Maybe it can happen here
November 14, 2016 3:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in reading first-person accounts of what it's like to be in a society that is falling apart - either through dissolution into civil war (e.g., Syria, Rwanda) or turning from a relatively free to oppressive government (Nazi Germany, Iran).

The reasons for my interest are probably obvious! One of my ways of dealing with all of the recent events in America is to try to get a visceral sense of how they compare to the two scariest outcomes - civil war or turning into an authoritarian state with minority scapegoating.

I'm not an historian and I really would like mostly a sense of what it's like as a little person to live through that. How quickly do things change? How do you survive? What are the factors and signs that matter?

I also really like a good story and frankly could use some of that right now too.

So... any suggestions for good books? (Long-form articles are okay too but books are preferred, something that really puts you fully into the situation). Things along the lines of I Will Bear Witness or When I Was A German (though not just about Nazi Germany) would be perfect. Any country, any time period. Historical accuracy is key, so non-fiction or very well-researched fiction. It's okay if the story is told from the point of view of someone not in the country in question, as long as it centrally concerns how they dealt with it; as an expat I've been thinking a lot about this too.
posted by forza to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Leaf In A Bitter Wind by Ting-Xing Ye. It is powerful, and there are parallels.
posted by fraula at 3:47 PM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Dmitry Orlov's Reinventing Collapse:The Soviet Example and American Prospects documents the experience of watching to USSR's dissolution from the inside and compares it to how the US might follow.
posted by sapere aude at 3:56 PM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you seen this question from the other day?
posted by NoraCharles at 4:00 PM on November 14, 2016

Persepolis (Iranian revolution) and Half of a yellow sun (Biafran war and famine) are both excellent.
posted by tinkletown at 4:00 PM on November 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: NoraCharles: yes, I found it interesting. That's why I'm interested in lost of first-person accounts from lots of different situations, not just Nazi Germany. I want to see if I can pull apart common threads, and (hopefully) reassure myself of all the ways the situation in America does not map on to historical precedent.
posted by forza at 4:08 PM on November 14, 2016

For a more scoping sweep, Ronald Wright's Short History of Progress shows the rise and fall of civilizations dating back to cro-magnons. The audio is available free online, but it can also be read as a book. He quotes from first-person accounts. His project is yours: determining whether our civilization can be mapped to similar, earlier trajectories. Here is the wikipedia summary.

The book is from 2004 and the author is an English & Canadian anthropologist.
posted by monkeymonkey at 4:18 PM on November 14, 2016

The Appointment by Herta Müller is a fantastic (fictional) account of life in Ceaușescu's Romania. It's a tough read - disjointed and disorienting, but I loved it.
posted by god hates math at 4:23 PM on November 14, 2016

The Belarusian novelist and journalist Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature for her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Alexievich is the author, most famously, of Voices From Chernobyl, an oral history of the nuclear disaster. Her fiction and nonfiction tend to focus on the Soviet Union and its collapse—aside from Chernobyl, she has also written about the Soviet experience during World War II and the Afghan War. In a statement accompanying the announcement, the Nobel Prize Committee praised Alexievich's “extraordinary method—a carefully composed collage of human voices,” which “deepens our comprehension of an entire era.”
posted by Postroad at 4:26 PM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight is a very interesting non-fiction first-person story about (non-rich) white Zimbabwean tenant farmers in the years before and after independence/civil war.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:39 PM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not exactly what you're looking for (and it's fiction), but it's a classic: Things Fall Apart.
posted by she's not there at 4:44 PM on November 14, 2016

Seconding Dmtry Orlov's "Reinventing Collapse." It also has a killer recipe for making vodka out of bruised and discarded fruit in your kitchen sink-- a technique that allowed his family to barter for services like electrical repair and piano lessons even as the USSR collapsed.
posted by seasparrow at 4:47 PM on November 14, 2016

Have you seen this question from the other day?

