If you needed any further proof that we live in dark times, look not further than the death/murder of Alexei Navalny in his remote Arctic prison. Meanwhile, half then world’s population will be going to the polls in 2024, and based on results to date in Indonesia and El Salvador, which both gave sizable mandates to strong men, the outlook is bleak. While the results in Russia are a foregone conclusion, other countries appear to be on the cliff edge of a populist abyss, the United States among them. 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, among many other gooks, to put together a list of ten tomes that explore what it means to live in an authoritarian world. 

Below are Masha Gessen’s favorite books on the ills of authoritarianism, available to purchase individually or as a set.


The Origins of Totalitarianism

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.
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Modernity and the Holocaust

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.
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Escape from Freedom

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.
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The Power of the Powerless

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.
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I Will Bear Witness

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.
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The Drowned and the Saved

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.
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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.
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The Mass Psychology of Fascism

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. 
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Yevgeny Zamyatin and Natasha Randall
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.
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Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945

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.
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