The best books about totalitarianism (not written by George Orwell)

Dorian Lynskey Author Of The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984
By Dorian Lynskey

Who am I?

In The Ministry of Truth, I wanted to bring together two longstanding interests: dystopian fiction and the history of totalitarianism. Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course a landmark work in both categories. In trying to explain how and why Orwell came to write his masterpiece, and its subsequent influence on fiction and political thought, I read a huge range of books that wrestled with the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism and asked how they were able to hold sway, physically and mentally, over tens of millions of people. Many of them are gripping and valuable but these five in particular make for great companions to 1984.

I wrote...

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984

By Dorian Lynskey,

Book cover of The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984

What is my book about?

1984 isn't just a novel; it's a key to understanding the modern world. George Orwell's final work is a treasure chest of ideas and memes - Big Brother, the Thought Police, Doublethink, Newspeak, 2+2=5 - that gain potency with every year. Particularly in 2016, when the election of Donald Trump made it a bestseller. Its influence has morphed endlessly into novels (The Handmaid's Tale), films (Brazil), television shows (V for Vendetta), rock albums (Diamond Dogs), commercials (Apple), even reality TV (Big Brother). 

The Ministry of Truth is the first book that fully examines the epochal and cultural event that is 1984 in all its aspects: its roots in the utopian and dystopian literature that preceded it; the personal experiences in wartime Great Britain that Orwell drew on as he struggled to finish his masterpiece in his dying days; and the political and cultural phenomena that the novel ignited at once upon publication and that far from subsiding, have only grown over the decades.

The books I picked & why

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Swastika Night

By Katharine Burdekin,

Book cover of Swastika Night

Why this book?

The identity of “Murray Constantine” wasn’t uncovered until the 1980s, long after Burdekin’s death, but only a woman could have created such a persuasive patriarchal dystopia, half a century before The Handmaid’s Tale. Burdekin’s futuristic Nazi empire, a brutally misogynist quasi-religion, is dying slowly from within and an English airman named Alfred has been given explosive proof that Hitler was not in fact a Thor-like deity. Though the plot fizzles out, the ideas are extraordinarily ahead of their time.

The Thirties

By Malcolm Muggeridge,

Book cover of The Thirties

Why this book?

As The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, Muggeridge exposed Stalin’s man-made famine in 1933; in the 1940s, he became one of Orwell’s closest friends. In between the two, he conducted this caustic post mortem on a catastrophic decade. Some of it still feels timely, like his observation that a cultural obsession with information perversely incentivises the manipulation and fabrication of data. All of it is deliciously quotable: he compares the human rights activists who whitewashed Stalinism to “vegetarians undertaking a pious pilgrimage to a slaughterhouse because it displayed a notice recommending nut-cutlets.”

Origins of Totalitarianism

By Hannah Arendt,

Book cover of Origins of Totalitarianism

Why this book?

Arendt’s three-part masterwork had the same US editor as 1984 and can be read as the non-fiction equivalent. While scholars have subsequently questioned aspects of her grand theory of totalitarianism, much of it holds up. Her commanding, aphoristic prose has made this one of the most widely quoted books of recent years, especially on the subject of power creating its own alternate reality: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time… think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”

Believe in People

By Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová,

Book cover of Believe in People

Why this book?

Čapek was a kind of Czech Orwell. Best known for his satirical science fiction — RUR gave us the word “robot”; War with the Newts is mindbogglingly inventive — he was also a prolific journalist who decried the rise of totalitarianism while celebrating ordinary lives. This anthology is the perfect introduction to his abundant wit, insight and compassion, with subjects ranging from the dishonesty of political language to the joy of gardening. A courageous anti-fascist, Čapek died of pneumonia in 1939, shortly before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and arrived at his door to arrest him.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

By Masha Gessen,

Book cover of The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

Why this book?

Winner of the National Book Award, this non-fiction tour de force is as vivid and gripping as a novel. The Russian-American journalist and biographer of Vladimir Putin relates how seven decades of communism damaged the Russian psyche so profoundly that Putin was able to build his own 21st century authoritarianism on a foundation of cynicism and powerlessness. Gessen uses Orwell’s concept of “doublethink” to explain how Russians, then and now, could remain obedient to a system that they did not really believe in.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in totalitarianism, Russia, and international relations?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like We, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and The Anatomy of Fascism if you like this list.