Many people imagine that countries with authoritarian regimes are horrifying places, with populations ruled by terror and indoctrinated to blind obedience by some extremist ideology. We think of “totalitarian” systems characterized by prison camps, harsh censorship, enforced conformity, and omnipresent police surveillance. We are reminded of scenes from George Orwell’s novel 1984, or of the faceless obedience of the Empire’s soldiers from Star Wars.
Such dystopian nightmares come to mind whenever someone compares the authoritarians of our own time to those of the early- and mid-20th century. It is absurd and offensive, we are told, to mention Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin when talking about present-day politicians like Donald J. Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, or Recep Erdogan. After all, anyone walking the streets of Washington, Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw, or Istanbul can see that people are going about their business as they always have. They go to the movies and watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters, they take their kids to the park, they work and play as always. Nothing seems to have changed.
I’m writing this in Warsaw, Poland. The streets of the city are filled with ads for products that one would see in any European or American store, and the people are dressed as fashionably as they usually are. As they struggle with the downtown traffic, their minds are focused on work, family, friends, hobbies, sports, and everything else that we would expect from a modern, urban population.
Nothing seems to have changed, even though we are now approaching the end of the third year of rule by the Law and Justice party (PiS). The international press, as well as the domestic opposition parties, regularly describe PiS as an authoritarian movement that is steadily dismantling the country’s democratic system, replacing it with a xenophobic, nationalist regime.
Any casual visitor to Warsaw would conclude that this is hyperbole. The sheer normality of daily life seems to neutralize any attempt to compare PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski with any of the 20th-century dictators. Indeed, it feels like an injustice to the many victims of those regimes to evoke the memory of communism or fascism during today’s political disputes.
The problem is that those who shun comparisons are basing their reluctance on a misunderstanding of everyday life under authoritarianism. Even in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, the vast majority of citizens could go about their lives with few if any encounters with the apparatus of oppression.
Stories about terror, violence, and oppression are compelling, and our history books are understandably filled with such tales. But an unintended side-effect is that we imagine those horrors to characterize everyday life under those systems. From this misunderstanding, we then conclude that whenever such terror is absent, we can rest easy, confident that whatever problems we face are of a totally different nature.
But we must remember that (for example) Hitler’s discriminatory measures during the first five years or so of his rule differed little from the laws and practices of the Jim Crow South. The Nazis segregated Jews within Germany society, deprived them of the rights of citizenship, banned intermarriage, and established regulations that made it impossible for Jews to pursue a range of prestigious careers. Similar discriminatory decrees applied to socialists, communists, gays, Gypsies, and the handicapped. But those who did not fit into any of those categories – that is, the majority of Germans at the time – had little to fear. All they had to do was look away when minorities were denigrated and harassed.
During the communist era in Eastern Europe, particularly after the death of Stalin, incarceration rates were far lower than in the U.S. today. People were poor, but the nations of Eastern Europe had always been poor, and under communism, their lives were steadily improving. Indeed, they improved so much that people in Eastern Europe started to compare themselves to their contemporaries in Western Europe and feel resentment that a gap remained. But unless you were a political activist, a labor organizer, or someone else targeted by the regime, you didn’t need to give a second thought to whether you lived in a democracy or not.
A dictatorship without Auschwitz is still a dictatorship, and a fascist is a fascist even if he never engages in mass murder. These horrors must not be the standards that guide our search for historical comparisons. If one belongs to the majority in a particular society, the death of democracy will not look like a science fiction dystopia. For most, everything will seem just fine. That is the true horror of dictatorship.