On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Friday March 31, 2017

Shortly after the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Timothy Snyder wrote a popular post that was widely re-published and then expanded to become the book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

I've put together text versions of the post, in one file and in 22 files, because I think the ideas are important and so that I can use these versions in text data processing examples.

The contents of on_tyranny.txt inline:

Americans 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. Now is a good time to do so. Here are
twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the
circumstances of today.

Lesson 1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like
these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government
will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already
done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches
authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

Lesson 2. Defend an institution.

Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a
newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making
them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect
themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from
the beginning.

Lesson 3. Recall professional ethics.

When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional
commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to
break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show
trials without judges.

Lesson 4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be
alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry
about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

Lesson 5: Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at
all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate
power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires
the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so
on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

Lesson 6: Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own
way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone
is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets
away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of
the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind
by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of
Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is
Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

Lesson 7: Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It
can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that
unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the
spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

Lesson 8: Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no
one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do
so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays
for the most blinding lights.

Lesson 9: Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles.
Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media.
Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you.
Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

Lesson 10: Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions
dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar
places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

Lesson 11: Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your
surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to
understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture
of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of
your daily life.

Lesson 12: Take responsibility for the face of the world.

Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and
do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for
others to do so.

Lesson 13: Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They
exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for
their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

Lesson 14: Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have
made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others
doing something good.

Lesson 15: Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around.
Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting.
Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it
less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve
any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state,
looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many

Lesson 16: Learn from others in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The
present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no
country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your
family have passports.

Lesson 17: Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the
system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and
pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader
paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the
game is over.

Lesson 18: Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you.
But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers
finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say
no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional

Lesson 19: Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die
in unfreedom.

Lesson 20: Be a patriot.

The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America
means for the generations to come. They will need it.

This was written by Timothy Snyder:

This text is from the version published here:

The short post version was expanded to a book: