On Tyranny

by

Timothy Snyder

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Tyranny is a word with a broad range of meanings throughout history that today usually refers to the rule of oppressive, unfair, and highly centralized government. Under tyranny, people generally live in a state of fear and danger, lacking rights and freedoms, without trust in their government, neighbors, and media. Following the American Founding Fathers, Snyder specifically defines tyranny as an individual, group, or institution turning the government into a tool to promote their own self-interest, rather than prioritizing the interests and the needs of the public. In most cases, Snyder uses the word tyranny to describe the condition of unchecked and arbitrary government power that often (but not always) comes about in totalitarian dictatorships and authoritarian governments, whether fascist like Nazi Germany, communist like the Soviet Union, or neither, like Vladimir Putin’s 21st-century Russia. However, “tyranny” describes a power structure, not a specific form of government. Non-authoritarian governments can also create tyranny. For instance, political theorists for centuries have worried about a “tyranny of the majority” oppressing the rights of minorities in a democracy—and non-government institutions and private individuals can also establish tyranny (like through slavery).

Tyranny Quotes in On Tyranny

The On Tyranny quotes below are all either spoken by Tyranny or refer to Tyranny. For each quote, you can also see the other terms 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 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 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:
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:
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Tyranny Term Timeline in On Tyranny

The timeline below shows where the term Tyranny 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
...necessarily repeat itself. Informed by ancient philosophy, the American Founding Fathers feared the rise of tyranny— powerful people using their power to benefit themselves rather than the collective. Snyder examines history... (full context)
Chapter 6: Be wary of paramilitaries.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
...laws. But when armed paramilitary groups gain power, they threaten to help anti-democratic parties establish tyranny. In fact, the Nazis used a paramilitary force called the SS to terrify the populace,... (full context)
Chapter 7: Be reflective if you must be armed.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
Tyrants almost always force armed public servants, like police officers, to support the criminal actions of... (full context)
Chapter 9: Be kind to our language.
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Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
History and Memory Theme Icon
In fact, famous novels about totalitarianism, like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, predicted this strategy: tyrants and their media prevent people from understanding the present and conceptualizing its relationship to history.... (full context)
Chapter 10: Believe in truth.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
...says, this destroys democracy. According to 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... (full context)
Chapter 12: Make eye contact and small talk.
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Responsible citizenship requires treating people respectfully. People living under the tyrannical governments of 20th-century Europe quickly learned to gauge whether they were safe or under threat... (full context)
Chapter 17: Listen for dangerous words.
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...to the government, but in reality they are becoming less safe. The word “extremism” is meaningless—tyrants have always used it to describe their enemies, no matter their beliefs. (full context)
Chapter 18: Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Donald Trump openly supports Vladimir Putin’s government and antidemocratic “terror management” tactics. Like tyrants throughout history, Trump and Putin sees that “one moment of shock enables an eternity of... (full context)
Chapter 20: Be as courageous as you can.
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
...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
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Faced with tyranny, Hamlet famously declared that “time is out of joint.” Contemporary Americans should feel the same... (full context)