My summer reading developed a prescient theme: tyranny. Every day, we hear terms like fascist, oligarch, autocrat, even democracy, tossed around the media with little or no consensus meaning. I developed a thirst to better understand what tyranny really is, how it’s played out in the past, and how it might visit upon us sometime soon.
Actually—how tyranny might already be here.
Fortunately, I came upon a trio of excellent books I recommend to anyone who wants a greater perspective on our nation’s ongoing challenges in civil civics.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy D. Snyder is longer than a listicle, yet short for a book. But it is dense, very dense. I recommend the graphic edition, with provocative drawings by Nora Krug. Each of the twenty chapters is only a few pages long, yet Professor Snyder (Yale) packs so much to ponder, I paused in front porch thought to consider each chapter’s implications. Then, after I finished the entire book, I read it all again.
Each of the twenty lessons is historically interesting. However, when I hit upon number 6 (Beware of paramilitaries), I realized that history is repeating itself, a bit too close. The rising number of paramilitary organizations proliferating in our country is dangerous, not only because there are so many guns in so many hands, but that those hands get trigger happy for reasons against our collective best interests. As Snyder continues on to #10 (Believe in Truth) and #14 (Establish a private life) I began to understand how tyranny, always sleuthing for opportunity to bloom, is gaining solid ground in these United States. I actually found a trace of solace in this book’s grim message with #18 (Be calm when the unthinkable arrives). Americans are notoriously difficult to herd. Let us hope that when the wannabe tyrant stages their coup, we will not be so docile as the Cambodians who marched into the killing fields, or the Germans who turned a blind eye as Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies marched to their death. The challenge, of course, is that the actual coup, whether occupying Phnom Penh or setting fire to the Reichstag, is a mere tipping act, enacted long after the populace has been worn down by so many seemingly small compromises to personal liberty and identity. History is full of well-meaning citizenry who blindly followed under the guise of freedom. American exceptionalism may not exempt us from tyranny’s call.
I came away from On Tyranny thinking it should be required reading for every high school student (as Civics used to be). I also think there should be a copy of it in every house so that when they come to burn the books, there will be too many copies of this thought-provoking treatise to flame them all.
Much as I valued On Tyranny, a non-fiction account of the fate that awaits the passive cannot invoke the same pathos as fiction. I discovered that, when it comes to fiction about tyranny, Hans Fallada is the master.
Hans, who, you say? I’d never heard of Fallada until a very well-read friend suggested him. Hans Fallada is a German author who survived World War I, led a checkered life as a journalist, novelist, and all-around depressant. His two best-known works chronicle the rise and fall of Nazism; the first by barley mentioning it; the latter by being consumed with it.
Little Man, What Now? recounts the endless petty challenges of a working-class bloke lumbering under the stagflation of the Weimar Republic and the naissance of the Nazis. Today, the novel reads as premonition, though when it came out, in 1932, no one could have predicted how accurately Fallada anticipated the atrocities to follow.
Every Many Dies Alone, published in 1947, is a fictionalization of actual enemies of the state: Otto and Elise Hampel, whose treason was so innocuous (they dropped one or two anti-Nazi post cards in public buildings every week), and so ineffective (virtually every card was immediately handed to authorities) that it took the SS over two years to find the petty resistors.
The treachery that loiters in the shadows of Little Man, What Now? is relentless in Every Man Dies Alone. What sustains each novel is an unconventional, yet sustaining love between the protagonist couple of each book. The tenderness of Johannes and Emma Pinneberg, and the complete trust of Otto and Anna Quangel, are among the most beautifully rendered images of marriage I have ever read; the human salve for so much trauma.
Whether you resonate toward short, fact-binding commentary, or prefer to explore the psychological wrath that tyranny showers on everyone involved, I recommend any of these books. We must all be keen to the threat that tyranny poses, or we will find ourselves under its thumb.
Illustrations by Nora Krug.