Book Review: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” says Timothy Snyder, at the very beginning of his latest book “On Tyranny”.

Snyder, a Professor of History at Yale University, wrote a Facebook post back in November 2016 following the election of Donald Trump – a post that went viral. The FB post listed twenty short lessons to be learned from the twentieth century and in particular how “democracy yielded to fascism.”

That Facebook post has now been expanded into a small (128 pages) book in which there are plenty of references to how fascism took root step by step in a modern industrial Germany.

Taken together, the twenty lessons in this book are an urgent and passionate call for all of us to train ourselves to recognise, challenge and fight back against the signs of encroaching tyranny.

Until recently, Snyder points out, it was fashionable to believe in the “politics of inevitability”. The Cold War had ended with the Soviet Union imploding and the future was surely marching towards an era of ever more liberal democracies and fewer and fewer fascist or autocratic states. We were near “The End of History” as a certain best-selling book informed us. This may have instilled in many of us a somewhat relaxed attitude towards our freedoms.

Interestingly though, Snyder does not mention Trump by name in this book, though there is a reference to “our President” and this only serves to increase the book’s power. It encourages the reader to take the abstract lessons and apply them using his/her own critical faculties to the real world.

Autocratic rulers despise the dissemination of truth. Hence, the restrictions on free speech and the press and now the internet in many parts of the world. And in the USA, we have a President who routinely denounces what he describes as “Fake news” and encourages his supporters to treat the media with contempt and engaged in a gigantic conspiracy against his administration which is, of course, doing “just great.” “Post-truth”, says Snyder, is “Pre-fascism.”

“It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual…the individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant…To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” (p73)

Here in the UK, the PREVENT programme has engaged in some very secretive funding of Muslim groups to allegedly “rebut extremism”. When Freedom of Information requests have been sent to the Home Office to find out the details of this funding and to whom this taxpayers money was given, the Home Office has been very obstructive.

Many publications such as the Huffington Post and The Conversation have now taken the laudable step of asking their writers to disclose any financial ties or links they may have to the subjects they are writing about. In parliament, MPs are required to make a full disclosure of their financial interests. This is  “… to provide information on any financial or non-financial benefit received by a MP or Member of the Lords which might reasonably be thought by others to influence their actions, speeches or votes in Parliament.”

Yet, in the UK we have the bizarre and hugely corrupt phenomenon of individuals and groups which are funded by PREVENT being called upon to comment on the effectiveness of the PREVENT agenda without any disclosure being required about the financial interests they have in that programme. I think you can guess the names…

On Tyranny’s lessons will prove essential far beyond the borders of the United States because the temptation to hide truths and trample upon the rights of others is sadly a universal characteristic. On Tyranny deserves to be carried around with us, referred to regularly in light of current events and its lessons shared with our friends.

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