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A Literary Guide to Understanding Tyrannies and Dictatorships


These 10 books, selected by journalist and author Masha Gessen, illuminate our times.


Adolf Hitler is projected onto a 3D canvas in a Berlin art instillation. Photo by Michael Sohn/AP.

We live in dark times. America's President-elect just appointed a group of dangerous right-wing fanatics to his administration. Meanwhile, right wing populist parties are on the rise across Europe, and already in power in Hungary and Poland, and may soon be in power in France. There are multiple reasons for the crisis facing western democracy, but not least among them is our troubling failure to learn from history. We may live in the information age, but people spend less time reading books than they do absorbed in social media where facts are disposable, and truth can be anything you want it to be. Books are our greatest defense against ignorance. To quote the great Fran Lebowitz: "Think before you speak. Read before you think."

To get you started we invited the journalist and LGBT activist, Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, to put together a list of 10 books that explore the meaning of dictatorships and the consequences of autocratic rule.

Purchase books at One Grand.


The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt

Best known for her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which coined the term "the banality of evil," Arendt's earlier book, from 1951, has become one of the most influential studies of totalitarian ideas and regimes on either side of the political divide, illuminating the shared characteristics of Nazism and communism.

Quote: "In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. ... Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow."

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Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Zygmunt Bauman

For the Polish sociologist Bauman, the Holocaust was not simply the most grotesque of a litany of grotesqueries committed upon the Jews, but a direct consequence of the modern world itself. Far from modern life being in opposition to barbarity, Bauman argues that it enables it.

Quote: "The rationality of the ruled is always the weapon of the rulers."

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Escape from Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm

Freedom is not easy--it comes with dangers and responsibilities. In this classic text, Fromm argues that if we cannot find a way to live the complexities of freedom, humanity will turn to authoritarianism. As part of his analysis, Fromm addresses many issues pertinent to contemporary life: the coercion to conform, the desire to be a part of "something greater," the loss of authentic thought and action all emerge as consequences of what he describes as an escape from freedom.

Quote: "This loss of identity then makes it still more imperative to conform, it means that one can be sure of oneself only if one lives up to the expectations of others. If we do not live up to this picture, we not only risk disapproval and increased isolation, but we risk losing the identity of our personality, which means jeopardizing sanity."

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The Power of the Powerless (1979), Vaclav Havel

Havel is one of the great heroes of the 20th century, a playwright and towering intellect frequently jailed for his involvement in dissident organizations like Charter 77, who wrought change by simply deciding to act as if communist Czechoslovakia was a free society. Among the arguments he posited in this extensive essay was that by "living in truth" in their daily lives, people could differentiate themselves from the officially mandated culture proscribed by the state since power depends on submission to succeed.

Quote: "People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being."

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I Will Bear Witness (1998), Victor Klemperer

An extraordinary document of life under the Nazis, Klemperer's diaries draw on weave details of his life in 1930s Germany into a powerful indictment of a state moving ineluctably along the road of tyranny. The son of a rabbi, Klemperer converted to Protestantism in his twenties but was still forced to endure the deprivations and humiliations of German Jews. He survived the war thanks to his wife's "racial purity" and lived in east Germany, working in Dresden as a professor in Romance languages until his death in 1960. His diaries were only published in 1995, and are now considered a classic of the genre

Quote: "I am fighting the most difficult of battles for my German-ness now. I must hold on to it: I am German, the others are un-German. I must hold on to it: The soul is what matters, not the flesh and blood."

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The Drowned and the Saved (1986), Primo Levi

Of all the chroniclers of the Nazi genocide, few are as lucid and as clear-eyed as Levi, an Italian chemist who was transported to Auschwitz and miraculously survived to tell the tale. Best known for his extraordinary biography, If This is a Man (known in the U.S. by the less enigmatic title, Survival in Auschwitz), Levi's last published work before his suicide in 1987 is a powerful meditation on the culture and mindset of both the operators and the victims of the extermination camps.

Quote: "Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting."

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Witness to an Extreme Century , Robert Jay Lifton

A passionate activist for social justice, and a fierce critic of the Vietnam war, Lifton's specialty is the relationship between psychology and violence, Lifton was particularly interested in the process of "psychic numbing," whereby some people become insensible to the pain of others. It is, in essence, how bad people are able to get away with bad things.

Quote: "What we choose to study as scholars is a reflection of our advocacies, our passions, spoken or otherwise."

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The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), Wilhelm Reich

The Austrian psychoanalyst famous for promoting sexual liberation--and later imprisoned in the U.S.--published this book in 1933, long before Hitler unleashed his Final Solution. His analysis of how the National Socialists came to power in Germany broadens into a stunning critique of modern society, and the devastating implications of our attitudes towards sex, religion, the family, and the state.

Quote: "If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the rational channels of a freedom movement, they would be invincible."

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We (1924), Yevgeny Zamyatin

Published in English 1924, and the first novel to be banned by the Soviet Censorship Board, We is a dystopian novel about a future nation constructed almost entirely of glass in order to aid mass surveillance. Said to have influenced both Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, We imagines a world in which freedom and happiness are incompatible.

Quote: "A man is like a novel: until the very last page you don't know how it will end. Otherwise it wouldn't even be worth reading."

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Berlin Diaries 1940-1945 (1988), Marie Vassiltchikov

Vassiltchikov was a white Russian princess with a front row seat of the Nazi war machine, in large part due to her roles as secretary to Adam von Trott, mastermind of the unsuccessful 20th of July plot to assassinate Hitler.

Quote: "I turned to Loremarie, who was standing at the window, and asked her why Gottfried was in such a state. Could it be the Konspiration [plot]?.... She whispered: 'Yes! That's it! It's done. This morning!'... I asked: 'Dead?' She answered: 'Yes, dead!' I seized her by the shoulders and we went waltzing around the room. (July 20, 1944)."

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