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

The Books I Picked & Why

Swastika Night

By Katharine Burdekin

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.


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The Thirties

By Malcolm Muggeridge

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.”


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Origins of Totalitarianism

By Hannah Arendt

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.”


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Believe in People

By Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová

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.


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The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

By Masha Gessen

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.


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