Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165
The army and police are seen in most democracies as objective enforcers of law. However, under tyrannical governments, they start serving other agendas, which is why those who carry arms must be “reflective.” Although organizations like the Soviet secret police or NKVD in the 1930s and the SS in Nazi Germany are considered the brutal face of authoritarian regimes, one cannot afford to forget that these outfits did not act in isolation. Snyder notes that these organizations could not have committed their atrocities on a massive scale without the support of local police and “regular soldiers.” For instance, during the Great Terror in the Soviet Union during 1937-38, the NKVD “recorded 682,691 executions of supposed enemies of the state,” a campaign whose sheer scale could not have been achieved without “the assistance of local police forces, legal professionals, and civil servants throughout the Soviet Union.”
Therefore, those empowered to carry arms must be reflective and question the unfair orders they are being asked to carry out. According to Snyder, “every large-scale shooting action” in Nazi Germany, such as the execution of thirty-three thousand Jews outside Kyiv, was carried out by regular German soldiers. While some of these soldiers killed out of genuine conviction, many others killed out of conformity or fear. In the rare cases in which the soldiers refused to murder Jews, they were in fact not punished. Soldiers and police should therefore be loyal to the country and its people rather than to authoritarian rulers.
“Stand out. Someone has to.” Snyder’s eighth lesson invokes the importance of basic dissent, recalling the examples of those like Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks, whose singular action of refusing to move to what was known as the “colored” section of a bus broke from the status quo. Too often, people are set on maintaining the status quo, even when it is glaringly unjust. According to Snyder, although European and American nations built a postwar narrative of unfailing defiance to Nazi forces, the truth is somewhat different.
In the 1930s, the dominant attitudes towards the rise of Hitler were “accommodation and admiration,” as per Snyder, with popular American figures like Charles Lindbergh opposing war against Germany. The war only began when one nation—Poland—decided to fight back, “activating agreements that brought Great Britain and France” into battle. When France fell, Hitler expected Britain to withdraw from the war. However, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s insistence on continuing to fight the Germans changed the course of the war. Hitler decided to attack the Soviet Union, its ally at the time, and the Soviet Union switched sides and allied with Great Britain, which began to tilt the balance against the Nazis. Had Poland—and subsequently Britain—not resisted Nazi forces, the course of history would be very different.
It is not just nations but individuals as well who resisted the Nazis. Snyder describes the example of Teresa Prekerowa, who was a high schooler in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, when the Nazis invaded her country and forced Warsaw’s Jewish residents into crowded, designated ghettos. Most non-Jewish Poles “quietly allowed their Jewish friends to slip away from their lives,” but Teresa did not look the other way. Instead, she regularly brought in food and medicines to the Warsaw ghetto, at risk to herself. In 1942, she helped her brother’s friend—and the friend’s family—to escape the ghetto, saving them from certain death. Only a few months later, the Nazis carried out their “Great Action,” deporting ghetto residents to the death camp of Treblinka. As an adult, Teresa Prekerowa, a scholar of the Holocaust, called her actions in the 1940s normal, but from history’s perspective, her actions proved “exceptional.” “She stood out,” Snyder notes.
Thinking before using borrowed and manufactured phrases is lesson nine. Tyrants such as Hitler often deployed language as a weapon to delegitimize opposition. By mimicking such artificial language, people normalized Hitler’s agenda. In contemporary times, the threat of pernicious language is manifold because of the proliferation of digital and social media. According to Snyder, the fast-moving stimulus of television and social media brings people into a “visual trance,” where it is easy to absorb false messaging and borrowed phrases, such as President Donald Trump’s repeated use of “libels” to describe criticism.
The antidote to the trance is consuming language through different media, such as books. Books open up the kind of critical thinking tyrants fear, which is why dystopian classics such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 describe banning books as a prominent feature of totalitarian regimes. Unlike the characters in Orwell and Bradbury’s texts, contemporary citizens still have the option to read books and expand their understanding of language, society, and human nature, so they must exercise that choice.
Snyder’s recommended reading list includes novels including Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. He also recommends non-fiction titles, many of which influenced his own writing, such as Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt and Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. For practicing Christians, he suggests returning to the “foundational book,” the Bible, whose ideas about the importance of truth and justice are “very timely.”
Chapter 7 continues the theme of following one’s professional ethics, but this time in the context of the army and the police. Though the professional conduct of a judge or a doctor is subject to universal standards, the role of militaries may appear ambiguous because of the fallacy that the ruler of the moment is equal to the nation. However, soldiers must remember that governments do not subsume nations and that their loyalty is to the country, which is composed of its people. Therefore, any action which endangers innocent people has to be viewed with suspicion. The SS of Nazi Germany had the support of local police in their genocidal campaign, but Snyder asks what would have happened if local police had simply refused to carry out the orders of the SS. History shows that in the rare cases this actually did occur, the police officers were not punished. Thus, contemporary military and police forces can learn from history’s example and follow the moral code of people and nation above partisan politics.
An underlying theme through the text is the importance of paying attention to language. By using language thoughtlessly, individuals allow tyrants to put words in their mouths. Authoritarians are fond of using phrases which are emotionally resonant but semantically empty. They deploy language that is bombastic, rhetorical, and meaningless, such as Hitler’s concept of a singular mythical “people” or Trump’s derision of “fake news.” Such language deliberately seeks to obfuscate, erasing the critical difference between truth and lies. For instance, when Hitler claimed to speak for “the people,” anyone questioning him was positioned as anti-people. When everyday people start using the language propagated by tyrants, they also legitimize their inflammatory politics.
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