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How could these regimes send both a message of terror, and, one of "we are the best government on Earth"?

A totalitarians regime like USSR or Nazi Germany would push hard for not letting criticism against them spread, neither in the mainstream nor through any communication channels, including informal conversations.

However, at the same time, they would pass the message that messing with the government is not very wise, unless you are suicidal. You better do exactly as you're told.

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    Simple: They maintain they achieve the best results because of their strictness. – WBT Jan 2 at 16:26
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    Why restrict to XXth century totalitarian regimes ? History of oppression starts much before, until 1790 it was just the standard way to govern, it is hard to make the people politically organized. – reuns Jan 2 at 17:42
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    Totalitarian regimes typically allow some criticism. Even the Nazis had a very mixed record of imprisoning or executing critics vs. seemingly ignoring them. As long as a critic isn't convincing very many people, or their arguments can be misreported in a way that makes them look like idiots, they may actually benefit the regime by creating the appearance of freedom of speech, acting as a relief valve for political pressure, and convincing people that their critical opinions are actually minority viewpoints. – user560822 Jan 2 at 20:57
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    A statement repeated countless times becomes truth. That's a basic principle which works everywhere, not only in totalitarian regimes. – Askar Kalykov Jan 3 at 12:19
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    Note that totalitarianism doesn't necessarily require fear, or even rampant oppression. A totalitarian system is one in which there is only a single source of authority that has no enforced limitations on the exercise of its power beyond simple physics. The subjects may or may not be afraid of this authority depending on circumstances. – Perkins Jan 3 at 21:08

12 Answers 12

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Enemies

These governments designate or invent internal enemies, not just external ones, to justify repressive measures and to rally the rest of the population around the regime. An external enemy can do some of that, but it does not fully explain the Gestapo or NKVD.

  • Actions of the enemy can be used to explain internal economic failures.
  • The enemy justifies surveillance and terror against the own population because he might be hiding somewhere.
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    Sounds like the place I live, lets spy on everyone and strip every right they have because there might be a terrorist somewhere that we funded and created 30 years ago – john doe Jan 3 at 21:25
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    I'd add that in the typical narrative, the enemies are "them others" such that at least the majority of the population should not feel targeted (unless they are clever enough to see through it). Once the government actually moves against you,it will make sure you are perceived as one of "them others". Depending on the individual's popularity that might just mean hanging a note to the door or telling the neighbours it was a X or denouncing and killing the person's reputation publicly and before taking physical action. – Frank Hopkins Jan 4 at 1:09
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@o.m.'s response is very good. I would add that totalitarian regimes are also good at confusing their citizens, to the point where they can believe completely contradictory things. For example, in USSR, people genuinely believed they are in the best of all worlds (give or take), but also generally knew that any "wrong" action would be cruelly punished.

Obviously doesn't work with everyone, but works with many people.

