Freedom's Opposite

Recommended Readings on Totalitarianism and Tyranny

To understand and appreciate freedom, it is necessary to gain a familiarity with freedom's opposite. If the 20th century was democracy's century, a time when people in every region embraced liberty and rejected dictatorship, it was also a century of brutal and insidious tyranny. It was a century that gave birth to the totalitarian dictatorship, a unique form of despotism in which the tyrant seeks not only to secure his own power but also to exert near-total control over the individual—over what he thinks, what God he worships, the content of the news he reads, where he lives and works, what his children are taught, and even, in some cases, the size of his family.

Communism was the most successful—if that description can be applied to a form of brutal dictatorship—variant of totalitarianism. At its peak, it extended from the vast Soviet Union to the countries of Eastern Europe, to China, North Korea and Vietnam, to Cuba and then to various countries in Africa and the Middle East—and this reading list reflects that fact. But its methods were adapted by totalitarians and tyrants of many ideological stripes, from many countries—and the list reflects that fact also.

This list assumes that teachers are familiar with the classics like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Elie Wiesel's Night, both about the Holocaust, and 1984 and Animal Farm, George Orwell's works on the terror and hypocrisy of communism.

These suggested readings are aimed chiefly at teachers. They will provide an enhanced background for teaching about tyranny, its origins and methods, and its immense human costs. The list includes a few lengthy, though still readable, histories. But the slant is toward very accessible books, mainly memoirs and journalistic accounts.

These books give voice and face to the horrors inflicted by the regime and a feel for the means with which those regimes sustained themselves. Others tell the stories of those who have found the courage and means to resist tyranny and in this way have demonstrated that the desire for freedom is not exclusive to the West, but is human and universal.

Most of these books are accessible to late secondary school students. But given the length of several and the often harrowing subjects, teachers may find it most appropriate to assign excerpts.


Jacobo Timerman. Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. 176 pp.

Although democracy prevails in most Latin American countries today, during the 1970s the region was a vast human-rights wasteland. In country after country, military juntas held sway, and political opponents were routinely jailed, tortured, or murdered. Complicating the situation was the existence of violent Marxist opposition movements, who used kidnapping, assassination, and acts of terror in a futile attempt to gain power and refashion society along the lines of Castro's Cuba. One of the most brutal dictatorships held power in Argentina, where thousands were killed—some by being dropped into the sea from helicopters—by elite security forces during the country's "dirty war" against the revolutionary Left. Timerman was the publisher of an influential liberal newspaper and helped save people who had been unjustly arrested. Then, in the late 1970s, he himself was arrested and held for three years, during which he was subjected to a regime of systematic torture (described in a vivid, if somewhat detached, manner in this memoir). That Timerman was a Jew and a committed Zionist gave his tormentors, men with fascist instincts, additional satisfaction. This is a gripping, albeit disturbing, book about a chapter in hemispheric history that has hopefully been closed forever.


Molyda Szymusiak. The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood 1975-1980. Hill and Wang, 1986. 245 pp.

This is one of the most gripping of a number of fine memoirs of Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge period, which lasted roughly from 1975 to the early 1980s, when Vietnam invaded and overthrew the regime of Pol Pot. In that brief period, the Khmer Rouge established a regime of terror that in many respects eclipsed in infamy those of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. Over one million Cambodians were believed to have died; some estimates run as high as two million. A Cambodian could be executed for wearing spectacles, a sign, the Khmer rouge believed, of an intellectual and thus unworthy of life. Molyda was a 12-year-old girl when the Khmer Rouge came to power. Her book is particularly illuminating for what it tells about the Communists' determination to control even the most intimate details of personal relations. Young boys and girls were executed for holding hands or for planning to marry without the party's permission. Children were carefully interrogated in an attempt to obtain evidence against their parents. The Khmer Rouge persecuted children; they also empowered them. Sixteen-year-old Khmer Rouge peasant soldiers tortured ordinary Cambodians for petty infractions or for not fulfilling work norms. This dreadful chapter in the history of modern totalitarianism was also depicted in the brilliant film, The Killing Fields, available on VHS.


Chen Jo-his. The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Indiana University Press, 1979. 220 pp.

