Today’s political climate faces new threats, similar to those under the totalitarianism of the twentieth century, history professor Timothy Snyder wrote in his best seller book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.”
Two books Snyder wrote — “On Tyranny” and “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America” — resurged into the New York Times’ weekly bestseller list on Sunday. “On Tyranny,” which was published in 2017, clinched the number one spot. His book from 2018, “The Road to Unfreedom,” is 10th out of the 15 total books on the list. Still, Snyder emphasized in an interview with the News that the prospect of fleeting publicity matters less to him as a writer than does the real impact his work will have on readers over the years.
“The bestseller thing is a nice instantaneous landmark, but the thing that makes me happy about ‘On Tyranny’ is that it’s been helping people sort through what they’re going to do in their lives politically for more than two years now, and the thing that makes me happy about ‘The Road to Unfreedom’ is that I know that people who care and who matter have been reading it for the last year,” Snyder said.
“The Road to Unfreedom” is a scholarly historical work of nonfiction connecting 20th century history to this millennium. Snyder described “On Tyranny” — a small paperback listing 20 actions individuals can take to improve their democracy — as “a political pamphlet.” He said the writing process took “25 years and a few days.”
Snyder said his book is a product of his work as a historian and as a teacher. He added that he wrote many of his books based on his course material. He often completed assignments alongside his students for inspiration, Snyder said.
“The connection between teaching and writing is so profound that it’s really hard to disentangle the two,” he said.
Marci Shore, associate professor of history and Snyder’s wife, echoed that sentiment.
“Teaching is excellent preparation for writing, because it’s an exercise in communication, in reaching out to others and inviting them to think together with you,” she wrote in an email to the News. “I can look the students in the eyes and see how they’re responding: which ideas are penetrating, and which seem absurd or senseless or opaque, what feels like theory divorced from reality, what feels uncannily resonant.”
Snyder said he had a similar purpose in mind when writing the two books.
Both seek to set the reader on a middle path between complacency and panic when it comes to their attitude towards politics, according to Snyder.
“We have this mental reflex which is that we say, ‘This is all very new and therefore its confusing and therefore I don’t have to do anything about it,’” Snyder said.
In both works, Snyder said he used his knowledge as a historian to make sense of the present. Snyder said he believes that people are more likely to be productive citizens if they know their world and its history more accurately.
Alan Mikhail, chair of the history department, praised Snyder’s achievements in an email to the News.
“Tim’s abilities to bring his enormous knowledge of the past to bear on understanding the events of the day show just how important the study of history is to our current world and what historians can offer to thinking about the contemporary,” Mikhail wrote. “Tim models this kind of work in his teaching and, as the news of his two bestsellers shows, his writing.”
In addition to “On Tyranny” and “The Road to Unfreedom,” Snyder’s works also include “The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke” and “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”
Jack Tripp | firstname.lastname@example.org