That was a completely different question though; the person asking in that instance explicitly prohibited any responses suggesting that USA under Trump could be headed in a Nazi-like direction.
posted by splitpeasoup at 4:49 PM on November 14, 2016

Joseph Roth's What I Saw and The Hotel Years.
posted by praemunire at 5:00 PM on November 14, 2016

Zlata's Diary - Sarajevo

Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, who was in charge of the UN troops in Rwanda

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is a more retrospective nonfiction work on the Rwandan Genocide, but it includes a lot of first-person accounts and is truly excellent.

Jean Hatzfeld has two books on Rwanda which may interest you: one of interviews with genocidaires, and one of interviews with survivors.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:02 PM on November 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Defying Hitler: A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 5:05 PM on November 14, 2016

The Act of Killing is a documentary focusing on the perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings of the 1960s, including first-person accounts from some of the killers.
posted by praemunire at 5:14 PM on November 14, 2016

Letters to my Descendants by Niels Skov. About the rise of the Nazi's in Norway. Niels taught at the Evergreen State College and was an incredible character. His book is amazing.
posted by NickPeters at 5:29 PM on November 14, 2016

Fernando Aguirre has written a lot about life in Argentina.
Lots of info in his blog, but this is a good place to start.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:56 PM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Life stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.
posted by It'sANewDawn at 6:39 PM on November 14, 2016

Marta Hillers "a woman in Berlin"
posted by bluedora at 11:36 PM on November 14, 2016

Stefan Zwieg's memoir The World of Yesterday. Zwieg was the inspiration for the movie "The Grand Budapest Hotel." He was born in Vienna in 1881, during a Golden Era of intellectual and artistic advances. His memoir documents, in part, how each aspect of his identity (Jew, artist, pacifist, internationalist) was rejected by society over the course of WWI and the rise of fascism. Along the way he encounters some of the lead figures of 1880-1930s Europe, including Freud, Picasso, Mussolini, Rodin, Rilke, and Strauss, among others.
posted by chrisulonic at 11:55 PM on November 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Reading Lolita in Tehran covers the author's time in Iran during the Revolution through her decision to leave in 1997. I didn't find it overly upsetting (maybe a bit too light?) but it did have several examples of the pernicious little things that signal real cultural change. There were many stock characters, including the loud mouth traditionalists and the meek rebel.
posted by soelo at 7:49 AM on November 15, 2016

Response by poster: You guys are fantastic. The bookstore now loves me :) and I'm eager to get started with these. No "best answers" because virtually all of them were the exact kind of thing I'm looking for.
posted by forza at 3:51 PM on November 15, 2016

My Traitor's Heart is written by a white South African named Rian Malan in the late 80's, when it appeared that South Africa was descending into civil war. It's a beautiful and heart-breaking read, and totally worth your time.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:51 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Haven't read it, but heard this recommended recently and now I want to.

Berlin Diary (1934–1941) is a first-hand account of the rise of Nazi Germany and its road to war, as witnessed by the American journalist William L. Shirer.

The point is that it is his diary written not knowing what was to come, so different from what he wrote after.
posted by Gotanda at 11:40 PM on November 16, 2016

Michael D. Jackson, In Sierra Leone (2004). It's hard to categorise this, as it's part memoir, part anthropological study, and part creative non-fiction, but the heart of the book is the accounts of ordinary Sierra Leonians coping with and trying to survive the country's 1991-2002 civil war.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:12 AM on November 17, 2016

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is a first-person account of the period from March to July of 2011.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 4:40 AM on November 17, 2016

The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić is a terrific book of essays about the collapse of Yugoslavia.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 4:48 AM on November 17, 2016

If you're still looking I highly recommend Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass. He covered the war in the former Yugoslavia for the Washington Post and then wrote this book to detox when he got home. It's beautifully written, with great heart, and gives you some idea of how neighbor can turn against neighbor, child against parent, and the depths to which humans can fall when their leaders encourage them to act on their worst impulses.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:53 AM on December 7, 2016

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