Shadows of Tyranny

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Title: Shadows of Tyranny: Defending Democracy in an Age of Dictatorship
Published by: Douglas & McIntyre
Release Date: August 24, 2024
Pages: 320
ISBN13: 978-1771624244


Twentieth-century novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale conveyed visions of dystopia that evolved out of past tyrannies. They warned that if history doesn't repeat itself, certainly it extrapolates and often it rhymes. In Shadows of Tyranny, an audacious work of nonfiction, acclaimed author Ken McGoogan shows how the current resurgence of authoritarianism in the United States recalls Europe in the 1930s.

In Nazi Germany, a charismatic demagogue contrived to unify right-wing extremists bent on seizing control of the state. The most powerful nation in Europe ran amok, invading and occupying its neighbors. Defenders of democracy had to contend not just with Hitler but with Franco, Mussolini, and Stalin, who together defined the First Age of Dictatorship. Today we have entered the Second Age. With tyrants ruling Russia, China, and North Korea, among other countries, Donald Trump has never met an autocrat he did not admire.

In the 1930s, many welcomed the dictators, resorted to scapegoating, and fanned embers of anti-Semitism into a conflagration. Shadows of Tyranny celebrates those who fought the racist wildfire – soldiers, of course, but also novelists like Orwell and Sinclair Lewis, journalists like Matthew Halton, Dorothy Thompson, and Martha Gellhorn, and singular figures like Hannah Arendt, Norman Bethune, and Winston Churchill.

McGoogan takes a biographical approach to history, creating a montage of individual experience while inviting readers to engage in discovering an overarching narrative. He melds conventional history, political analysis, and literary observation into a genre-busting work of “cautionary nonfiction.”

How does this book differ from others on the same subject?

  • It brings a Canadian perspective to the rise of authoritarianism in the United States – and uses history to suggest what that means to Canada.
  • It is technically audacious – a work of “cautionary nonfiction” – that takes a biographical approach to history.
  • It is key exhibit in Ken’s larger project: Let’s Make History Exciting Again.

Response from Early Readers

“Ken McGoogan’s book is a truly brilliant account of what happens when we let our guard down—when we ignore the signs of deep authoritarianism all around us. An unforgettable trip through our past, present, and potential future.”
Bob Rae, Canadian ambassador to the United Nations

“Raise the red flags! Ken McGoogan’s Shadows of Tyranny is a brilliant examination of what could be – but should never be again: the rise of fascism, the threat of war. His highly literate and clear-eyed look at the parallels between Europe in the 1930s and North America today should be required reading for every Canadian. Sound the alarms!”
Roy MacGregor, bestselling author and Officer of the Order of Canada

“We all need to read Ken McGoogan’s book. It is prescient, terrifying, sober - a clarion call for us to wake up and see the totalitarian monster clanking toward us.”
Patrick Crean, publisher, editor, author of the forthcoming memoir Thank You for Thinking of Us: A Life in Books


The View from Canada

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” —W.B. Yeats

Not long ago, Thomas Homer-Dixon, a prominent public intellectual, warned Canadians that a terrible storm was coming our way out of the United States. The headline over his opinion piece, which appeared in the Globe and Mail early in 2022, read, “The American Polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare.”

Homer-Dixon, founding director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University, argued that all through 2021, Canadians had been preoccupied with COVID-19, healing the wounds of colonization, and climate change. But now, as we entered 2022, “we must focus on the urgent problem of what to do about the likely unravelling of democracy in the United States.”

As a self-described “scholar of violent conflict” for more than four decades and leader for more than twenty years of a centre on peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto, Homer-Dixon is arguably the most authoritative Canadian to sound the alarm. He drew attention to an especially dire portent: the Weimar Republic that governed Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, and then gave way to the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler.

Homer-Dixon discerned worrisome parallels between Hitler’s Germany and Donald Trump’s America. In both worlds, a charismatic leader or demagogue was able to unify right-wing extremists around a political program to seize control of the state. To mobilize followers, that leader told barefaced lies about how internal enemies had betrayed the country. Homer-Dixon might have added that both Trump and Hitler sought to win over less-extreme segments of the populace with specious claims about restoring their countries to some mythical past glory. In both cases conventional conservatives believed they could contain their demagogic leaders, and in both cases their ideological opponents squabbled among themselves and focused on marginal issues that served only to provoke extremism.

In Germany, polarization and demagoguery led to systemic collapse and dictatorship. Donald Trump could be the wrecking ball that demolishes American democracy and clears the way for a different autocrat. Homer-Dixon has called for the creation of a non-partisan standing committee charged with preparing the Canadian government for democratic failure south of the border.

We have yet to hear of any such body—though in August 2023, foreign affairs minister Melanie Joly said the government had been considering a “game plan” in case the US were to elect an authoritarian government in 2024. Other senior Liberals have since indicated that they are actively considering how to cope in the event of another Trump presidency.