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    The same also applies to the right-wing US attitude of "love it or leave it" and describing political opposition as traitors simply for failing to support the incumbent government, whilst paradoxically praising democracy. Whilst the US as a country cannot be described as totalitarian, all people espousing this viewpoint are explicitly aiming for their country to become totalitarian. The same has been used recently with the UK Brexit situation, where a government without overall control has presented their unwillingness to compromise as their opposition being traitors. – Graham Jan 2 at 11:11
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    As someone who has lived in a ~totalitarian regime (Warsaw Pact 'independent' state) I think US is still very, very far away from that. You have strong independent courts and a free press ;) Anyway, my core point was rather that totalitarian states may simultaneously say "we love our citizens", and yet the citizens know they have no rights. They are used to a "doublethink" - I hear I am loved, I echo the propaganda, and also I know I am hated. What you describe is "mere" hypocrisy, as in "democracy is fine as long as we win". – Bennet Jan 2 at 11:18
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    "totalitarian regimes are also good at confusing their citizens, to the point where they can believe completely contradictory things." - China is paying for the tariffs (and Mexico is paying for the big, beautiful wall) – Mawg says reinstate Monica Jan 2 at 11:29
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    @Bennet ... In the UK where I live, there is little real press freedom. The majority of papers are owned by a tiny number of right-wing oligarchs. The supposedly-impartial BBC has demonstrated significant (and independently-documented) bias in favour of the incumbent government; and in revenge for what little independence they have shown, the newly-elected government is intending to apply punitive funding cuts. The judiciary are independent, but the current government have literally described them as traitors for opposing illegal actions and are considering reducing their power. – Graham Jan 2 at 12:04
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    @Graham I am actually also lucky enough to live in the UK! Don't get me wrong, the things you and "Mawg says reinstate Monica" are bad, anti-democratic, and I am against them (though I'm less clued up on the US side of things). But a totalitarian government would pursue you ruthlessly for comments like this, possibly beat you up or worse. There would be no independent judiciary, no civic organisations to back you up. No Stack Exchange to exchange opinions publicly. No opposition parties. Civic activists would be beaten up or murdered. It's not that bad right now... – Bennet Jan 2 at 13:34
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To expand on o.m.'s answer, consider the fictitious country of Oceania from the book 1984, where the story is set. Oceania is constantly at war, just the details change from time to time

Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. A large part of the political literature of five years was now completely obsolete. Reports and records of all kinds, newspapers, books, pamphlets, films, sound-tracks, photographs--all had to be rectified at lightning speed. Although no directive was ever issued, it was known that the chiefs of the Department intended that within one week no reference to the war with Eurasia, or the alliance with Eastasia, should remain in existence anywhere.

A common bogeyman for many totalitarian governments is the United States. Venezuela blamed the US for widespread power outages

Maduro claims that U.S.-backed cyber “sabotage” prompted the six-day power cuts in his crisis-wracked country.

“Donald Trump is most responsible for the cyber attack on the Venezuelan electricity system,” Maduro said in a broadcast. But experts said the powercut was more likely caused by technical problems in the link between the country’s hydropower plants and the power grid.

North Korea blamed the US for a widespread Internet outage

"The United States, with its large physical size and oblivious to the shame of playing hide and seek as children with runny noses would, has begun disrupting the Internet operations of the main media outlets of our republic," the North's National Defense Commission said in a statement.

Vox even got a hold of a North Korean propaganda book, which asserts that South Korea is enslaved by the US

From the first day of their occupation of South Korea, the US imperialists followed colonial enslavement and military base policies. In fact, all the policies adopted by US imperialism were, without exception, related to its aggressive design to convert South Korea into a colonial military base and use it as a stepping-stone for the conquest of the whole of Korea.

This has a couple of benefits

  1. The State is no longer your enemy, but is protecting you from something worse.
  2. These people are the reason life is so bad where you are. The lack of basic resources? Them, not us!
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    I'm not sure it's a bogeyman if the US considers itself to actually be an enemy to those states. Perhaps it is a scapegoat for acts it wasn't involved in. – James Jan 2 at 15:58
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    The US has no obvious reason to disrupt the Venezuela power grid. It's possible on the North Korean Internet, but everyone (outside the DPRK) can see the South Koreans are clearly not American slaves. – Machavity Jan 2 at 16:04
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    It openly wishes to change the government in Venezuela, so that would be a reason to destabilize it. Still, I agree that isn't evidence in itself. I think the term "colonial enslavement" isn't literal slavery, but more a restriction of independence in foreign and trade relations. South Korea did very well out of it. I don't think the maintenance of US bases in South Korea is optional. – James Jan 2 at 16:12
  • We make a good bogeyman because we have a long and well documented history of getting caught while attempting interference in other countries, so we're plausible – Morgen Jan 4 at 22:45
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The government is "best" only compared to some other one.

I don't know how Nazi Germany did, but in the USSR and it's satellites people were quite limited in their ability to compare. The information from the outside was filtered and/or outright made up. Travelling abroad was generally restricted to those who are pretty sure their government is best FOR THEM. Travelling INTO these countries from the west was also restricted in similar manner and the contacts with uncontrolled locals were frowned upon.

