On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

June 6, 2017 – By Bette McDevitt

Timothy Snyder, who wrote this primer of 130 pages, a guide for these times, is a history scholar. His areas of expertise are Nazi Germany and communism in the Stalin era. His books are multiple and his awards numerous and prestigious.

The first words of the prologue in this book are “History doesn’t repeat, but it does instruct.” The statesmen who formed our country, he tells us, took instruction from the history they knew, a world of democracies and republics that collapsed into oligarchies and empires. Our founders built a system of checks and balances to avoid these failures and the evil they knew and called tyranny.

Snyder suggests that we- when our political order is in peril, and that would be now- can learn from both ancient and more recent history. He reminds us that we are no smarter than the German citizenry who found themselves living in a fascist state; “The European history of the twentieth century shows 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.”

Grim picture, isn’t it? Snyder gives us twenty lessons from the 20th century to avoid this scenario. He never mentions the current president, but he doesn’t have to. He provides comments and background on each “lesson,” that give us the history we missed or glossed over, that which is relevant today. The comments and the background are the reason you have to get the book, rather than just hang these 20 lessons on the refrigerator. They provoke thought and ask more of you than a letter to your senators.

One lesson, for example, tells us to “defend our institutions.” He warns of their fragility; “They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.”  He urges us to choose one you care about, a newspaper, a law, a labor union, and take its side.

In another lesson, he warns us to “Beware the one-party state.” This would involve defending rules of democratic elections, voting in local and state elections, and running for office. In another lesson, he warns us to “be wary of paramilitaries.” Remember Trump’s security forces during the campaign? “Throw ‘em out!” he told his handlers, referring to some hecklers.

In the epilogue, he quotes some verse from Hamlet, which seem most timely. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right!” Mark Rylance, the Shakespearean actor with social justice in his heart, used that same quote during his recent visit here to mark the 125th Anniversary of the Battle of Homestead.  We can take those words as a call to action. If we don’t “set it right,” woe to us.

You can get the book in paperback, hardback, on Kindle, in audible or readable form or both at once, at a very affordable price. I’m thinking of multiple copies, for family and friends. It would also work for a book group or discussion group.

Bette McDevitt is a member of the Editorial Collective and a Raging Granny.

Categories: Books, Lessons, Literature, Review

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