Why do Hitlers succeed?
Understanding the role of Indoctrination and Propaganda in Governance
To understand the success of Totalitarian regimes globally in history and in current times it is very important to understand a phenomenon that has emerged as a common thread between all of them.
Elie Wiesel in his book, ‘Night’, while describing his experience as a Holocaust survivor remarks,
“Can men and women who consider it normal to assist the weak, to heal the sick, to protect small children, and to respect the wisdom of their elders understand what happened there? Would they be able to comprehend how, within that cursed universe, the masters tortured the weak and massacred the children, the sick, and the old?”
He questions if people will be able to comprehend what happened in Auschwitz.
I remember first learning about the Holocaust as a teenager. I remember being in absolute shock that something like that could have happened just 60 years ago. It was rather easy to imagine someone like Hitler could exist, for individuals can go astray and can be evil. But imaging that millions of people supported him, pulled the trigger for him, believed in him, and believed in his ideals was the biggest challenge. I couldn’t fathom what could be so powerful that it altered the wisdom of millions.
Years later as I learned more about the concepts of indoctrination and propaganda, what must have happened in Nazi Germany, started to make sense.
The success of authoritarian regimes is deeply rooted in their ability to take away people’s rational faculties, to isolate them, to turn them against each other, to instill a feeling of distrust among communities, to make them believe they are different from the rest, to introduce the idea of ‘the other’ and to curb dissent. The anarchy this creates within society is then supplemented by the eccentric personality of a Great Leader. They are presented to be the Messiah who is there to address the woes of the majority. After establishing the legitimacy of the Great Leader, the process of making the public believe in the absolute righteousness of their vision begins. This resounding faith in the Great Leader coupled with crushed dissent results in people slowly losing their ability to critically think about all that they are being told. Once this happens they no longer function as human beings, but as robots. Words like justice, liberty, community, freedom all get redefined according to the Great Leader.
This Great Leader can be one person like Hitler in Germany, one family like that of Kim in Korea, and even a party like the Communist Party in China.
The North Korean regime has been a gross violator of human rights. While reading stories of those who have defected from North Korea, one can understand what happens in the most isolated and rogue nation of the world. However, the brutality, injustice, and the inhuman condition of North Koreans are seldom the most surprising part about life in North Korea.
In her book, The Girl with Seven Names, Lee Hyeon- seo describes the harrowing journey she undertook to flee from North Korea and reach South Korea via China. It took her ten years to be finally free. She recalls a particular incident from her childhood. One night their house caught fire. The entire family ran out of the house to be safe. However, after ensuring everyone’s safety, her father rushed back into the burning house. She couldn’t understand why he was doing that. Minutes later when he emerged with two framed photographs, she understood.
North Koreans are mandated to hang two portraits of the founder Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il in their houses. Ms. Lee’s father ran back in the house to rescue those portraits. Part of the reason could have been fear of the repercussions of letting them burn, a part could have been the hope of gaining praise and favors from higher officials and a part must have been ingrained devotion.
I cannot imagine why any rational person would run into a burning building to save portraits of the leaders. But, I guess, when you have lived all your life being blasted with propaganda and have been indoctrinated to worship these leaders, running into a fire to protect their honor seems like the only appropriate response.
I am fascinated to learn how these regimes have been successful in keeping their citizens in such isolation even in this modern world. Journalist, Suki Kim, went to North Korea undercover as an English teacher. She spent three months teaching English to Computer Science students at Pyongyang University, the best university in the country. An astonishing statement she made about her experience has been a subject of rumination for me. She said,
“They were Computer majors, but, they did not know the existence of the internet. They had never heard of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Facebook, Twitter, none of those would have meant a thing. And I, could not tell them.”
The most surprising thing about life in North Korea is people’s compliance, with oppressive and unjust policies and rules. Most people truly believe the Kims to be some sort of divine Messiahs. During the 1994 famine which resulted in the death of an estimated 3 million Koreans, they truly believed that the Great Leader was starving and eating the bare minimum in solidarity with his countrymen. However, the few people who noticed that his images on Television looking healthy and plump as ever suggested otherwise did not enjoy the freedom to voice their opinion.
But, my surprise at this compliance and belief stems from my fortune of being born into the free world.
Webster defines Propaganda as ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause. Since birth, when you are exposed to excessive propaganda through slogans, art, theatre, Television, and even School, when you are only told the narrative the Great Leader wants you to know, when History is presented to you in a distorted manner, when you are not given a chance to develop critical thinking, how can you not comply with the word of the Great Leader who is no less than divine to you? When you do not know that your entire life is built of lies, how do you even begin to search for the truth?
