'On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century' by Timothy Snyder

A Review

Victor Klemperer

Throughout the reading of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Timothy Snyder, Vintage Publishing, 2017) the figure of Victor Klemperer resonates strongly. Klemperer was a humanist, philologist, and Professor of Romance Languages and therefore, a man shaped by language, culture, and books. His testimony of the Nazi Germany shares many features with other witnesses but his condition of linguist makes Klemperer a sharp observer of the nazi's perversion of language. Klemperer filled his diaries I shall bear witness (1933-1945) with personal impressions, objective or subjective descriptions, from a jewish and no-jewish perspective, what represent an evocative narration of daily life under Nazism picturing the entire trajectory from the first years of Nazism after the elections in 1933 to their defeat of the Germans and the end of the war in 1945. But if there is a trait relevant about Klemperer work is his analysis of how the Nazis appropriated the language and enraptured the entire nation in the process. In 1947 he published LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (The language of the Third Reich), a close study of the language of Nazism and how propaganda helped to form individual and collective identities. Klemperer used the book as a resource to keep himself sane, while he was forced to abandon his classes and start to work in a factory. It is remarkable that most of the words used for the nazis were not new terms but existent words that were adjudged with new meanings like for example New Order. Also ‘Umsiedlung’ (resettle) or ‘Aussiedlung’ (evacuation) words for the killing of Jews, while the gas chambers were called the ‘Badeanstalten’ or bath houses. And of course the biggest of the euphemisms used for the systematic extermination of Jews known as the Final Solution ‘Endlosung.'

Before the Nazis, there had been multiple demonstrations of military genius and destruction power, also numerous men who fought bravely for their countries, and talented statesmen who mastered rhetoric and elaborated brilliant speeches. However, probably the Nazis were the first case in history in which communication became as important as facts, and thus, manipulation, misinformation, propaganda, publicity, fake news, were utilised indiscriminately to create social distress, fear of the other, racism and hatred. The ability to use language as a political tool, as a 'divide and rule' strategy was essential to the first years of Nazism. Nazis created an entire vocabulary that represents the paroxysm of the word euphemism, both before coming into power and also once in power transforming a democracy in a one-party totalitarian system sustained by biased referendums and popular support based on extortion, blackmail, and threats. 

I find there is also something extremely sad about the present reasons that propel a history professor to rescue and distillate lessons from precisely the most dramatic historical moments of the twenty century, those moments in history that we wish never happened. Timothy Snyder teaches history in Yale and have written numerous book about European totalitarianism both in Nazi Germany and communist Russia, so his motives must be surely respected. And the reason to write the book, among others but probably the main one is Donald Trump's victory in the US elections in November 2016. Although Trump's shadow darkens the book his name is not directly mentioned in it. Probably this is a lesson for the megalomaniac personality of the multimillionaire, who used to name after himself whatever it was within his grasp, buildings, hotels, TV shows, or parking lots. Maybe the absence of a name attempts to highlight the idea that a tyrant is no more than an overinflated balloon representing all our fears and showing the worst side of the citizens. Curiously enough, language becomes the protagonist of the book and hence many of the lessons are about the possibilities of language to resist, to get socially and politically involved, and how what we say, write, and read becomes significant. Politics, language, and communication have been always interconnected, from the first registered political events in Rome and Greece. In fact, politics have not essentially changed. One only needs to think about how basic it is the electoral campaign, just listening to men and women explaining ideas and trying to convince us that they are the right choice to take care of the government. Basically, the same old thing for the last two thousand years, with the one who is better at communicating, the most eloquent, the most convincing winning in the end. It is hard to think of Trump as bearer of these qualities so we will assume the answer for his victory is not in him but in us. 

At the same time, there is something extremely solemn about reading On Tyranny, something that makes you take the book to a corner and read it with the phone switched off, taking notes with a pencil on the margins of the book, and often interrupting the read to reflect in an attempt to isolate yourself from the noise and the fury, from that distorted flow of information that inundate us everyday. The same noise that has been echoing during the electoral campaign in the US, and still more intensely the first year of Trump's presidency. The noise has become lately so terribly loud that we cannot hear our own thoughts. 

