The best books about totalitarianism 📚

Browse the best books on totalitarianism as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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Book cover of Origins of Totalitarianism

Origins of Totalitarianism

By Hannah Arendt

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.”

From the list:

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

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Book cover of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four

By George Orwell

Why this book?

This is the only novel on the list. Completed in 1948 (Orwell reversed the last two numerals to get his book’s title), it was meant not as a prediction but as a warning of the dangers of totalitarianism. Although Stalin’s Soviet Union was very much in Orwell’s mind, he illuminates more general features of totalitarian rule. These include control over the concepts and language within which people think, the deliberate destruction of historical evidence, comprehensive censorship, and the surveillance and brutality of the ubiquitous political police. Several of the terms Orwell coined to describe the methods of control – ‘doublethink’,…

From the list:

The best books on authoritarianism and totalitarianism

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Book cover of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes

Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes

By Juan J. Linz

Why this book?

Juan Linz (1926-2013) was one of the most insightful political analysts of the past hundred years. He was especially noted for his studies of how democracies can degenerate into authoritarianism and on the characteristics and types of authoritarian and totalitarian rule. The greater part of this work first appeared in 1975 (in a multi-volume Handbook of Political Science), but with its publication as a separate book a quarter of a century later, Linz added almost fifty pages of valuable ‘Further Reflections’. Authoritarian systems embrace a wide variety of non-democratic polities, among them absolute monarchy, military dictatorship, ‘sultanistic’ regimes, and theocracies.…

From the list:

The best books on authoritarianism and totalitarianism

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Book cover of Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

By Ray Bradbury

Why this book?

Written in 1953, this dystopian novel is as relevant as ever. It images a world without books of any kind, where firemen don’t put out blazes, they ignite them — destroying books and the homes of people who own them. Bradbury wrote this long before digital technology capable of monitoring our behavior was in place. His nightmarish novel is a gripping cautionary tale about censorship, totalitarian control, and the importance of freedom of speech. 

From the list:

The best novels that use a book-within-a-book format

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Book cover of Paranoia and the Destiny Programme

Paranoia and the Destiny Programme

By Richard Godwin

Why this book?

My take on a future society in which a shadowy group conducts mass surveillance and is experimenting on turning a musician into a serial killer. 'I see no butterfly wings in the Rorschach test, but a mountain of bones.' So says Dale Helix, who is convinced he is being abducted by a shadowy group of rulers called The Assembly. The novel is set in a dystopian city, and is an exploration of totalitarianism, paranoia, and social engineering in a society where it is impossible to gauge the truth. The aim of the programme is to study the link between serial…

From the list:

The best totalitarian novels since George Orwell’s 1984

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Book cover of The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson

Why this book?

Adam Johnson visited North Korea once as a tourist. Based on his keen observations during those weeks, he spins a fantastic tale about Pak Jun Do, an orphaned boy who uses treachery and deception to rise to a high position in the North Korean regime. Pak is part of a crew that kidnaps a little girl from Japan, and later marries North Korea’s most famous actress. The genius of the book is that Johnson imbues the characters with believable personalities, even as he moves them through a nightmarish reality most would find completely unbelievable. The book is so good that…

From the list:

The best books for understanding North Korea

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