Nazism, and to a lesser extent communism, continue to fascinate many in the liberal English-speaking democracies. Looking at these totalitarian societies of the past, many have asked the question: “how could it happen?” – most of all in such an otherwise civilised, cultured and advanced country like Germany. This vexed, and still largely unsolved problem elicits both amazement and dread. Why so many cooperated and collaborated with evil? Why such overwhelming majorities seemed to more or less enthusiastically acquiesce? The quest for answers often veered into the territory of pathology; the acceptance of, or merely the surrender to, home-grown or violently imposed from outside tyranny was seen to imply something primitive, broken or perverse about the unfortunate society in question, some underdevelopment or a fatal flaw in the national character. The Russians had always been feudal and barbaric; the Latins were effete, the Germans perhaps sado-masochistic. There is a faint, and sometimes not so faint, whiff of superiority and self-regard about these questions – as well as the proposed answers. For the sneering subtext not infrequently is quite simple: it could never happen here. Judging from such self-assured reactions, in an unlikely event of totalitarian revolution or invasion virtually everyone in a typical Anglo society would have been a member of the resistance. We would indeed have never surrendered.
Perhaps just as well we never got to find out. Geography had accounted for much of that good luck for our island or continental societies; Britain had last been successfully invaded a millennium ago, North America half a millennium. It is also arguably true that the liberal values developed over centuries in England and subsequently exported to four corners of the world would make totalitarianism harder to impose throughout the Anglosphere than in more communitarian and statist societies. But just how much harder is open to debate. Writers have always been more pessimistic than average punters about the possible national responses to modern tyranny, producing many a dystopian alternative history classic in the process, pointedly more so in Great Britain (from “1984” through “SS-GB” to, more recently, “Dominion” and “Liberation Square”) than in the United States (“The Man in the High Castle” being a stand-out), this perhaps on the account of an even greater difficulty of invading America across the oceans, not to mention an even more individualistic and rebellious national character – and the ever-ubiquitous private gun ownership. Perhaps writers as a category are more pessimistic or maybe more observant. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn, someone who knew and understood more intimately life under extremes, once wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”
COVID is not a foreign invasion, except in a most metaphorical of senses, and the surfeit of Nazi comparisons over the past few years should make anyone reluctant to indulge in more totalitarian hyperboles. But large crises are nevertheless illustrative for they reveal how people react to and behave under unusual, even extreme, conditions. Foreign wars, even total ones, like World War Two, are not quite in the same league, because the threat comes from without. In a pandemic, the threat is internal and everywhere, and so more insidious and all pervasive. In that sense, the current pandemic has been quite revealing indeed.
Firstly, there is a realisation that a large section of our societies now automatically looks to (earthly) higher powers for protection from vicissitudes of life. If given a choice between liberty and security, they will always choose the latter – and will happily make this choice for everyone else. The Frankfurt School’s Freudo-Marxist, Erich Fromm, called this phenomenon “the escape from freedom”, and though, as became the man of the left (and a German Jew) he used it to explain the rise and attraction of Nazism, it’s clear that the authority in question can be of any political persuasion, including both the softer Western leftism as well as totalitarian communism. The choice of security, of course, is never thought of as selfish but always for the common good. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this realisation, considering the growing popularity of socialism (whether its fans have an accurate understanding of the concept, or simply equate it with more “free stuff” that “the rich” should be made to pay for, or, for that matter, simply consider it an antithesis of our current political and economic system) as well as the growing dependence on the government in the form of public sector and public-financed jobs and welfare. If not quite the “state worship” to borrow a libertarian put-down, it’s the yearning for the state in loco parentis, where the government is both your daddy and your sugar daddy (or mommy, to avoid sexist language).
Secondly, we now know – having merely, if strongly, suspected in the past – how many in government and in other positions of authority crave significantly more power over others than they have under the normal conditions in a liberal democratic society. This ranges from elected politicians, through bureaucrats (who at the best of times think they know better – than the people and their elected representatives – and should therefore be in charge of everything and everyone), to various experts and technocrats, whose opinions and wishes are not generally respected and followed, certainly not to the extent they find validating. Public health officials, not surprisingly, considering the nature of the current crisis, seem to be particularly enjoying their time in the sun and are reluctant to let go of their new-found prominence and influence – and indirect power.
Thirdly, petty tyranny extends all the way down to ordinary members of society. There are plenty of people who will police new rules and norms: scream at those without face masks, dob in neighbours having one more person in their house than allowed, publicly shame the non-compliant, eagerly lobby for even more onerous restrictions.
The instinct and desires – for power, to control people (all for their own good, of course), to conform, to belong, to be safe – are not restricted to any race, nationality or group. Human nature might not be cookie-cutter uniform, but is nevertheless universal. If we live in fortunate times and fortunate places, we might never experience the depth of emotion or the extremes of behaviour. Extraordinary circumstances and challenges, which occasionally interrupt and disrupt the normal, shake off our comfortable complacencies and reveal “what lies beneath” or behind the veneer. It is not always pretty, but it’s pretty instructive, not to mention often humbling. You are free to imagine yourself a brave warrior and resister; the reality is that in 9 or more cases out of 10 you won’t be if it comes to the crunch. Which is why you should never hope it does.