Four star review, originally posted here on February 27, 2021.
This is an absolute MUST READ for everyone given our current political climate.
This book is very different from Applebaum’s previous books. It is not a dense history, but rather her personal reflections. This fact does not make the book any less insightful or relevant; rather, it offers the author an opportunity to speak more freely in offering her thoughts and insights into what is currently happening in the seemingly crumbling world around us. Applebaum uses two tools from her arsenal instead of just one; we readers benefit not just from her gargantuan expertise on the subjects at hand (which is the tool that makes her tremendous history books so tremendous), but also on her personal experiences and feelings (something appropriately lacking in her other works). The added benefit of this format is that the book is much briefer, and thus much more approachable to those scared off by the cinder-block size of her history books. (If the personal, non-academic nature of this book bothers you, you may scoff at Applebaum’s constant name-dropping. In that case I suggest putting it down and picking up Iron Curtain or Gulag instead, which nobody could accuse of being unresearched or overindulgent.)
There are many key takeaways from this book, but one of them that Applebaum clearly wishes to highlight is that the problems that, to us westerners, always seem like an “other” problem- something that only happens in other places or other times, is no such thing. Applebaum highlights the recent histories of at least 4 separate nations, and makes it clear that the potential shifts in democratic atmospheres is by no means a distant possibility. We are not immune.
Another key takeaway is that the forces of totalitarianisms are not by nature more or less likely to happen on one end of the political spectrum than on the other. On paper, sure, we can all admit this, but in practice I think most people find it difficult to not associate the evils we’ve experienced with the mock political ideals of those perpetrating those evils. This difficult disassociation helps partially explain why someone like Applebaum, a person who has devoted her life to fighting the evils of the soviet left, has fallen out with previous friends who now align themselves with equally-troubling authoritarian regimes on the right.
Indeed, to me the greatest benefit of this book is that it helps explain some of the hardest questions about what is happening in American today. Questions like: how can seemingly-intelligent people follow an idiot like Trump? How can anyone put party over country? Why aren’t American institutions holding up against dictatorial take-over as well as the founders had hoped? And so on and so forth.
In many ways, this book is depressing as hell. Basically, everything is always at risk of turning to shit, and to some degree it’s inevitable. So that’s a big bummer. On the other hand, history is cyclical, and plenty of democracies manage to still pull through, eventually, even after seemingly irreparable divides. So that’s moderately comforting.
I will say, I didn’t find the Brexit chapter as intriguing as the others, but I can’t quite place why. I would think it’s because I’m not very familiar with the details, but I was not familiar with Hungary. Maybe Applebaum’s arguments were stretching here, as implied by other reviewers. I don’t know. Maybe it was a more personal explanation: maybe I just got bored by the time we got to the UK, but got sucked back in for the US chapter since that one hits closer to home. Who knows.