Books and films you should not miss
if you are interested in the history of totalitarianism
Selected by Platform Chief Librarian Prof. Dr. Hannes Hólmstein Gissurarson, Professor of Political Theory from the School of Social Sciences, University of Iceland in Reykjavik.
A click on the cover will take you to the title offered online.
Updated August 2018
In this compendium, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson gives a brief summary of the books and ideas to help understand this extraordinary force, which, like a ghost, haunted Europe for over a century. Perhaps it is not even a force spent: After all, the rulers of Russia and China seem unwilling to recognise the many victims of Communism in their countries, and two real communist countries still exist, North Korea and Cuba. The origin of the report is that in 2014 the Platform of European Memory and Conscience asked professor to make a list of the best books he knew about communism, which was subsequently published on the platform’s website.
In this report, he publishes a greatly expanded version of that list. He tried not only to include works that are already well-known, but also books that have undeservedly fallen into oblivion. Also, he adds a few words about the nature of Communism and why Leninism, and after it Stalinism and Maoism, was a logical extension of Marxism rather than an aberration from it.
Books on Communism
French Scholars, many former Communists, went through newly available archives in Russia and elsewhere and then presented their case: Communism cost around 100 million lives. The definitive account of Communism.
A vivid and sometimes horrifying account of the slave labour camps, scattered like islands around the Soviet Union, by a former inmate who received the Nobel Prize in literature for his work.
A savage satire of the Russian Revolution where Comrade Napoleon takes over and the hopes of the other animals are dashed. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” A 20th Century classic.
The most powerful dystopia (anti-utopia) ever written. Orwell describes a totalitarian society where the faceless rulers do not only seek to control the activities of their subjects, but also their minds. You are required to love Big Brother. His description bears an uncanny resemblance to the reality of 20th Century totalitarian countries.
A modern masterpiece: a novel about Stalin’s purges, especially the 1938 Moscow trials of Bukharin and other Old Bolsheviks who confessed to all kinds of heinous crimes. Koestler’s explanation was that they had transferred all moral authority to the Party.
Six essays on communism, very well written and thoughtful, by distinguished writers who had either been staunch communists or fellow travellers: Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, André Gide, Louis Fischer and Stephen Spender.
The publication of this book was a sensation, Kravchenko having been a Soviet official, making his escape in Washington DC. No less a sensation was a subsequent libel trial in Paris on his book where several witnesses turned up not only for him (ex-prisoners), but also for the defendant, a communist magazine, including his Russian ex-wife.
The autobiography of a seaman who worked for Comintern and also as a double agent for Gestapo, and escaped to the US. Racy writing on an interesting life. Almost as good a picture of the interwar years as Stefan Zweig’s book is about pre-1914 Europe.
A well-written and thoroughly researched description of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. As one Sovietologist said, it is “not only an odyssey of madness, tragedy and sadism, but a work of scholardship and literary craftsmanship”.
A history of the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, enforced by dispossession and deportation of millions of farmers, and the famine of 1932–33 inflicted by the Soviet state on peasants.
A fully-documented history of the Soviet concentration camps, from their origins in the Russian Revolution, through their expansion under Stalin, to their collapse in the era of Glasnost.
The author was the wife of a German communist who moved to Russia in the 1930s. While he was shot in Stalin’s purges, she was imprisoned. When Stalin made the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler, he handed her and other communists over to the Nazis.
A deeply-felt and moving account of the tragedy of the three Baltic republics that all gained independence in 1918, only to be occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. Written by an Estonian professor of English literature who managed to escape to the West.
The author, a general in the Spanish Republican Army, fled after its defeat to the Soviet Union where he was initially warmly received, but then put into a prison camp for being critical and outspoken. By an extraordiary chain of events, he escaped to Iran by walking through most of Central Asia.
The author was a Norwegian communist who had willingly worked for the Soviets, but found himself arrested in Murmansk after the Second World War, having to spend eight years on false charges in Soviet prison camps. Bertrand Russell wrote: “I am impressed by the unadorned truthfulness of the narrative and by the wealth of illuminating detail.”
An account by a Danish poultry farmer of his stay, as a foreign specialist, in the early 1930s in the Soviet Union where he witnessed the brutality and inefficiency of the Bolshevik regime, leading to a famine in a very fertile land. The book, written in accessible, plain prose, had great impact on Winston Churchill.
