Tyranny is an equal opportunity aspiration. Despite certain constitutional safeguards, the United States has tolerated a motley assortment of autocrats and demagogues representing a wide span, from the radical right and left, of opportunist cabals emerging from within the netherworlds of politics, military, religion, media, industry and finance.
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his tome Democracy in America that the threat of tyranny does not, however, derive explicitly from a dictator (although such wannabes are always waiting somewhere in the wings), but of the “omnipotent” power of the crowd—the malleable mob—to embrace false assertions as truth and spread lies as gospel. Tyranny, he believed, was rooted in making an enemy of opposing opinions and the people who hold them. That dynamic has not changed.
During November 2016, Timothy Snyder, the Lewin Professor of History at Yale University, certain that president-elect Donald Trump could accelerate an already grave erosion of America’s supposed inviolable democratic precepts, took two weeks to write and publish a pocket-sized cautionary guidebook. What he modestly calls a “pamphlet,” On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century (Crown) listed 20 telltale danger signs drawn from the tactics of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Among them are such common sense warnings as 1. Do Not Obey in Advance; 2. Defend Institutions; 3. Beware the One-Party State; 4. Take Responsibility for the Face of the World; 5. Remember Professional Ethics; 6. Be Wary of Paramilitaries; 7. Be Reflective if You Must Be Armed; and 13 more. “It was about a future I wanted to prevent,” he writes.
American democratic institutions, born of rebellion against despotism, never entirely expunged the tyrannical impulses that were endemic to their violent revolution. Despite its rights-of-man-enlightenment intentions, America’s love-it-or-leave-it democracy has been a fragile ideal from the outset. “We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats,” writes Snyder about homegrown authoritarianism. “This is a misguided reflex. In fact, the precedent set by the Founders demands that we examine the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider proper responses to it.”
I became aware of Snyder’s essential volume at the September 2017 annual staff meeting of the School of Visual Arts, when the college’s president, David Rhodes, pulled On Tyranny from his jacket breast pocket during his keynote speech and recommended that everyone read it. I complied immediately.
Contrary to the popular wisdom that ignorance of history dooms us to repeat the past, Snyder instead adds nuance: “history can familiarize, and it can warn.” Having studied despotism of the early 20th century, I am very familiar with the examples he uses that continue to have resonance today. Fascism, Nazism and Communism (or hybrids thereof) may be dormant at times but are easily awakened and exported from nation to nation. Tyrannies share familiar ingredients including leader cults, extra-legal decrees, exaggerated patriotic displays, fake news and big-lie propaganda to brainwash their followers and bolster the tyrants’ own despotic hegemony. These traits are all too apparent in many states and governments today.
Snyder told me he was very pleased with the original edition. But he also believed that an illustrated edition would appeal to a wider audience. So he asked Nora Krug, the German-born author/illustrator of the award-winning “graphic memoir” Heimat (Belonging), an investigation into how her family coped with and adapted to Nazi Germany from 1933–1945, to visually reinterpret his book. He gave her total freedom to build a visual language around his text, which she did through drawings, paintings, collages and lettering.
“I cold-called her,” Snyder explained. “While I love everything about the original book,” he says, the new larger format and gritty real and surreal images of the graphic edition forces the mind to work differently. “You need art to imagine different futures. Pictures imagine different futures.”
Krug’s goal for this project was to use her medium to echo Snyder’s call for action. “While it was important to me to create images that would highlight the contemporary relevance of Snyder’s message,” she writes, “the use of historic images was clearly essential. At moments in the book that refer to a particular event in time—such as this one about Hitler’s annexation of Austria, when Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets clean—I felt that rather than showing my own visual representation of that event, it was more powerful to feature a historic photograph because of the immediacy of the medium that would make that moment in history come to life.”
Combining Krug’s drawings with historic materials gave her the license to contrast the documentary with the imagined, the factual with the poetic, and to create a narrative tension that emphasizes historical relationships. “More importantly,” she explains, “this combination of mediums allows me to admit to the fact that we don’t exist in a vacuum, that we can only exist in relationship to the past, that everything we think and feel is thought and felt in reference to it, that our future is deeply rooted in our history, and that we will always be active contributors to shaping how the past is viewed and what our future will look like.”
By 2020, what Snyder calls “unthinkable futures” for the United States were coming into clearer focus, and although Snyder’s polemic is already horrifyingly persuasive, Krug’s expressive interpretation gives the new edition of On Tyranny additional immediacy especially, I strongly believe, for Gen Z, who come 2024 will be soldiers against tyranny and defenders in this continuing war on democracy.