On Tyranny Summary & Study Guide

Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny

  • 33-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 20 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with degrees in philosophy and economics
Access Full Summary

On Tyranny Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 33-page guide for “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 20 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Failure of Democracy and the Rise of Tyranny and The Anti-Democratic Tactics of an American President.

Plot Summary

On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder, PhD, describes how tyrants have dismantled 20th-century republics and replaced them with totalitarian regimes, and how threats to democracies still exist today, including in America. Published in 2017, On Tyranny holds the distinction of being a #1 New York Times bestseller.

Dr. Snyder is a Yale professor of European history. His short and pithy book details the methods that demagogues, including Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, have used to degrade and topple democratic institutions. A would-be tyrant will propose that a mythical era of past national greatness can be revived and that only he can achieve it. He then relies on the willingness of an otherwise free people to put themselves under his authority. Using lies and distortions, along with ridicule, intimidation, and force against his opponents, the tyrant tightens his grip on the country. Finally, a disaster or emergency provides him with the excuse he needs to take total control of the nation and eradicate personal liberties.

Threats to democracy haven’t ended with the defeat of Hitler or the collapse of Communism. Even in today’s America the danger is real, given the current president’s use of lies, denunciations, and threats—behaviors that resemble those used by Hitler and, more recently, by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Several chapters offer ways people can stand up to anti-democratic tendencies; others suggest how citizens should develop and nurture the openness of civil society as an antidote to the creeping submissiveness promoted by authoritarians. Still, other chapters present ways to stand out against dictators, if and when they achieve control.

Chapters 1 through 4 provide background on the traps dictators set and how to avoid them. People can easily be swayed toward obedience; democratic institutions are the first to be dismantled by a dictator; a single political party can eliminate all others. As well, the use of hate symbols such as Nazi swastikas, if tolerated by the populace, soon change the tenor of society until what they represent becomes acceptable.

Chapters 5 through 7 describe how a dictator can induce professionals to abandon their codes of conduct and aid him in his work, use private troops to push aside or co-opt the official military, and repurpose local police to commit war crimes.

Chapter 8 urges people to “stand out” (51) for what’s right, to set an example, and thereby energize a sleepy and submissive populace so that they may join in resisting tyranny.

Chapters 9 through 11 suggest ways people can defend against the lies of demagogues by refusing to repeat their distorted words, believing in truth instead of magical thinking, and doing deeper and more reflective reading and study instead of taking online pablum at its word.

In Chapters 12 through 17, ideas are presented for the care and nurturance of a robust civil society, which can stymie authoritarians. Civil society involves direct contact with others, joining them in political activity, and supporting good causes. It also requires that people protect their privacy from political snoops, gain perspective from those who live in different countries, and stay alert for telltale words like “exception,” “extremism,” and “terrorism” (99) that signal a tyrant’s attempt to conquer through fear and division.

Chapters 18, 19, and 20 describe what to do if the worst comes to pass and a republic is overthrown: avoid panic when a sudden emergency erupts that seems to require a consolidation of central power; be a patriot, not a nationalist; and stay courageous.

The Epilogue discusses a new threat to democracy—the apparent “end of history” brought about by the overthrow of totalitarian regimes and the triumph of democratic values. People who believe the struggle is over may also think the march of history is no longer important; a tyrant can then lure them into the belief that an eternal, unchanging greatness awaits them under his leadership.

On Tyranny makes frequent reference to the political style of America’s president in 2017, a man who employs many of the same techniques used by past demagogues and by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. The book sounds a warning cry against such methods and the danger they pose to the American republic.

This is just a preview. The entire section has 753 words. Click below to download the full study guide for On Tyranny.