On Tyranny

by

Timothy Snyder

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on On Tyranny can help.

Timothy Snyder Character Analysis

The author of On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder is a prominent American historian of 20th-century Europe, whose work focuses on the Holocaust and Eastern European communism. Since 2010, he has written a series of books about this history’s relevance to the 21st century, especially as nationalist authoritarian-style leaders like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump increasingly take and consolidate power.

Timothy Snyder Quotes in On Tyranny

The On Tyranny quotes below are all either spoken by Timothy Snyder or refer to Timothy Snyder. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Tim Duggan Books edition of On Tyranny published in 2017.
Prologue Quotes

The European history of the twentieth century shows us 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. It would serve us well today to understand why.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 11-12
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 1 Quotes

Most 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 offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

People whom they did not know, and against whom they had no grievance, seemed to be suffering greatly—pounding the glass and complaining of heart pain. Even so, most subjects followed Milgram's instructions and continued to apply (what they thought were) ever greater shocks until the victims appeared to die. Even those who did not proceed all the way to the (apparent) killing of their fellow human beings left without inquiring about the health of the other participants.
Milgram grasped that people are remarkably receptive to new rules in a new setting. They are surprisingly willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Stanley Milgram
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Does the history of tyranny apply to the United States? Certainly the early Americans who spoke of “eternal vigilance” would have thought so. The logic of the system they devised was to mitigate the consequences of our real imperfections, not to celebrate our imaginary perfection. We certainly face, as did the ancient Greeks, the problem of oligarchy—ever more threatening as globalization increases differences in wealth. The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens. We believe that we have checks and balances, but have rarely faced a situation like the present, when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level, as well as the majority of state houses. The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular with the society at large, and several that are generally unpopular—and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Putin
Page Number: 29-30
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

You might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such symbols include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Related Symbols: Signs of Hate and Loyalty
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

Most governments, most of the time, seek to monopolize violence. If only the government can legitimately use force, and this use is constrained by law, then the forms of politics that we take for granted become possible. It is impossible to carry out democratic elections, try cases at court, design and enforce laws, or indeed manage any of the other quiet business of government when agencies beyond the state also have access to violence. For just this reason, people and parties who wish to undermine democracy and the rule of law create and fund violent organizations that involve themselves in politics. Such groups can take the form of a paramilitary wing of a political party, the personal bodyguard of a particular politician—or apparently spontaneous citizens' initiatives, which usually turn out to have been organized by a party or its leader.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Because the American federal government uses mercenaries in warfare and American state governments pay corporations to run prisons, the use of violence in the United States is already highly privatized. What is novel is a president who wishes to maintain, while in office, a personal security force which during his campaign used force against dissenters.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Donald Trump
Page Number: 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

After the Second World War, Europeans, Americans, and others created myths of righteous resistance to Hitler. In the 1930s, however, the dominant attitudes had been accommodation and admiration. By 1940 most Europeans had made their peace with the seemingly irresistible power of Nazi Germany. Influential Americans such as Charles Lindbergh opposed war with the Nazis under the slogan “America First.” It is those who were considered exceptional, eccentric, or even insane in their own time—those who did not change when the world around them did—whom we remember and admire today.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Adolf Hitler
Page Number: 51-52
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share.
Post-truth is pre-fascism.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Donald Trump
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

“What is truth?” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money. Before you deride the “mainstream media,” note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew. You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

What the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by totalitarianism was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Hannah Arendt
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 16 Quotes

History, which for a time seemed to be running from west to east, now seems to be moving from east to west.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 17 Quotes

People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Related Symbols: Emergencies
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 18 Quotes

Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Adolf Hitler
Related Symbols: Emergencies
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 20 Quotes

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue Quotes

Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. After communism in eastern Europe came to an end in 1989-91, we imbibed the myth of an “end of history.” In doing so, we lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 117-118
Explanation and Analysis:

Both of these positions, inevitability and eternity, are antihistorical. The only thing that stands between them is history itself.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 124-125
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire On Tyranny LitChart as a printable PDF.
On Tyranny PDF

Timothy Snyder Character Timeline in On Tyranny

The timeline below shows where the character Timothy Snyder appears in On Tyranny. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue: History and Tyranny
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
History and Memory Theme Icon
Snyder’s epigraph comes from the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski: “In politics, being deceived is no excuse.”... (full context)
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
History and Memory Theme Icon
While the Founding Fathers looked at classical antiquity in Greece and Rome, Snyder will look at European democracies founded at three critical periods in the 20th century: 1918,... (full context)
Chapter 2: Defend institutions.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
“Institutions do not protect themselves,” Snyder remarks, and everyone should choose one to actively defend. After Hitler’s election, the German public... (full context)
Chapter 6: Be wary of paramilitaries.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
...called the SS to terrify the populace, rig elections, and the concentration camps. According to Snyder, the United States is already far down this track: it has privatized its wars and... (full context)
Chapter 9: Be kind to our language.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
History and Memory Theme Icon
...analyze politics, people need to develop “a mental armory” of concepts. To build these concepts, Snyder recommends several novels, scholarly works of political theory and history, and even the Bible. (full context)
Chapter 10: Believe in truth.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
...Klemperer, there are four ways that “truth dies.” First, tyrants ignore the truth and lie profusely—Snyder suggests that Donald Trump is a good example, as 78% of his statements during his... (full context)
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
...by depicting those who did as transforming into rhinoceroses. The current political trend toward “post-truth,” Snyder concludes, is not the result of postmodern philosophy—rather, it is the oldest rule in the... (full context)
Chapter 11: Investigate.
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
...to make a living, so people should financially support journalism if they can. The people Snyder cites throughout his book—like Kołakowski, Arendt, Klemperer, and Havel—all had it much harder than writers... (full context)
Chapter 13: Practice corporeal politics.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
Successful political resistance requires diverse groups assembling publicly to demand change. Snyder uses an antigovernment strike in Poland in 1980 as an example of how a broad... (full context)
Chapter 14: Establish a private life.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Snyder suggests that people should be careful about what they put on the internet. Hannah Arendt... (full context)
Chapter 16: Learn from peers in other countries.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
History and Memory Theme Icon
People should take an international perspective in their thinking, personal relationships, and travel. Snyder notes that, for instance, journalists from Ukraine and Russia who were covering the 2016 American... (full context)
Chapter 19: Be a patriot.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Future generations need role models of American patriotism, and Snyder stresses that Donald Trump is not a good example. From draft-dodging and ridiculing the military... (full context)
Chapter 20: Be as courageous as you can.
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
“If none of us is prepared to die for freedom,” Snyder says simply, “then all of us will die under tyranny.” (full context)
Epilogue: History and Liberty
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
History and Memory Theme Icon
...failing to see the relevance of history. If people are to take meaningful political action, Snyder says, they should first consult history in order to uncover patterns in the past, learn... (full context)