The author was a Swiss communist who had moved to Moscow in 1937, but was arrested as a spy after only a few months and sent to Siberian prison camps. Of special interest is her account of the visit by the easily deceived US Vice President Henry Wallace to her prison camp.
The story of Osip Mandelstam, written by his wife. Mandelstam, one of Russia’s most gifted poets, provoked the ire of Stalin and his henchmen by writing a powerful satirical poem about the dictator. He perished in transit to a prison camp in Siberia. The allusion in the title is not only to holy scripture, but also to the author’s name: Nadezhda in Russian is Hope. One critic said that her book was a “masterpiece of prose as well as a model of biographical narrative and social analysis”.
A true story of Soviet spies in the United States, written by a former communist who saw the conflict with communism as the epic struggle of modern times. A very influential book in the US, written with passion and eloquence.
The author was a Yugoslav communist and partisan, close to Tito, but he turned his back on communism when he witnessed the emergence of a communist society where all citizens were equal, but some were more equal than others. As his publishers wrote: “In the end, what this book provides is not only a denunciation of Communism, but stirring proof of the fact that anyone with intellectual honesty and personal integrity must turn away from it.” For writing the book, Djilas was sent to prison.
Slowly, the world is realizing that Casto was no better than other communist dictators. This change in attitudes was not least brought about by Armando Valladares, who was imprisoned in Cuba for over twenty years and only released after heavy pressure on the Cuban government. Valladares survived by praying and writing poetry.
Nicholas Gage, an investigative New York Times reporter, traced the story of his Greek mother who resisted the forced abduction of her children by the communists during the 1948 Civil War in Greece, and was therefore imprisoned, tortured and executed in cold blood. A film has been made out of the story with John Malkovich as Gage.
A first-hand account of China’s brutal cultural revolution, by an elegant and well-educated Chinese lady, imprisoned by the Red Guards, but steadfastly refusing to confess to any of their absurd charges. Upon her release, she found out that the Red Guards had killed her daughter.
The story of three generations of women in 20th Century China, the author’s grandmother, a warlord’s concubine, her mother, a member of the communist elite, and herself, a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, but later a strong anti-communist.
An authoritative biography of Mao, full of startling revelations about one of the most cruel communist leaders of modern times. The result of tireless effort and countless interviews with all kind of people, high and low.
The history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, the famine of 1958–1962, when Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward. Probably around 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death, while the greatest demolition of real estate in the human history also took place. Dikötter, a Professor of History in Hong Kong, had access to regional archives never investigated before.
The history of Mao’s ambitious scheme to eliminate those he considered his enemies, with the result that China descended into chaos. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “For those who have swallowed the poisonous claim that the Communist Party deserves some credit for China’s current patchy prosperity, Mr. Dikötter provides the antidote.”
A history of the Chinese Revolution 1945–1957, when the communists imposed their violent and brutal rule on Chinese society, stripping ordinary citizens not only of their property but also of their dignity, and sometimes of their lives, in a an orgy of denunciations, accusations and executions.
Gripping tales of six individuals in North Korea, one of the few remaining communists countries in the world, told by an American journalist based in Beijing. The characters in this true story are followed for fifteen years, in their desperate struggle for survival in one of the world’s most extraordinary societies.
Written in 1921, the Russian author Zamyatin descibes the disappearance of individuality in a society nominally organised for the collective good. Clearly aimed at the Bolshevik revolutionaries and a clear inspiration for Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, it is still relevant.
Even if this novel is mainly aimed at teenagers, it can be read and enjoyed by all. David is a 12 year old boy in a communist concentration camp who manages to escape and subsequently undertakes a journey through Europe to the free country of Denmark. Meanwhile, he slowly recovers a belief in the goodness of people. The novel has also been published under the title “North to Freedom”. A film has been made from it.
The story of the courageous and independent Kira Argounova who has the misfortune of growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Torn between two lovers, her family and her dreams of a career, she tries to escape to the West where people can assert their individuality and make choices. Based on Ayn Rand’s own experience of living under communism, it is her most emotionally rich novel. A film was made in the 1940s from the novel and redone in 1986.
Set in Britain in the 1960s, this novel describes how the communists take over, with the connivance of gullible peaceniks, and slowly strangle liberty, with slave camps as the proper destination for dissenting voices. It is well-written, with an cast of colourful characters. In 1962, ITV produced a television drama based on the story.