Growing up, I read in Social Science books about China’s One-Child Policy. It was common knowledge that this was a drastic step taken by the authoritative government of the nation to control population growth. While I had been aware of it since a very young age, I had never stopped to think about what it must have meant for the Chinese then or how the government of the most populous state in the world would have pulled this off. A few months ago I came across this documentary called ‘One Child Nation’. It follows filmmaker Nanfu wang, who returns to her village in China to learn how the generation of her parents felt about the One-Child Policy and what it was like to have children in the 1980’s China.
To say I was devastated to discover the harsh reality of what happened during that time would be an understatement.
One midwife who now runs a fertility clinic to help couples conceive was forced by the government to conduct abortions. She recalls having performed over 50,000 abortions, a number she clearly remembers out of guilt. If some people did not get an abortion, the Officers of the State would come and take the child away. Some of them, out of fear and to avoid being fined, would themselves abandon small children and leave them on the streets to die.
Peng Wang, a visual artist, while working on a project regarding waste disposal in China, came across a garbage bag that looked suspicious. Upon investigation, he found out that it was an infant wrapped in multiple bags. He photographed hundreds of such places where people would dispose off infants.
Even though officially twins were exempted from the policy, there are stories of twins being separated and one of them being taken away by the officials. The family would be asked to pay fines amounting to 2000–20000$ to get them back. The poor families in villages could not afford to pay such hefty fines. Among all this, China allowed International Adoption for the first time. These children that people from the West were adopting were said to have been abandoned outside the doors of orphanages. However, the reality was different. It was a racket being run by some families that later had the alleged involvement of the government as well. Some of these children were picked up from the street by drivers, garbage collectors, etc. and exchanged at the orphanage for 100–200$.
There was a network of workers in every village who were responsible for the systematic implementation of the party’s mission by spreading the message by painting slogans on walls, putting up posters, and conducting sterilization, abortions, etc. Grand ceremonies were conducted to reward workers who achieved their targets and displayed exemplary service to the party.
While learning about these details was gruesome, my biggest surprise came in the description of the indoctrination that happens in China. Even people who had children taken away from them stood by the policy and the party. They kept repeating ‘It was policy’, ‘Policy is policy’, ‘We had to do it’. Everyone felt as though they had no choice. They felt compelled to just follow along. They were made to believe that the love for the country was the same as love for the party. The concept of Individual choice was erased and the party choosing for them became the norm.
Children in the ’80s were surrounded by propaganda even before they started speaking. Images and Slogans were painted on walls, printed on cards, calendars, matches, snack boxes, posters. They sang songs in praise of the Policy and party in schools, theatres, street performances, and on television.
The adults did not stop to question the actions of the party and children had been exposed to so much propaganda that they did not possess the rational faculties to question what they were being told.
Totalitarian regimes succeed because they use propaganda to indoctrinate the citizenry. Teaching a skewed world view to young children in schools, advertising your narrative through every means possible, the constant reiteration of your superiority, prejudice, and hate-mongering is known to have a lasting impact on people. Indoctrination is capable of changing public opinion, attitude, and belief. Hitler’s success in convincing millions of the need to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth lies in this. The Kim family’s success in maintaining power while violating human rights lies in this. China’s success in implementing such policies and retaining excessive control lies in this.
Indoctrination doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long, constant, and slow process. Rewriting history and erasing the existence of a different world before the rise of the Great Leader are important components. People are stripped off of any resource which can help them gain information beyond propaganda. By some miracle, if they do gain information that is capable of creating instability in the Great Leader’s regime, they are struck down with a heavy hand. The media is either state-owned or state-sponsored. The few that refuse to bow down to the Great Leader are shunned for being anti-national. All media houses can be heard parroting the same narrative as directed by their handler(s) in the government. Abuse of power to curb dissent is very prevalent in such societies.
What makes Indoctrination so powerful and scary is that it is almost invisible till the time it manifests itself into something like genocide. Even if you live in the free world, you are surrounded by propaganda. States are constantly using it to control people and retain power. Now more than ever, it is important to not be blinded by what leaders and parties are telling you. It is important to critically evaluate the information you are being provided.
Democratically elected Governments are capable of turning totalitarian if left unchecked. Not only is it important to value the freedom we have today, but it is also needed for us to use that freedom to advocate for those who don’t have it. The silence of the rest of the world to the woes of people living under totalitarian governments also facilitates those in power to continue with their problematic ways of oppression and exploitation.
We owe it to our histories to protect our hard-earned freedom and fight for those who do not have it.