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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum

This recently published book is sub-titled in the American edition 'The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism'.

This is unlike Applebaum's well received historical works such as 'Iron Curtain' and 'Gulag'. It is shorter, at 189 pages, and is more personally written, and could further be described as, at least in parts, polemical.

It has received criticism from some as being, in political terms, anti-Right. In my opinion this is incorrect. Maybe all critics don't read the book from cover to cover. Applebaum herself has written at great length on the horrors of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. She was also for a time deputy editor of The Spectator. She was herself born in America, although her family originated from Belarus. She married an Oxford educated Pole, Radoslaw Sikorsky, who between 2007 and 2014 was Poland's Foreign Minister in Donald Tusk's Government. She has wide contacts in all three countries and a firm knowledge of Eastern European Affairs.

However, as always, you must make your own mind up about her book. For me the book is important in introducing a set of ideas around Right Wing Populism in Europe and The States. Her main theme is of Western Liberal Democracy being under attack from a Populist Right - although she also makes the point that the Populist Right could equally be a Populist Left, and that indeed the present Popular Right has stolen some of the clothes of The Left. She is, in my estimation, simply making the argument that those who believe in democracy must be prepared to defend it. She in no way likens 2020 to 1933. We live in very different times, but a threat to democracy can arise at any time and in a number of ways - 'Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will', she opines.

To whet your appetite, I am going to share some specific points raised in the book:-

  1. She makes the point more than once that this Populist Right has attacked the institutions of a democratic state, such as The Judiciary, The Civil Service, and The Media. Her first example is drawn from Poland.

  2. She fears, as in Hungary, a lurch by the Populist Right towards One Party States. Such states, she argues, place loyalty to the Party above merit as the basis for advancement.

  3. She believes the Populist Right appeals to those who have been turned off by the norm of democratic multi party politics and seek something simpler. She quotes post war Italy where the word QUALUNQUISMO was used to describe such people, literally 'indifference'. 'In postwar Italy, this form of skepticism, anti-politics, and whatever-ism had even acquired a name, qualunquisimo', is how she puts it.

  4. A gripping section refers to what I might call good and bad nostalgia. For Applebaum bad nostalgia, or in her words 'Restorative Nostalgia', is a tool of the Populist Right, even if they actually believe it to be true. 'Restorative nostalgics, she writes, 'don't just look at old photographs and piece together family stories. They are mythmakers and architects, builders of monuments and founders of nationalist political projects. They do not merely want to contemplate or learn from the past. They want, as Boym puts it, to "rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps". Many of them don't recognise their own fictions about the past for what they are.......They are not interested in a nuanced past, in a world in which great leaders were flawed men, in which famous military victories had lethal side effects......They want the cartoon version of history, and more importantly, they want to live in it, right now.'

  5. Applebaum ends on a positive note, 'We always knew, or should have known, that alternative visions of our nations would try to draw us in. But, maybe, picking our way through the darkness, we will find that together we can resist them'.

There is a great deal more in the book of interest and challenge, but I hope I may have persuaded just one or two to read it for yourselves and make your own judgement about the political world we live in.

PS I shall cover some of these issues in my one-off JW3 morning course on Thursday 13th August, 'Eternal Truths and Present Challenges'. (you can sign on now at or phone JW3 Box Office on 0207 433 8988). Details of the morning are given in my blog below headed 'Zoom One Off....'

One issue that Applebaum does not go into at any length is how can we make our democracy more secure, or, in other words, what other forms of democracy could we move towards, and does history hold any clues. I shall be looking at this question on the 13th.

A detailed synopsis for the morning will be placed on this blog a few days in advance of 13th August.

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