An account of the intellectual friends of communism: those who did not publicly join communist parties, but who defended them and the communist regimes directly or indirectly, people such as Heinrich Mann, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Jean-Paul Sartre. Their gullibility and willingness to go along with everything Moscow announced certainly was astonishing.
The extraordinary and sometimes tragicomic story of Western intellectuals in search of the good society which they believed they could find in the communist countries. Mercilessly criticizing their own societies, they blithely ignored the oppression and squalor which could clearly be seen in all the communist countries they visited.
A concise account of communism from the early days to its worldwide demise, except in marginal states like North Korea and Cuba. Communists attempted a comprehensive reorganisation of society. Pipes, a Harvard Professor, is particularly strong in exploring the links between the theory of Marx and Engels and the practice of Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
by Richard Overy
A superb work, written by the professor of history at King´s College in London, who has published extensively on the history of the Second World War and the Third Reich. An insightful presentation of dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler, the two biggest 20th century totalitarian regimes, that murdered millions of people.
by Tony Judt
A hugely impressive work, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Arthur Ross Book Award. Postwar is the first modern history that covers all of Europe, both East and West. It defines six decades of European history from 1945 to 2005 – including 40 years of totalitarian repression in the half of Europe that ended up under Soviet control after the Second World War.
by Geoffrey Roberts
A detailed history of Stalin’s leadership from the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 to his death in 1953, written by a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and professor of history at University College Cork in Ireland, Geoffrey Roberts. The book includes Chronology of Major Events, connected with Soviet foreign policy under Stalin.
by Timothy Snyder
The book by historian Timothy Snyder presents the mass murders, committed by Nazi and Stalinist regimes. As author demonstrates, their combined impact on the people, living between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, was the greatest man-made demographic catastrophe and human tragedy in European history.
by Anne Applebaum
A history of how Communism took over Eastern Europe after the Second World War and transformed in frightening fashion the individuals who came under its sway. Precise description of how political parties, the church, the media, young people´s organizations and other institutions of civil society on every level were suppressed under communist regimes.
by Nikolai Tolstoy
The Minister and the massacres, written by Nikolai Tolstoy, describes the repatriations of anti-communist Yugoslavs and Cossacks in 1945. The book is a strong criticism of the British repatriation of collaborationist troops to Tito´s Yugoslavia and Soviet Union.
by Jozo Tomasevich
The impartial study of the complicated history of Yugoslavia during the years of the Second World War. The book traces the rule of the Axis powers in occupied Yugoslavia, along with the role of the other groups that collaborated with them, primarily Croatian nationalist organization known as the Ustashas.
by József Cardinal Mindszenty
József Cardinal Mindszenty was the Prince Primate, Archbishop of Esztergom, cardinal, and leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary from 2 October 1945 to 18 December 1973. For five decades “he personified uncompromising opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary”. During World War II, he was imprisoned by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party. After the war, he opposed communism and the communist persecution in his country.
by Árpád Szőczi
An insightful work about the Romanian revolution in 1989, written by Árpád Szőczi, award-winning Canadian journalist, who interviewed all the main players involved in the campaign to battle communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and visited the Romanian and Hungarian Secret Police Archives.
by Michael Zantovsky
Václav Havel was one of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century: iconoclast and intellectual, renowned artist turned political dissident, president of a united and then divided nation, and dedicated human rights activist. Written by Michael Zantovsky—Havel’s former press secretary, advisor, and longtime friend.
by Charles Novacek
The captivating, tender memoir of Charles Novacek, a Czechoslovakian whose idyllic childhood exploring the Tatra Mountains was shattered by the Nazi occupation of his homeland. He spent his youth defending his neighbors, his family, and his country, first from the Nazi atrocities of World War II and then from the Soviet oppression of the ensuing Cold War.
