Memoirs or histories of countries becoming autocratic
September 18, 2020 9:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books (especially memoirs or personal, intimate histories) about the experience of living through a democratic or republican country becoming an authoritarian or autocratic state. Totally fine if this is very old, I'm just as interested as someone in the Roman Republic as Czeslaw Milosz. Thanks!
posted by peppercorn to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "Wild Swans: Three daughters of China" by Jung Chang might fit the bill. It's been almost 20 years since I've read it though so my memory is a bit hazy. It's all about living in China under Mao and the cultural revolution. That book has actually been on my mind lately, as someone living in the U.S. wondering if we're headed into the abyss. The first 2/3 of the book were riveting, iirc, while the last 1/3 dragged a bit... though like I said, my memory of it is a bit hazy.
posted by smcameron at 10:13 PM on September 18, 2020

Best answer: For some frightening reason I read a lot of this genre. I am scared lately because some things feel all too familiar.

Anyway, here are some I enjoyed:

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia: A Memoir by Sofija Stefanovic (Serbia/Yugoslavia)
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Iran)
The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan (Iran)
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtmanche (Rwanda, early days)
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by various (North Korea)
In A Free State by VS Naipaul (particularly the Third Tale, unnamed East African country, most likely Uganda)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian Civil war)
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Chinese Revolution/Tiananmen Square)
Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende (Pinochet/Chile)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (Russian Revolution)
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen (also Russian Revolution)

I think that something that is not often considered is that freedom for some does not necessarily represent freedom for all and that non-dominant groups experience life differently than dominant ones and more closely to what we would consider as an autocratic society. There are so many novels about this experience among Black Americans and Indigenous peoples in Canada and the US, among others, that I won't even try to list them. Otherwise, less North American, recently I've read and enjoyed Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (a multi-generational Korean family living in Japan).
posted by urbanlenny at 11:17 PM on September 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

Hmm, re-reading, I now realize that China might not meet the criteria of "a democratic or republican country becoming an authoritarian or autocratic state", although I still think "Wild Swans:..." is worth reading.
posted by smcameron at 11:17 PM on September 18, 2020

In the garden of beasts by Erik Larson is close enough to what you’re looking for that I wanted to mention it.
posted by areaperson at 3:04 AM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had a very similar urge a couple of years ago (coincidence?) and asked this question, which yielded some useful results. I'd also recommend the memoirs of journalist William Shirer, The Nightmare Years, which I only realized was also a 1989 TV miniseries when I googled just now. Also, they're not first person, but I think Timothy Snyder's Black Earth is the best book on the rise of Hitler and the european Holocaust and I loved Masha Gessen's book on early post-Soviet Russia, Future is History (and I didn't know the CIA did book reviews either).
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 4:22 AM on September 19, 2020

Best answer: How about Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy by Elizabeth Abbott? I haven't read it but my mom did and she liked it.
posted by danabanana at 7:41 AM on September 19, 2020

Best answer: For the transition to Nazi Germany, Victor Klemperer's journals, published as I Will Bear Witness, are probably the prime example of this.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 8:28 AM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The World of Yesterday By Stefan Zweig. Zweig was the inspiration for the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. Zweig was a Jewish man, writer, pan-European advocate, and pacifist, born in Vienna in 1881. As he describes his life through the late 19th and early 20th century, he sees all of those aspects of his personality devalued as Europe falls into fascism. Sadly, Zweig killed himself shortly after the book was published in 1942, so he writing at the height of Nazism, without the benefit of knowing how the war would end.
posted by chrisulonic at 8:46 AM on September 19, 2020

Best answer: More from Germany: three memoirs reviewed a couple years ago in the New York Review of Books, in It Can Happen Here -- They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer, from 1955; Sebastian Haffner's unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler; and a new one, Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century by Konrad Jarausch.
posted by Rash at 8:52 AM on September 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is a classic of Rome’s transition to empire, arguing that it was nearly inevitable due to competing strongmen and their assorted henchmen. Erich Gruen’s The Last Generation of the Roman Republic argues “whoa buddy, a lot was going on, but we need to acknowledge how strong their institutions actually were.” Roller’s Constructing Autocracy argues that a lot of effort went into figuring out what a princeps would be able to do, and they drew bits of many different relationship types, etc. to figure out how to make an autocracy functional.

Each of those books has flaws, but the passage of time renders them a little easier for me to stomach than reading about, say, the Nazis, who took all sorts of helpful, terrible lessons from U.S. history, just as many Americans today are looking to 20th century fascism and Nazism for inspiration. I also find studying ancient history, and history over long periods generally, helpful in reminding me that bad times come and go, same as the good.
posted by cupcakeninja at 9:28 AM on September 19, 2020

Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America, is this. The series didn't quite capture the gradual descent into facism in quite the same chilling way as the book.
posted by Elsie at 9:45 AM on September 19, 2020

Best answer: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
posted by atlantica at 3:19 PM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

The musical The Sound of Music is about the Nazi takeover of Austria.
posted by JonJacky at 8:51 PM on September 19, 2020

Memoirs by people who lived through the Emergency in 1970's India, especially Kuldip Nayar's books about it.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:13 AM on September 21, 2020

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