Book Review: On Tyranny

Book Review: On Tyranny

By Dr. Alex Vavoulis

In his prologue for On Tyranny:Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, author Timothy D. Snyder says that “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to Fascism, Nazism or Communism in the twentieth century.” He then presents 20 lessons adapted to the circumstances of today.

In a lecture in 1945, Noble Laureate George Seferis offered for our consideration the question: “What should an intellectual do in face of religious fanaticisms unleashed by the political orthodoxies of the time?…the artist is one of the most responsible beings on the earth.”

In his 126-page book, Snyder provides us with 20 lessons on the rise of tyranny in the 20th century. Snyder is not afraid to say that America is moving inexorably toward fascism.

That would explain the reason for the following words missing from today’s political debates and discussions. For example: “democracy, fascism, tyranny, demagogues, the polio epidemic of 1940-50, the huge U.S. military budget that keeps U.S. troops in some 40-countries throughout the world, Americas nuclear arsenal, and climate change.”

Snyder writes his prose with virtue and knowledge. It should be read by everyone and especially young people. Here are a few salient quotes from the book to support the reviewer’s recommendation.

Christians might return to the foundational book, which is ever so timely. Jesus preached that it “is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (pages 63–64).

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. The biggest wallet pays for most blinding lights” (page 65).

“Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism…Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary (page 99).

Modern authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, use laws on extremism to punish those who criticize their policies. In this way, the notion of extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny.

The author, Snyder, is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of Black Earth: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. He is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. 


Dr. Alex Vavoulis is professor emeritus in chemistry at Fresno State. Contact him at



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