I am a person who worries a lot, but lately (since November 2016, to be more precise), my worries have taken a particular shape — a political one. I am not the only person who worries about such things; I sometimes join other worriers in discussion groups, protests, postcard campaigns, and other activities. I also read, fiction and nonfiction, in an effort to better understand the world around me.
Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century was published last summer. I picked it up at Women and Children First, a great independent bookstore in Chicago. Snyder himself is a distinguished historian of Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th Century; this little book (126 pages, prettily printed by Tim Duggan Books) is more pragmatic than his usual work.
The book is, as one might anticipate, broken down into 20 short chapters with titles like, “Do not obey in advance,” “Be kind to our language,” and, “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” Snyder draws on writers and thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel, Czeslaw Milosz, and Victor Klemperer as he warns readers about the step-by-step process towards totalitarianism as it has been repeated historically. Naturally, he draws many examples from Nazi Germany, but, avoiding the invocation of Godwin’s law, he also references Italy, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. He does not say that the US is a Totalitarian state, but he does make a convincing argument that some of the things which happen to create totalitarian states are happening now. Some of his bits of advice are more encouraging than others; I feel better doing research and thinking about intentional use of language than I do pondering chapter 20, which reads, in its totality, “Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”
Snyder writes frequently about the ways in which language is abused in the totalitarian state, which is a concern I frequently return to myself. He describes the strategy of Carl Schmitt, a Nazi theorist: “A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.” This destruction of reality is brought about by skillful use of language: problems are oversimplified, enemies are stereotyped, dangers are imagined, all to create a crisis which can only be fixed by the totalitarian leader. Now, I could go through the dismaying task of matching Snyder’s warnings to particular moments from the contemporary political scene — and I might someday — but it does not seem like a difficult job. Snyder’s analysis is apt and timely.
So, this is a good book for the worried reader; it is reassuring, in that it is nice to encounter a smart person who shares your concerns. It is good reading, too, for the not-quite-as-worried; it might help prod them into action. It isn’t really paranoia if they are actually out to get you. It is nice reading, too, for those who want a simple introduction to the longer, more complex reading list on totalitarianism. One book leads to another.