Commentary: The hallmarks of tyranny


The German people who became embroiled in, and culpable for one of the most heinous crimes in modern history, were for the most part ordinary, law-abiding citizens with strong Christian values, living under a democracy.  They were certainly not all rabid, hate-mongering psychopaths as is often assumed.  How then could they have become caught up in a nationalistic tyranny resulting in a world war, oppression, and mass murder?

We are still trying to answer this question today.  History points to the humiliation and economic collapse of Germany following its loss in World War I, which left them hyper-vulnerable to the promise of returned economic prosperity and prominence on the world stage.  However, that is only part of the answer.  Hundreds of books have been written on this subject and thousands of discussions have taken place since that time in an effort to understand what it is in the human psyche that allows us to be the only species on the planet that murders its own kind in such numbers.  So far two generations of German descendents consult psychiatrists in an effort to assuage the inherited guilt they feel for the atrocities of their ancestors.

I am certainly no expert, and can offer no definitive answers to this troubling question, but I can say that the methods by which so many good people were persuaded to consent to the unthinkable are universally understood and practiced in many authoritarian societies.  These methods are called propaganda.

Adolf Hitler was able to convince members of the German population still suffering from the economic collapse brought on by WWI and the Great Depression, that the government was incapable of solving their problems, and that the answer lay in the abolition of representative democratic government.  He presented himself as the savior who alone could “make Germany great again,” and by fabricating a national ideology around this assertion.

By blaming and demonizing a racial minority group for all the country’s ills, the Nazis created a set of scapegoats who could be blamed at every opportunity for almost anything.  He was able to tap into a pervasive Christian belief that the Jews had killed Jesus.  He typecast Jewish prominence in science, the arts, philosophy and banking as elitism, and accused them of being a parasitic race intent on destabilizing the economy and culture of the “host” nation.

The suppression and control of the media was and is a hallmark of authoritarian governments such as Hitler’s.  From Communist China and Russia to North Korea and parts of the Middle East, the free press is the authoritarian’s worst enemy, for it has the power to expose “alternate truths” for the lies they are, and to undermine the veracity of the propaganda machine.

Above are only a few of the propaganda hallmarks of tyranny.  They are directed most effectively at those who for one reason or another feel marginalized in society, those who harbor prejudices against, or fear of others who look, act, speak or believe differently, and those who insist that only their world view or ideology or religion is legitimate and must take precedence over all others.

To the authoritarian, finding common ground is seen as a weakness; accountability is an affront.  Only unquestioning servility and adoration are acceptable to the grandiose, tyrannical leader.

We must never deceive ourselves into believing this can’t happen here, and we are at this moment (and for the first time in my 72 years of life) frighteningly close to compromising the very foundation upon which this country was formed.

Maggie Maloney is a Strasburg resident.