3 out of 4 stars
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On a day like any other, young Wolfgang and his friend Helmut stopped to collect their friend Gunter on the way to school. When he didn’t emerge, a neighbor informed the boys that Gunter and his family “were taken” in the night. This was not uncommon in Nazi Germany — and still, the boys didn’t dream it could happen to their friend.
Wolfgang Mack’s front-row seat to Germany’s slide into dictatorship lends chilling credibility to his 2020 nonfiction book, Parallels in Autocracy: How Nations Lose Their Liberty. For years, the author lived and worked in countries that were faltering due to dictatorship. He witnessed, first-hand, one of the most grotesque power grabs in modern history.
Adolph Hitler appealed to Germany’s dispossessed middle class with incessant lying and repeated promises to “make Germany great again.” He systematically eliminated dissenting judges and journalists, persecuted minorities and terrorized the people of his own nation in shocking ways for over a decade. For a person who has only known freedom, it is impossible to imagine the effects of the day-to-day terror, helplessness and hopelessness of living under this level of oppression.
Hitler was, of course, not alone in his abuses of power. From Portugal and Spain to Argentina and Italy, Mack chronicles his own observations of other dictators and the weak links exploited by each.
The third section addresses US vulnerability to dictatorship. The author’s aim here is not to exert an agenda but to question whether US officials are honoring their oaths to defend the US Constitution. In his own words, from the chapter on the importance of an independent judiciary, “When the judiciary fails to be impartial, or is hindered in doing its job, society breaks down, with either anarchy leading to chaos, or dictatorship leading to oppression.” Mack closes with an important reminder that democracy is, above all, dependent on active participation. Without it, people forget the basic tenets of democracy and don’t notice as it slips away.
Wolfgang Mack is a good writer and an important voice. Drawing on his life experience and a Ph.D. in economics, he communicates a sea of far-reaching information in about 160 pages. Without proselytizing, he uses historical facts to illustrate the unique fragility of democratic government systems.
If you live in the United States and value democracy, you may feel like you are on a runaway train careening toward certain disaster, and no one is pulling the perfectly good emergency brake. The author has lived in the United States with his family for much of his adult life, but he has seen this phenomenon before. His analysis helps make sense of it. He also explains the unique role the economy plays in autocracy and what happens when the government controls the police, the courts and the church.
Mack avoids weighty political science in favor of relatable political parallels that become a map for averting national disaster. I award Parallels in Autocracy 3 out of 4 stars. The book easily deserves a perfect score, on its merits, though I'm precluded from awarding 4 stars because of some recurring comma and hyphen errors. I recommend this book to readers who fear their nation is drifting and to anyone who doesn’t understand why their crazy aunt keeps going to political rallies.
Returning to Hitler for a moment — he had started the war as a diversion from his administration’s atrocities, but he needed assurances that he would retain his power. To secure his reign, he committed the unthinkable and murdered all of his political opponents. How could he get away with this, no matter how distracted the people were? It was in the planning — he had stacked the courts. There was no one left who would hold him accountable.
Finally, Mack reminds the reader not to take democracy for granted. The innocent complacency of good people enables the slow decline until one day, the last of many tumblers falls into position, and an entire nation loses everything. This is a timely and illuminating book.
Parallels in Autocracy
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