On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder; Illustrated by Nora Krug

Review by David Starkey

Crown published Timothy Snyder’s original, text-only version of On Tyranny in February of 2017, a little more than a month after Donald Trump took office. The book was a hit, in part, because it seemed so prescient. Snyder’s examples of the many ways fascists and Iron Curtain communists took control of their citizenry seemed to be the very playbook from which the new president was operating. But, of course, On Tyranny couldn’t include Trump’s transgressions: they hadn’t happened yet.

It makes sense, therefore, that a new version of the book would be published in 2021 so that Trump’s outrages could be put in the context of his predecessors’ transgressions. Interestingly, Snyder rarely calls out Trump by name, referring to him instead as “an American president.” Still, the former leader reappears with alarming frequency. In Chapter 11, “Investigate,” for instance, Snyder writes: “In 2016, an American presidential candidate claimed on a Russian propaganda outlet that American ‘media has been incredibly dishonest.’ He banned reporters from his rallies, and regularly elicited hatred of journalists from the public.” Chapter 19, “Be a patriot,” is, in the new version of the book, mostly about Trump’s sham patriotism: “Let us begin with what patriotism is not. It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and mock war heroes and their families.” The list of unpatriotic actions goes for two pages, ending with the declaration: “A nationalist might do all these things, but a nationalist is not a patriot.”

Perhaps most memorably, On Tyranny is a treasure trove of pithy sayings. Indeed, I can’t remember reading a book that is so full of practical advice. Referring to our country’s founding in Chapter 3, “Beware the one-party state,” Snyder writes: “We see ourselves as a city on the hill, a stronghold of democracy, looking out for threats that come from abroad. But the sense of the saying was entirely different: that human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.” In Chapter 4, “Take responsibility for the face of the world,” we are told: “The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.” In Chapter 9, “Be kind to our language,” Snyder warns: “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.” In Chapter 13, “Practice corporeal politics,” he states, “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.”

I have gone this far in the review without mentioning the new edition’s most noticeable feature because I want to emphasize the importance of the text. However, the first thing a reader will notice on picking up the 2021 version of On Tyranny is that it is now a work of graphic nonfiction, illustrated by Nora Krug. The remarkable aspect of this collaboration is that, as striking as Krug’s illustrations are, they nearly always add to rather than distract from Snyder’s prose.

Krug combines “watercolor, pencil, and folded paper illustrations with photographs and other visual materials from different time periods and cultural contexts.” The result is a striking amalgam that feels a little like Roz Chast and Monty Python joining forces with the German Expressionists and the publishers of Riot Grrrl fanzines. The book is full color, and Krug takes advantage of this feature to make the turning of every page into an adventure. Among my favorite images are the paper cutouts illustrating the statement “Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld” (Chapter 10, “Believe in truth”) and the ceramic tchotchke of a shirtless Vladimir Putin riding a horse (Chapter 18, “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives”).

I have included the chapter titles because they are themselves instructions about how to oppose tyranny, which Snyder repeatedly insists is pawing at our door like a hungry wolf. In fact, the book contains enough historical examples of oppression to discourage even the most optimistic person. Nevertheless, Snyder’s text and Krug’s illustrations are ultimately meant to encourage resistance to despotism. On Tyranny appropriately ends with both a warning and an admonishment: “If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some.” Armed with this book, they will have plenty of material to work with.