In one story, a family is thrown into terror because its young child has blurted out, "Chairman Mao is a rotten egg." Will they be arrested, jailed, or sent to the countryside to do farm labor? Such were the apprehensions of daily life during the Cultural Revolution. These stories tell of family members betraying family members, of the younger generation imposing a dictatorship based on age over their parents, of human relations destroyed by a crazed search for ideological purity. This is a first-rate introduction to a chapter in the history of totalitarianism that even today remains shrouded in a fog of mystery.

Jung Chang. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. Anchor World Views, 1992. 528 pp.

Jung Chang's saga begins in the dying years of the last Chinese Emperor, with the painful story of her grandmother's foot-binding and forced marriage as a concubine. Next is the story of her mother and father, ardent mid-level communists whose stories are also the story of Mao's takeover, the purges, the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, and the horrendous human toll of the Cultural Revolution, when both parents were endlessly paraded on the backs of pick-up trucks wearing dunce caps and the father was sent first to a psychiatric institute and then a labor camp for punishment. Finally, it's the story of Jung Chang herself and how she, and many in her generation, moved from loving Mao "like a father" to realizing that he was the source of her family's and her country's great horrors.


Armando Valladares. Against All Hope: The Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares. Alfred Knopf Publishing, 1986. 381 pp.

This prison memoir serves as a powerful antidote for those who still harbor illusions about the nature of Fidel Castro's Communist dictatorship in Cuba. Valladares spent 23 years in Cuban prisons for what amounts to "thought crime"—that is, he objected to certain oppressive features of the Castro regime. As progressives from the United States and Europe traveled to Havana to witness the revolution's achievements, Valladares and his fellow political prisoners endured the most horrible conditions or faced the firing squads that were kept busy on a daily basis. Among Valladares' fellow inmates were a number of Castro's former friends and allies, men who had broken with the system because the dictator had reneged on the promise of democratic freedoms. This is an accessible and powerful book about a totalitarian system that, even today, has its admirers.


Artur London. The Confession. Ballantine Books, 1973. 441 pp.

For anyone under the age of 30, it is difficult to comprehend that for some 40 years, the Czech people were ruled by a Communist dictatorship that executed dissidents, controlled the press, persecuted religious believers, prevented travel abroad, banned books, and packed writers off to lengthy jail terms. This book tells of the early years of Czechoslovak Communism. London was a party official who believed the slogans about a radiant future. Purged in the early 1950s, he was sent to prison. The charges were ludicrous—plotting against the state, spying for the West. He confessed after months of psychological torture. In his memoir, London tells of the absolute low point in his ordeal, when his beloved wife, with whom he shared both a marriage and a devotion to the party, renounced him. This story is a cautionary reminder to those who believe that terrible things never happen in civilized Western nations. There is a fine French language film version of The Confession, directed by Costa-Gavros and starring Yves Montand. It is available on VHS.


Azar Nafisi. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Random House, 2003. 368 pp.

In 1979, as the Islamic Revolution swept Iran, Azar Nafisi began her first class at the University of Tehran. This compelling memoir recounts Nafisi's time teaching literature and the frustration that led her to create a secret class in her home. This book is especially good for literature teachers; Nafisi moves easily between analyzing the freeing nature of great works of fiction and the freedoms that Iranians were losing under the Ayatollah Khomeini. (See "Reading Lolita in Tehran")


Kenan Makiya. The Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. University of California Press, 1989. 323 pp.

This is the best account of life under Saddam Hussein. The author paints a frightening portrait of a society gripped by dread and subject to a never-ending stream of propaganda that extols the virtues of the leader, his family, and the ruling Ba'ath Party. Under Saddam and the Ba'athists, Iraq suffered from some of the worst features of both fascism and Communism: confession rituals, public hangings, the display of corpses, executions, torture, all toward the goal of instilling fear in the people.


William Shirer. Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Simon and Schuster, 1990. 1,264 pp.

The extraordinary research that went into this classic account of Hitler's plan to dominate the world makes this the definitive study of the Third Reich. It's a single book that gives readers the background to begin to comprehend Hitler, his intention to create a 1,000-year regime, and the reality of the regime that survived for 12 years. Though the length of the book is intimidating, it reads like the work of a top journalist, which it is.

