received enthusiastically among Yale students and faculty. Michael Printy, a Yale librarian for Western European humanities who organized a book talk showcasing Snyder, said the April 3 event drew one of the largest crowds in several years. Printy added that he was pleased Snyder’s talk also attracted people from outside the Yale community. The Sterling Memorial Library book talk series, which is free and open to the public, aims to engage the entire community, he said.
Tom Stone, an East Haven resident who came to hear Snyder speak, said that although he had yet to read Snyder’s new book, the lecture reinforced his belief in the importance of gathering with like-minded people, increasing one’s political knowledge and getting involved in activism — values which Snyder also takes to heart.
Snyder said he finds it hard to imagine writing another book like “On Tyranny.” He added that he sees the book as a kind of “homecoming,” an attempt to communicate his knowledge of Europe to Americans in one short pamphlet.
“I’m a historian, I tend to think that one of the purposes of history is not to be entirely lost,” Snyder said. “Nothing that we encounter is completely like something in the past, but it’s also never completely new.”
Snyder will be discussing the book at his next event at the Brooklyn Public Library in New York City on April 13.