Thursday, March 19, 2020

Totalitarianism is a Stealth Movement

The retreat of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, especially in America and parts of Europe, has intrigued me for many months. How does this happen? How do good people, including educated people of comfortable means, succumb to it? Are we witnessing the same patterns today that emerged in Germany in the 30s?

My readings led me to buy two books. "Defying Hitler" is a rich memoir of a young German law student of an upper-middle class family who married a Jewish girl. They managed to escape their homeland as the rightwing contagion swept the land. It's definitely worth a read if you can find it in a library or one of the secondhand book dealers.

Today I'd like to turn to "They Thought They Were Free." The author, American Milton Mayer, was of German Jewish descent.  He visited Germany pre-war hoping to get an interview with Hitler. No luck. Following war's end he returned to Germany where he successfully passed himself off as a German national. Mayer cultivated ten "friends" from a cross-section of society and digested these conversations in his 1956 book.

One of Mayer's subjects was a philologist, a person who studies and authenticates literary texts and other written records. An educated and cultured German. I think you will find this fellow's remarks interesting, perhaps even a bit worrisome. Is this a blueprint for what could become of us?

What no one seemed to notice was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider.  
What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it. 
This separation of government form people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. 
...I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was 'expected to' participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one's energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time. 
The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway.  ...I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about - we were decent  people - and kept us so busy with continuous changes and 'crises' and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the 'national enemies,' without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?
To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it - please try to believe me - unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regreted,' that, unless one were detached from the whole process in the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these 'little measures' that no 'patriotic German' could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.  
How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? ...Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis ostai and  Finem respice - 'Resist the beginnings' and 'Consider the end.' But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One most foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?  
Your 'little men,' your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemoller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he ...said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and when they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something  - but then it was too late. 
Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act, or even talk, alone; you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble.' Why not? Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty. 
Uncertainty s a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, is the general community, 'everyone' is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none.  You know, in France or Italy there would be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues some of whom feel as you do' but what do they say? They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist.'
And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise the end? On the one  hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. 
...Your friends are fewer now. Some have drifted off somewhere or submerged themselves n their work. You no longer see as many as you did at meetings or gatherings. Informal groups become smaller; attendance drops off in little organizations, and the organizations themselves wither. Now, in small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things. This weakens your confidence still further and serves as a further deterrent to - to what? It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it. So you wait, and you wait. 
But that one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked. ...But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not be shocked by the next.  
And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying 'Jew swine,' collapses it all at once and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were born in at all.  ...Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.
You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of most uf us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.


Trailblazer said...

And yet?


Toby said...

"They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist.' "

Add to that, "You're a conspiracy theorist." These are all shutoffs, meant to stifle the subject and turn the conversation to important things like the weather or football scores.

In the above piece (very well written by-the-way) one can substitute climate change or neo-liberalism for fascism and the process works. Sometimes there is less pain banging one's head against a wall than in trying to announce, "We have a problem."

The Disaffected Lib said...

I explored Ward's blog, TB. Interesting but a bit on the Quixotic side for my taste. I do agree that human civilization is a product of a vast and continuously changing body of ideologies. He would replace them all with a philosophy. Yet there are many philosophies and what makes his so much more worthy of adoption than any other?

The Disaffected Lib said...

Quite true, Toby. It has been rewarding over the past few years to explore subjects such as progressivism, authoritarianism and the fascism that led to WWII. From the past we can at times make sense of the present and our near future. History may not perfectly repeat itself but the underlying errors are replicated.

The history of the German experience from 1918 to 1939 touches on many of the forces at play in our era. At least as far back as Reagan I have suspected that America's middle class was being quietly groomed or conditioned, manipulated into what we see today. Some argue persuasively that Trump is merely the somewhat unintended culmination of that process.

I'm not sure that neoliberalism mirrors fascism of the past. What we've seen is that neoliberalism can metastasize into a powerful variety of populism bordering on tribalism and the rise of authoritarian rule as democracy wanes.