Wladyslaw Szpilman. The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945. Picador USA, 2003. 224 pp.

There are dozens of painful informative memoirs from the Holocaust by Jews who survived the concentration camps and by others who defied the Nazi regime and paid a terrible price. Among the most recently published is The Pianist, which was released earlier this year as a movie.


Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. Basic Books, 2001. 238 pp.

In North Korea, negative remarks about the government are a crime—and the perpetrator's entire family is punished. This is how Kang Chol-hwan ended up in a labor camp at the age of nine. Just a few weeks after his outspoken grandfather "disappeared," Kang's family was sent to a camp for re-education in the thoughts of Kim Il-sung, North Korea's "Great Leader." Kang's heart-wrenching tale of surviving 10 years in the gulag and escaping to South Korea reveals the brutality of modern-day North Korea.


Michael T. Kaufman. Mad Dreams, Saving Graces: Poland: A Nation in Conspiracy. Random House, 1989. 270 pp.

Timothy Garton Ash. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. Vintage Books, 1985. 402 pp.

These two books are excellent starting places for an understanding of the rise and eventual triumph of Solidarity, the Polish independent trade union that brought Communism down in Poland and set in motion a process that led to the collapse of the entire East European Communist edifice. Both authors are skilled journalists: Kaufman covered Poland for the New York Times while Garton Ash wrote for a number of journals in the U.S. and Great Britain. Both are particularly good at illuminating the workings of the underground society that existed during the period when martial law prevailed and Solidarity had been declared an illegal organization.


Philip Gourevitch. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. Picador USA, 1998. 355 pp.

The author, an American journalist, covered the civil conflict in Rwanda in which some 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by the Hutus. With first person accounts, Gourevitch provides the historical context, a picture of how the increasingly horrific Rwandan government incited genocide—and a view of the utter failure of the U.S., or the world to do anything useful to stop it. (See "Genocide in Rwanda")


Joseph Lelyveld. Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White. Times Books, 1985. 390 pp.

In the mid 1960s, Lelyveld served as the New York Times South Africa correspondent, but he was expelled from the country after just 11 months because of his open hatred of apartheid. Returning in the early 1980s, he undertook an extensive search for the true impact of the racial policy "reforms" being imposed—and he found that blacks' freedoms were actually being taken away. For example, all blacks lost their citizenship, many were forced to move into "tribal homelands," and, despite the end of miscegenation laws, blacks could not live in white areas. This fascinating account reveals both the injustices suffered by blacks and the fears that led so many whites to support apartheid.


Anne Applebaum. Gulag: A History. Doubleday, 2003. 720 pp.

For a history of the Soviet camp system, this fine book is the best place to begin your study. The author, an American journalist and scholar, was given access to the archives of the camp system in Moscow and interviewed survivors, camp guards, and other officials from the Soviet period. Applebaum stresses the economic role of the camps; they amounted to a vast source of slave labor for the benefit of the regime's grandiose schemes. Among the most heartbreaking segments are those dealing with children, many of whom were sent to the camp system along with their parents or dispatched to orphanages, never to see their parents again.

Robert Conquest. Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Oxford University Press, 1986. 412 pages.

Conquest is the preeminent historian of the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. Harvest of Sorrow is the masterpiece that takes up Stalin's war against the Soviet peasantry. Determined to break rural resistance to collectivized agriculture, Stalin killed upward of 15 million peasants, mostly through a government induced famine, during the 1930s. An added dimension was Stalin's fear of Ukrainian nationalism, and Conquest makes a strong case that Stalin starved the republic's peasants in an effort to destroy a crucial source of Ukrainian patriotism. Conquest writes brilliantly, his narratives are compelling and often gripping, all of which enhances his moral argument that Stalinism was the greatest evil of the century.

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House. He is the author of Failed Utopias, a study of the techniques of Communist control, and Freedom's Voice: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. He has just completed a biography of the trade union leader Lane Kirkland.

Related Articles

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By Diane Ravitch

Freedom's Opposite
Recommended Readings on Totalitarianism and Tyranny
By Arch Puddington

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Genocide in Rwanda
By Philip Gourevitch

Reading Lolita in Tehran
By Azar Nafisi

American Educator, Fall 2003