The format and the content of the book are perfectly matched, thus, this is a slim book, light, sharp, without unnecessary ornaments. It is a book that fits in your pocket so you can carry it with you, take it out, and read almost anywhere. The structure of the book formed by short entries also facilitates this quick reading with intervals for reflection in between, and invites to re-reading. Snyder goes directly to the grain, as it has to be in an emergency and his language is equally simple, precise, and effective. There is no room for extra luggage, there is no time for circumlocution or tautology. This is a manifesto, a call for steady but forthright action, for intellectual resistance, a search for freedom not outside but inside ourselves.

While reading you will find yourself nodding your head in agreement, for most of the lessons or advices are not absurd ideas but on the contrary, democratic common sense, citizenship beginner level, platitudes that we  know by heart but we tend too easily to forget or we just contemplate them like sonorous maxims to be carved in façades or statue's pedestals but of no practical use in our lives. Somehow the feeling that evokes is that of reading fable's books in one's childhood such as Aesop and La Fontaine in which one could find wisdom so open, free, and evident that nobody ever ended up making any use of it. 

Sometimes we seem to forget that the most essential thing about reading books is not the books themselves, but the footprint left in us. We read one book after the other, we enjoy some and suffer others, recommend them, pile them, give them, but we should never forget that maybe in some point we will find ourselves without books, in a Fahrenheit 451 (1) sort of thing or in any other form, because of censorship, of political systems, of economic crisis, and what not. Most likely we won't be able to find those books that make a difference, those we really want and need to read, those that someone do not want us to read. This has happened before, banned books, censored books, and burnt books, we can find it already in Don Quixote, and it is happening nowadays in a more subtle and sophisticated way (like everything happens these days) and it may happen again in the future. Quoting Zadie Smith: what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay (2). That's why is so pertinent this book, that's why its lessons must be remembered and applied, discussed, shared, and conveyed. Although ideas are obviously primordial and indispensable they are reduced to empty carcasses without the support of language (and vice versa) which allows us to frame them and articulate our thinking. And this is, I feel, the main lesson to extract from On Tyranny: do not use others language, but create your own, do not repeat, but think, read, and write. Do not follow the herd, but be a political animal, ask uncomfortable questions, speak out, do not only listen to those who think like you do, and if you have to memorise a book perhaps On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century would be a good choice.

Ani DiFranco said 'every tool is a weapon if you hold it right' (3) we could certainly say the same about language. If you hold it right it turns powerful and otherwise it is just a hindrance. There must be a way that language itself, as an independent entity, turns against a man who explains swollen with pride how he is unable to read an entire book, who uses language to insult, lie, manipulate, and take advantage of those who cannot defend, who is openly sexist, racist, and classist, who knows no other value than making money, whom I still do not understand how someone can vote. The only explanation that I can find is that Trump's victory like Brexit referendum in the UK are the only opportunities that people see in which they can express their democratic concerns, the only opportunities to show reject for a system that has proved to be unjust. The reaction to this may be not rational , but self-harming, like a child's tantrum. Similarly I cannot avoid thinking of 90 million Americans who decided that it was not important to vote that day. This indifference and apathy mobilized more people (40% of the electorate) than both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (25% for each of them). Thus, while analyzing the results it is important not to forget that figure that speaks of indifference and lack of faith in the system. As I write these lines Donald Trump is pushing for the expulsion of 800,000 immigrants and trying to ban a book that exposes him without realizing that these kind of measure are the ones that expose what he truly is, a man who represents the worst of our culture all of it combined in a single human being.


(1) Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953) and Fahrenheit 451, Francois Truffaut (1966), film adaptation.

(2) Feel Free, Essays Zadie Smith (2018), Penguin Books UK

(3) My IQ, from the album Puddle dive, Ani DiFranco (1993)

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'On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century' by Timothy Snyder