What books are a good antidote for “snowflake syndrome” which afflicts some young college students who can’t handle disagreement, trigger words, or ideas that offend them. Perhaps stories about real oppression will engender gratitude for the light and momentary troubles they suffer now. Perhaps these books will remind you of the totalitarian impulse that resides in all ideologues.
A Visit to North Korea
A little vicarious trip to a North Korean prison camp is enough to make you thankful even when the Taco Bell drive-through gets your order wrong. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West tells the story of a young man, Shin Dong-hyuk, born in a political prison camp, who is the only person known to have escaped from one. The conditions in the camp turn everyone against family and friend in a fight for food and survival. Shin even turns in his own mother and brother, who are executed for plotting to escape.
Even though he was the informer, Shin is tortured because of the sins of his family. He experiences no kindness or love for most of his life, till he finally meets a once-important man who tells him of the outside world and who helps him escape by inadvertently sacrificing his own life. Every part of this story is harrowing: the brutal treatment of the prisoners, the prisoners’ bestial impulses, the escape from the camp, and Shin’s life after he leaves North Korea. Is it possible for a whole country to be held in the grip of a cruel and inhumane ideology? You betcha. Get a glimpse of what that is like in this book.
A Visit to Soviet Russia
And if you like the same story but in a different venue, you can also read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It features the same ideology, same vermin, same soul-crushing conditions as in Escape from Camp 14, just different protein sources in the watery soup.
The True Believer Gets His
The preceding are stories of men caught in the oppressive vise of political systems they themselves do not support. But the truly diabolical element of the fascist and communist systems is how easily even true believers can be ground to dust by such systems’ unforgiving proponents. Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago tells a story of party members applauding Stalin for a full ten minutes because no one wanted to be the first to stop clapping. Finally one man on the podium ceases and sits down, giving everyone else an excuse to quit as well. The man is that night arrested and sent to the gulag with the reminder by his interrogator to never be the first to stop applauding.
Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is a short novel about a faithful Communist Party member who is arrested and interrogated as part of Stalin’s purges of rivals. The protagonist, Rubashov, thinks of his own betrayals of other party members who were in the way and still hopes that the utopia promised may come despite Stalin. He is somewhat sympathetic to the brutality he is subjected to, seeing such ruthlessness as necessary to usher in a future happiness for his countrymen. He confesses to non-existent crimes in the end and is executed.
Confession and then execution is standard operating procedure for true believers—both for those doing the demanding and those submitting to the demands for the greater good. As C.S. Lewis says in God in the Dock (from his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”),
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”