Still, despite the spillover of American rhetoric, most Canadians do not regard the rise of the far right in the US as representing a threat to Canada. Like the French in the 1930s, most of us might occasionally raise an eyebrow, but otherwise we just go on about our business.

Yet Homer-Dixon is not the first Canadian to worry. Forty years ago—incredible to think—Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood began warning of the rising threat of totalitarianism. As it happens, I interviewed her in 1985, when she published The Handmaid’s Tale. The story she tells, having been amplified by a TV adaptation, is now world famous: In a not-too-distant future, religious fanatics have taken control of the US Congress and turned much of the country into a patriarchal theocracy called Gilead. Women are powerless, third-class citizens, some of whom, the so-called handmaids, are made to serve as sex slaves and baby-makers.

“It’s an extrapolation of present trends set in the US,” Atwood told me. “It’s as much about the past as about the present. There’s nothing in it that hasn’t actually happened somewhere. Polygamy? Check out the Mormon Church. Public hangings? They were standard in the 19th century.” Atwood offered a hypothetical: “If you were planning to take over the US,” she asked, “what line would you take? . . . My gang says, ‘Let’s have a theocracy.’” She added: “Nothing in my book is pure invention or has been cooked up out of my fevered brain . . . The seeds of my scenario are not lacking.”

Atwood characterized The Handmaid’s Tale as “speculative fiction of the George Orwell variety.” It springs from a subset in “a long tradition of utopias—although in the twentieth century, the vision is much bleaker and utopias have become dystopias.” In this book, I reference visionary works by Atwood and Orwell, and by H.G. Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, and Philip Roth. People have told me that you can’t use the past to predict the future. Fair enough. But I think also of an observation attributed to both historian George Santayana and Winston Churchill: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Shadows of Tyranny notes the growth of alt-right fascism in the US while telling the story of what happened in Europe in the early to mid-twentieth century. In the 1920s and early 1930s, a few people did see fascism rising. A few sounded the alarm, warned that fascist dictatorship posed a threat to the democratic way of life. But too many remained blind until shamefully late in the day—among them Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Others said yes to the totalitarian juggernaut, took to scapegoating, and fanned the embers of anti-Semitism into a conflagration.

Collective hysteria has been known to arise closer to home, as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn pointed out in her 1988 book The View from the Ground. Looking back at the 1950s, she wrote that, for four years, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy ran the US like “a devil king.” She likened his American purges to those of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union in the 1930s—though where McCarthy destroyed livelihoods, reputations, and careers, Stalin had people murdered. His purges were more like those of Adolf Hitler, whose “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934 saw at least eighty-five men executed without trial.

Against that background, the narrative of this book celebrates those people who refused, rejected, and opposed—those who resisted. It follows them from the obliviousness of the 1920s through the stunned awakening of the 1930s, and on into the nightmare horror of the 1940s. It honours those who defied the would-be dictators— heroic men and women of all nationalities who risked their lives to fight fascism, Nazism, communism—in brief, to battle totalitarianism in all its forms.

We track George Orwell, of course, but also journalists like Matthew Halton, Dorothy Thompson, and Martha Gellhorn, philosophers like Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, and such hard-to-classify, multi-faceted figures as Winston Churchill, André Malraux, Norman Bethune, and William Stephenson. And we do so in the hope that a generation of equally courageous people will step forward in the days ahead should the need arise.

Framed by events of the present day, the main narrative comes to us not ex-cathedra, not through a single omniscient voice, but via the stories of heroes and heroines who fought the rise of fascism through the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. They had to contend with Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, who together constituted what I think of as the first Age of Dictatorship. Today we have entered a second such age, a period in which tyrants rule Russia, China, North Korea, and Hungary, among other countries—an era in which Donald Trump has never met an autocrat he did not publicly admire.

In this book, against this backdrop, we take a biographical approach to history, highlighting personal impact and resistance and inviting the reader to engage more fully than usual—indeed to participate in turning a collage into an overarching narrative. Shadows of Tyranny incorporates conventional history, political commentary, literary reflection, and biographical sketches into a work of future-facing or cautionary non-fiction.

Part One, “Slouching toward Bethlehem,” finds people realizing that fascism poses an existential threat. Part Two, “The Spanish Dress Rehearsal,” looks at the Spanish Civil War, when more than forty thousand international volunteers flocked to Spain to fight for democracy. In Part Three, “Invaders, Collaborators, and Scapegoats,” Adolf Hitler overruns countries that neighbour Germany and finds collaborators willing to join him in targeting innocent Jews.

Part Four, “Here Come the Canadians,” tracks the stories of those who, while not themselves immediately threatened, took up the fight against the Nazis. Part Five, “The French Resistance,” celebrates the French citizens who laid their lives on the line. And Part Six intertwines contemporary events and historical narrative while highlighting the need for constant vigilance: “What, Me Worry?”