On Tyranny Graphic Edition: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder and Nora Krug

March 2022

I have a clear memory of buying the lovely small first edition of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century from Mercer Street Books in Seattle. It was 2017, and Trump had been elected president, and the UK was leaving the EU, and it felt like many cherished democratic institutions were crumbling and many important lessons from the dreadful 20th century were being forgotten. So I bought the book and kept it prominently on my bookshelf and have tried to take its lessons to heart.

I read Heimat: Ein deutsches Familienalbum by Nora Krug two years later and was very taken with its deeply personal analysis of history and atrocity and what it means to “take responsibility for the face of the world” (one of Snyder’s lessons from the twentieth century). So when I saw that a new version of On Tyranny had been released with illustrations by Nora Krug, I snapped it up immediately.

The text has been slightly updated with passing references to the 2020 election and to the pandemic - though Covid, like Trump himself (whose election was clearly the catalyst for the original book), remains unnamed, adding to the timeless feel of the words. The collages and illustrations are just as odd and unsettling as they were in Heimat, and they give extra depth and intensity to the work. I think the combination of text and illustration is effective and affecting here, and knowing Nora Krug’s background (as a German born two generations after WWII) adds even more weight to it.

I read this slim book in an afternoon, just over two weeks into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The book was obviously published before this cataclysm, but it feels prescient in many ways. As I write this, it’s not clear what will happen to Ukraine, or to any of the rest of us. What is clear is that we need these lessons now more than ever: defend institutions, believe in truth, be calm when the unthinkable arrives, and be as courageous as you can.

Further reading…