By Leslee Kulba- The Tribune’s editor recently shared a column by Harold Pease entitled, “I Lived under Hitler and Stalin: They Delivered Socialism.”
The writer shared the story of R. Sellner Reese, who insisted from personal experience that communism and fascism were different sides of the same coin.
Warning it not only can happen but is already making strides here, her claims were consistent with Hannah Arendt’s classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Arendt was a German philosopher who lived in exile from 1933-1941. Her writings grappled with understanding what causes a once-enlightened person to play-act the outrageous roles required of an authoritarian regime, whether one finds himself perpetrating injustice from the top or submitting to it. In her search, she had to sift through and learn to read a lot of propaganda, as totalitarian regimes tend to write the official story and “liquidate” alternative opinions.
For Russia, she described not being able to, with 200,000 pages of official documents on the subject intact, so much as establish the number, to the nearest million, of victims of the purges – of people, not archives. In Germany, memoirs were written by unwitting tools and self-justifying perpetrators. Even so, having been there, she insists that during the rise of Hitler, the general public was very much aware of “secret” atrocities and yet supported the regime.
Other than a rise to power of a charismatic leader, presumably supported by a cadre or machine that wants to control everything, she sees few similarities in the “forms” of control assumed by the three totalitarians of her era: Mao, Hitler, and Stalin. Drunkenness, incompetence, and neglect loomed largely in Stalin’s reign; but stone-cold sober cruelty marked Hitler’s. Corruption fueled Russia and Germany’s dictatorships, but was essentially absent in China’s.
Sinister movements can actually use crackpottery as cover, gaining adherents while political and intellectual leaders deem them too out-there to go anywhere. Arendt dismisses as bunk claims that totalitarian figureheads possess a supernatural attraction. Their popularity, she says, is not due to the power of, “masterful and lying propaganda over ignorance and stupidity,” either.
One great attractor for totalitarians, and mobsters, is, oddly, boasting about criminality; it is seen as a refreshing alternative to faux piety in high places. By standing up to institutions, including people, in what are viewed as the corrupt halls of power, a rising totalitarian regime captures the attention of large swaths of the population for years resigned to mantras like, “You can’t fight city hall.”
“Outrageous” movements also pull from the outraged, so caution should be exercised to avoid, in attempting to defuse a cult of personality, creating a cult of opposition spewing its own legends and propaganda. The Nazis took advantage of the sincere fervor of extremists on the right and left, as it showed a willingness to sacrifice one’s own soul for a cause.
Totalitarians are also good at community organizing, telling people where they belong in society. Arendt observed the three totalitarian regimes capitalized on dissonance-assuaging dehumanization to facilitate atrocity; it’s the same logic that justifies abortion by claiming, “It’s not human, it’s a fetus.” Arendt claims antisemitism wasn’t so much Hitler’s reason for attacking the Jews as was his selection of a scapegoat.
Another step in organizing is breaking down the ties that bind, in churches and Rotary clubs. Arendt describes this as the creation of the “mass man,” a derivative of “the masses.” Unable to turn to traditional institutions for input and validation, “it is only natural that these masses, in the first helplessness of their new experience, have tended toward an especially violent nationalism, to which mass leaders have yielded against their own instincts and purposes for purely demagogic reasons.”
Once the masses see their only hope for bare necessities is playing Mother May I with the state, leaders guarantee their absolute power by getting whimsical to test loyalty to the regime. The criminality of trusting one’s own perceptions is forced to the extent that, in the case of Stalin she wrote, “One could follow the party line only if one repeated each morning what Stalin had announced the night before.”
Arendt explained why so many Russians to this day consent to live a lie, and that is a presumption of guilt by association. Random people are removed from society, and in order to avoid the same fate, former friends vehemently testify that trumped-up charges are true and that their relationships were purely for espionage purposes. This further atomizes the masses, as associations with anybody could prove fatal.
In more pages than the Mueller report, Arendt describes how totalitarians suck the humanity out of the flesh and blood they don’t destroy to, with Procrustean scientificality, crush creativity and free will and force humans to fit their theories.
“Ye shall know [the first casualty of war], and [it] will set you free.”