Anne Applebaum is a leading historian of the era when rulers visited terror upon their own subjects, and the existence of democratic institutions appeared an unattainable ideal in the face of arbitrary and violent coercion. Her signature achievement is Gulag: A History (2003), an award-winning history of the terror of concentration camps during the reign of Stalin.
This began a sequence of histories, including a study of eastern Europe in the aftermath of the second World War, and concluding with a visceral recounting of the ravages of the Ukrainian famine. Applebaum has looked into the darkest corners of history on the continent of Europe. Her works peer into the crevices of the foundations of our current nations and cultures, where inhumanity to our fellow human wreaked pitiless cruelty.
So this author’s journalism has edge. When she warns of disinformation or the risks of authoritarianism it is because the alternative to democratic life is not an imagined dystopia, but a return to a vein of history mined in her writing.
Her latest book, Twilight of Democracy, appears a natural fulfilment of the arc of her studies. However, the subtitle – The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends – hints at the personal nature of this work. This more intimate tone is evident from the very start of this work.
It commences with a New Year’s Eve party, at the turn of this century, in northwest Poland. Fireworks were ignited, cassettes played at high volume, wine drunk, a pistol shot fired into the night sky.
Nearly two decades later this exuberance is well extinguished. The author writes that “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve Party….In fact, about half of the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half. The estrangements are political, not personal.”
These estrangements are not explained by changing economic circumstances or by deprivation. The author notes that her former friends are materially comfortable and globally mobile. This is not the cry of anguish of those betrayed by a cossetted elite; the elite themselves are the study of this work.
Applebaum does not offer a single theory for their estrangement, but she reaches the bleakest of conclusions: “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”
This slow turning is demonstrated by tales of such risks in Hungary and Poland, of former friends who now devote their lives to the defence and continuation of the ruling regimes. These figures are described as a “new generation of clercs”. This borrows from the ominous prescience of the French essayist Julien Benda, who warned, in 1927, that the “writers, journalists, and essayists who had morphed into political entrepreneurs and propagandists would goad whole civilizations into acts of violence”.
These warnings are also made in an analysis of the politics of the United Kingdom. Applebaum suggests that the desire to create a “superior community” is a catalyst to disruption that “can happen in some of the oldest and most secure democracies in the world”. This chapter is insightful in pointing to the lure of “restorative nostalgia”, to the appeal of overtones of national endeavour or an idyllic past as a balm to the frictions of today.
However, limitations also become clear. Brexit has consumed my life for nearly four years. I have directly encountered the impulses and forces that played a decisive role in the referendum and the interpretation of this result as a hard exit from the European Union.
The language of British politics has changed. But it is a step too far to equate the voters and those committed to exit as authoritarian or participating in the “twilight of democracy”.
This points to a dilemma in assessing the health of democracies. A majority of voters have supported the regimes that are a cause of such concern in this book. Their voice, they may contend, is now vented and recognised by governments they elected after decades of exclusion. These voters and their leaders could declare that democracy is finally working.
This is where Twilight of Democracy is of real value. The author warns of the use of technologies that are fundamentally changing the practice of politics and advocacy.
In the most important chapter, Cascades of Falsehood, the reader is warned that “The jangling, dissonant sound of modern politics; the anger on cable television and the evening news; the fast pace of social media; the headlines that clash with one another when we scroll through them; the dullness, by contrast, of the bureaucracy and the courts; all of this has unnerved that part of the population that prefers unity and homogeneity”.
The long-term health of democracy depends on never pursuing total victory, on seeing those with differing political views as opponents and not enemies of the people and upon a presumption of good faith for all who seek office. So Applebaum is right to warn of the risks of a pessimism so deep about national prospects that any act is justified and any argument worthwhile in pursuit of a future to chime with imaginations of a more unified past.
A concluding chapter, which includes a more recent party with new friends, leads the author to reflect that “the precariousness of the current moment seems frightening, and yet this uncertainty has always been there….The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies never guaranteed stability.”
This is a source of hope, not just anger. Progress is possible. The personal nature of this book does not always sit easily with the universal nature of its warnings and prophesies. Interested readers should also consider On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.
The risk of twilight of our western democratic model, the uncertainty of what may follow – a brighter dawn or a darker night – require that all warnings be urgently considered. This book demands such consideration.
Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Finance