Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953
Words, gestures, and symbols matter, so the individual must think critically before using populist expressions. When a symbol or term is intended to discriminate or spread misinformation, people must resist it actively. Snyder’s fourth lesson details how the use of symbols and expressions created a distorted reality in twentieth-century Nazi and Soviet regimes. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, prosperous farmers were often depicted as pigs on propaganda posters, a strategy which helped the government turn peasants against landholding farmers and ultimately seize all land from all farmers, leaving them to starve. Marking shops as “Jewish” and “Aryan” in Nazi Germany led to the alienation and subsequent dehumanization of Jews. According to the political scientist Havel, using loaded symbols sets up a system of rules in place, as if in a game. When the rules are adopted, “appearances become reality.” However, if people refuse to play the game in the first place, its corresponding reality may never materialize.
Snyder examines the role of maintaining ethical professional conduct in resisting tyranny. He states that when authoritarians demand an obedience that overrides professional ethics, professionals must defend their values. When professionals abandon these values, the march of tyranny accelerates. For instance, Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer, went on to become the governor general of occupied Poland in 1939 and oversaw millions of untried executions, which are against the principles of jurisprudence.
If lawyers like Frank had followed the doctrine of “no execution without trail,” if doctors in Hitler’s Germany had insisted on the rule of “no surgery without consent” instead of agreeing to experiment on minorities, and if businessman had refused to exploit concentration camp labor, the Nazi regime would have found it much more difficult to commit its atrocities. It is especially during the times when authoritarians pressure professionals to abandon their values for an abstract larger good that professionals must staunchly defend their ethics. By losing their objectivity, getting swept up in the dominant emotion of the moment, and “just following orders,” professionals become an instrument of tyranny.
“Be wary of paramilitaries,” cautions Snyder, referring to armed anti-establishment groups. According to Snyder, in a functioning society, it is only governments who can be legitimized to use force, because they are limited by specific circumstances of use and the checks and balances of law. However, when paramilitary groups become allied with governments and power, they do not submit to any of these checks and balances. In fact, when armed extra-governmental groups gain proximity to power, they act as the violent arm of political outfits, enabling a tyrannical government to establish its dominion. Snyder uses the example of the Nazi SS to illustrate his point. The SS began as a paramilitary group aligned with the Nazi party, and they created a “climate of fear” that helped the Nazis win the elections of 1932 and 1933. Once the Nazis were in power, the SS were responsible for running the concentration camps. As Snyder traces their progression,
The SS began as an organization outside the law, became an organization that transcended the law, and ended up as an organization that undid the law.
According to Snyder, in 2016, this threat is not a distant lesson from history but already a potential reality in the United States. The American federal government uses mercenaries in war efforts and pays corporations to run prisons. Under Donald Trump, this privatization of arms has worsened. In 2016, Trump used his private security team to clear his rallies of opponents and riled up his supporters to exhibit violence against dissenters. According to Snyder, such violent, exclusionary practices lead to the adoption of exclusionary politics by police and military officers, transforming the police and army from relatively independent institutions into the armed hands of the establishment.
In chapters 4-6, Snyder examines the role of propaganda and professionals in quickening the advent of authoritarianism. Propaganda and loaded symbols and phrases should never be underestimated or dismissed as mere words and images. Both linguistic and political theory show that communication plays a role in shaping reality. Indeed, in both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, propaganda preceded an authoritarian state. Snyder’s exhortation is especially relevant in the age of social media, where phrases like “fake news” are used repeatedly until they begin to erode people’s faith in journalism and truth itself.
Czech dissident thinker Victor Havel used the parable of a greengrocer who displays a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign at his window during Communist rule to show how symbols create an atmosphere of fear. Whether the greengrocer believes in the solidarity of workers or not is irrelevant. By displaying the sign, he is affirming his loyalty to the current regime. When the physical atmosphere around us becomes populated with signs of loyalty, like the greengrocer’s sign or the Swastika in Nazi Germany, dissent becomes all the more difficult. People who don’t display such signs begin to be considered anti-national.
One of the pressing projects of authoritarianism is the devaluation of institutions and professions. Snyder astutely suggests that tyrants need this devaluation in order to centralize power. If professions stay aligned with their ethics, they will not submit to another system of power. Therefore, tyrants encourage the dismantling of professional ethics. Secondly, tyrants want to build the narrative that the ruling regime and the nation are one entity. Serving the interest of the regime is the same as being patriotic. When professionals subscribe to this agenda, institutions begin to lose objectivity and democracy begins to crumble. In Nazi Germany, lawyers, physicians, and businessmen were integral to the operations of the SS and the functioning of the Nazi concentration camps. In other words, professions began to act as tools of the government.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support