Notes on Tyranny, from Timothy D. Snyder

History can familiarize, and it can warn.

I was making my way through the fog this morning, both literally (hello, Karl the Fog) and mentally when suddenly, I got updates that martial law was declared in the entire island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

My first thoughts were: how could that be when Pres. Duterte was in Russia and what on earth compelled him to declare martial law?


As news are still developing in my homeland, my mind turned to Timothy D. Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Amazon | Indiebound) which I finished last week. It’s a slim book, so handy that you can fit it in your pocket, on resisting tyranny specially in the age of Donald Trump (also a response to the wave of populist movements around the world?).

In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.


Snyder is a historian well-versed in Eastern Europe history, and the book is abundant with references to Nazi Germany as well as other communist states. Broken down in 20 chapters which can also be read as a manifesto, Snyder uses history and provides practical tips on resisting tyranny with each point:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Some read as practical (11, 20), some can be a little confusing (4, 8) while others made me scratch my head (5, 13). Snyder does provide context on each point but they all read kind of awkward as a whole.

I say this as someone who has found their political home. While I see it as an earnest attempt to give its readers some guidance when it comes to taking part in politics and civic society, it can be disorienting and not centered enough — at least for me.

Instead, I would offer up the following things to arm ourselves with as we navigate politically challenging times:

  1. Get clear on what you want to do: is it to support a specific issue, rally for a cause or fight against an institution, current administration or a system?
  2. Differentiate between short-term and long-term goals. I was first politicized after 9/11, when the U.S. went to war with Afghanistan. I joined mass actions and protests calling for an end to that war, and it was through understanding the roots of war that I came to realize that until those are weeded out/overcome, ensuing wars will be inevitable (See: imperialism).
  3.  Commit. I’d have to quote the poet Rilke on this: “Almost everything serious is difficult; and everything is serious.” Political change is not easy, so a sustained participation and commitment are necessary.
  4. Find a political home. I can’t stress this enough. Once you identify No. 1 above, this will follow.
  5. While individual actions contribute change, it is movements — people mobilizing together — that can ultimately change things. 


* * *

(Ok, so maybe this isn’t really too much of a book review because I didn’t focus as much on the book but hey — it brought out other things me. Thank you for reading.)


On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Amazon | Indiebound) by Timothy D. Snyder
Tim Duggan Books; 10th edition (128 pages)
February 28, 2017
My rating: ★★
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century


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