The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

by Timothy Snyder Book Reviews

On tyrannyAlthough published in 2017 and only about 100 pages in length, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is extraordinarily pertinent to the America of today. It comes to grip with the essential challenges of our times as we cling to a democracy in the United States.

Dr. Timothy Snyder is an American author and historian specializing in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust; a professor of history at Yale University; and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford.

On Tyranny focuses on the concept of tyranny in the context of the current political climate of the United States and analyzes what Snyder, and many of us believe to be “America’s turn towards authoritarianism.” It also has direct messages to the legal profession. The general concept of the book is summarized as:

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the 20th century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

The reference to the Nazis could, at first, appear to violate the principle in rhetoric and debate that, sooner or later, someone will invoke Nazism or Hitler to make their point. That tactic is called reductio ad Hitlerium or “playing the Nazi card” by comparing anything disliked to the German dictator and international murderer.

Professor Snyder, however, outlines the tendencies of the political leaders and movements today toward totalitarianism and parallels that trend to those of Hitler in a persuasive and cogent way. One reviewer of the book noted that “Hitler’s world may not be so far away.” That would have once been thought as being hyperbole. It is, unfortunately, not. Dr. Snyder does not name any particular person in the course of his lesson, but he clearly points in a particular direction. The events in our nation’s Capitol of January 6 provide further evidence supporting Snyder’s hypotheses and teachings.

In a 20-point analysis of the dangers of tyranny, Dr. Snyder outlines the issues that face us from diverse perspectives that involve we, as Americans, in an array of disciplines including the profession of law when the principle of adhering to professional ethics is reviewed. Snyder reminds us to defend institutions, to beware of the one-party state, to be wary of paramilitaries, to be kind in our language, to believe in truth, to investigate, and to listen for dangerous words among his 20 teaching points.

We Americans are not guaranteed to live in a democracy with the rule of law prevailing as lawyers are trained to honor. Our democracy is fragile and must be diligently and daily protected.

Lonnie Groot is a member of The Florida Bar.