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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder - a book review and observations

written by Julia Korenman, M.D.
on Thursday, 18th May ,2017

I read about this book in a review in the Washington Post and got it as soon as I could. In light of the recent election, I felt confused and helpless. I wanted to know how to understand everything that is happening and what can I do, as one individual to find out where the truth lies and to support values that are important to me. Regardless of political affiliation, or who you voted for, I think that this book is very relevant and informative. 

The author is a historian whose expertise is 20th century history. He has studied the rise and fall of fascism and communism. The most important overall points that he makes are:

1. “We 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.”
2. Continuing as a democracy is not inevitable and our actions or inactions can influence what happens in our country.

This is a little book, written as a handbook with 20 actions we can take and descriptions of why they are important, with historical anecdotes. Here are some examples:

“Defend our institutions” “Sometimes institutions are deprived of vitality and function, turned into a simulacrum of what they once were, so that they gird the new order rather than resisting it.” Do you feel that scientific research is important? Protection of the environment? Look for opportunities to defend these institutions, by participating in events like the science march and march for the environment, that were held recently.

“Take responsibility for the face of the world” “Notice the swastikas and other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them.” “What seems like a gesture of pride can be a source of exclusion. In the Europe of the 1930s and ‘40s, some people chose to wear swastikas, and then others had to wear yellow stars.” A Mennonite family came up with signs to be inclusive and counteract the negative rhetoric and they are now sold on the internet. They are changing the face of the world in a positive way and state:. “No matter where you are from, we are glad that you are our neighbor”. (in English, Spanish and Arabic). (see photo)

“Remember professional ethics.” I am heartened by the judges who are upholding the law rather than caving in to the new president. And it is a reminder to me as a physician, to not compromise my values under pressure (the extreme example is the doctors who did experimentation in the Nazi concentration camps).

“Make eye contact and small talk.” I confess to being introverted and distracted., so this doesn’t necessarily come naturally, but after I read this, I felt that I could do this on a daily basis. “…people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting…took on great significance… 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.”

I am one of those readers who loves to buy books and pass them on, but I am holding on to this one, because I feel that it will serve me as a guide through the next few years.

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