by Christopher Andrew, Vasili Mitrokhin
The Sword and the Shield is based on one of the most extraordinary intelligence coups of recent times: a secret archive of top-level KGB documents smuggled out of the Soviet Union which the FBI has described, after close examination, as the “most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source.” Its presence in the West represents a catastrophic hemorrhage of the KGB’s secrets and reveals for the first time the full extent of its worldwide network.Vasili Mitrokhin, a secret dissident who worked in the KGB archive, smuggled out copies of its most highly classified files every day for twelve years. In 1992, a U.S. ally succeeded in exfiltrating the KGB officer and his entire archive out of Moscow. The archive covers the entire period from the Bolshevik Revolution to the 1980s…
by Christopher Andrew, Vasili Mitrokhin
In 1992, Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist, snuck out of Russia carrying with him a vast cache of transcriptions of top-secret KGB intelligence files. The FBI later described his trove of documents as “the most complete and extensive intelligence ever achieved from any source.” Renowned historian Christopher Andrew had exclusive access to both Mitrokhin and his archive. In 1999, they published the explosive bestseller The Sword and the Shield, which provided a complete account of KGB operations in Europe and America. In The World Was Going Our Way, Andrew now chronicles the KGB’s extensive penetration of governments throughout the Third World.
Films on Totalitarianism
A 1939 American film starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. Slowly, a Soviet agent is seduced by the freedom of the West. Of course it was banned in the Soviet Union.
A 1942 Italian drama made from Ayn Rand’s novel about the expression of individuality under the oppressive Soviet regime. Main actors Alida Valli, Rosanno Brazzi and Fosco Giachetti.
A 1952 Cold War drama about US investigators breaking up a communist ring in Hawai. Starring John Wayne and Nancy Olson.
A 1955 British drama on the communist attempt of mind-control, starring Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins. A cardinal is falsely accused of treason, and a sly investigator succeeds in breaking him.
A 1982 Polish film about false imprisonment under the Stalinist Polish regime of the early 1950s. Banned until 1989. Main actors Krystyna Janda and Adam Ferency.
A 1984 British drama film on the bloodthirsty 1975–79 communist regime in Cambodia. Main actors Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor and John Malkovich.
A 1992 Russian drama film about the tireless efforts of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka (later GPU, NKVD and KGB) to suppress the Russian population. Directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin. Not in distribution, but available on Youtube.
A 1993 Chinese drama on the changing fortunes of a boy during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang and banned in mainland China.
A 2001 television drama about the escape, in the early 1960s, of various people from East Berlin to the West. Main actors Heino Ferch, Nicolette Krebitz, Alexandra Maria Lara and Sebastian Koch.
A 2003 drama film on the escape of a 12 year old boy from a communist prison camp in Eastern Europe and his journey to the free country of Denmark. Main actors Ben Tibber and Jim Caviezel.
A 2006 German drama film on the comprehensive surveillance society established by East German communists. Main actors Ulrich Mühle and Sebastian Koch.
A 2005 PBS documentary about the rise and fall of socialism, hosted by Ben Wattenberg.
A 2008 documentary about Soviet communism, directed by Edvins Snore. The link between the two totalitarians creeds in Europe, Nazism and Stalinism, is emphasised.
A 2009 documentary about Estonia’s successful struggle for survival. Directed by James and Maureen Tusty.
A 2011 French documentary (also available in English) on the terrible 1958–1962 famine in China which was the consequence of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Directed by Patrick Cabouat.
A 2007 Polish drama about the Katyn massacre, a mass execution of Polish officers and citizens in the Katyn forest in 1940, ordered by the Soviet authorities. Directed by Academy Honorary Award winner Andrzej Wajda.
A 2011 Romanian documentary about the murder of innocent youngsters, committed by the communist secret police Securitate on March 9, 1950 in Romania. Directed by Nicolae Margineanu.
The 2015 documentary film by Vitaly Mansky follows a year in the life of a family in Pyongyang, North Korea as their daughter Zin-mi prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union on the Day of the Shining Star (Kim Jong-il’s birthday).The film opens with the words, “The script of this film was assigned to us by the North Korean side. They also kindly provided us with an around-the-clock escort service, chose our filming locations and looked over all the footage we shot to make sure we did not make any mistakes in showing the life of a perfectly ordinary family in the best country in the world.
Award winning movie directed by Nemes László. In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son.
Is a 2002 documentary about the courage and determination of a young English stockbroker who saved the lives of 669 children. Between March 13 and August 2, 1939, Nicholas Winton organised 8 transports to take children from Prague to new homes in Great Britain, and kept quiet about it until his wife discovered a scrapbook documenting his unique mission in 1988. Directed by Matej Mináč.