Almost everyone (me included) assumed that other governments around the world restrict their citizens more or less the same. Or worse, as we had been told.

The only comparison possible was how things were in the past and the government made sure to take all the credit for the generic technology progress that improved some aspects of our lives. 30 years into more or less democratic society we still have plenty of older people that are confident that The Party brought electricity to their homes. (Well, we have also plenty of younger people confident that the party (without capital letters) made the new roads or improved something else)

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    The nazi germany compared themselves often to government/time of the big economic crisis in the late 30s, which hit Germany many times more violently than any other country. (Due to reparations payments to the UK/France/Poland after ww1 taking up the majority of the counties gross product in the 30s). – paul23 Jan 2 at 14:03
  • Looks pretty similar and not really limited to totalitarian states. – fraxinus Jan 2 at 14:31
  • I believe it is wrong to bring up Soviet satellite states here. Most Eastern European Soviet satellites were quite easy to travel to for westerners. And many people had access to western radio and TV programs. Sometimes even in their own mother tongue (e.g. German for East Germans)! – Jan Jan 2 at 17:14
  • @Jan Sure, all these methods were employed to a different degree in different countries and different countries were to a different degree totalitarian also. Then again, in mid- and late 80's I remember unwanted radios (BBC, VOA, etc...) on short waves jammed on a daily basis here in Bulgaria - up to a point of BBC broadcasting a recipe for directional antena made of kitchen aluminium foil (based on the wrong assumption that it was available here). TV? VHF/UHF is pretty short range and also jammed where applicable (Cuba, up to affecting Florida residents). Mail inspected piece-by-piece. – fraxinus Jan 2 at 18:09
  • @paul23 „Late 30s“, „majority of the counties gross product in the 30s“)? Certainly not. – lejonet Jan 3 at 2:43
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@o.m. should get the check-doot, but I want to expand on the facets of fear that are used. Animal Farm illustrated the point wonderfully.

  1. The pigs drove Farmer Jones off of his farm, then convinced the other farm animals that the reason Farmer Jones was trying to retake the land (backed up by other humans) was because they feared that all farm animals would get the idea to rebel against their masters. This created fear in the farm animals on Animal Farm, but also provided a driving cause: they were the prototype for true freedom.

  2. When the two pigs who founded Animal Farm (Napoleon and Snowball) start arguing about the future of the farm, one of them drives the other off by way of violence. Animal Farm is told he was a secret spy of the humans, and suddenly, everything that goes wrong in the community was the fault of Snowball the pig sabotaging things, even going so far as to rewrite history such that Snowball was always the cause of their problems. This creates fear of the 'other' and also serves to bind the animals of Animal Farm together in fighting against a common enemy.

  3. Napoleon further uses the spectre of Snowball to insinuate that there are other 'moles' in the community, and uses this to execute anyone who dares oppose him as part of Snowball's faction. Now the animals can't even trust each other, only Napoleon.

  4. Now that they can only trust Napoleon, he uses propaganda to get them to deny what their own eyes are seeing. The farm starts going to shit, but the animals are convinced that everything is better than ever, and those that see things as they really are are rounded up as Snowball's spies and executed.

All four of these use fear of enemies, but in slightly different ways, walking a tightrope to both praise the state as heroic and best while demonizing this nebulous outside force that is both too strong and laughably weak.

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Propaganda

I just listened to Arsenals of Folly which was excellent and had some information I hadn't heard about from the inside of the USSR. Apparently Gorbachev grew up on a farm. Stalin caused famines and tortured people. He instituted policies where farmers only got to keep food after they provided their quota to the government, and the quota was impossible to meet. You could get shot for eating an ear of corn that you grew on your own farm.

But most of the people thought it was corrupt local officials. They thought if Stalin knew what was going on that he would have fixed the problems. But they had no way to contact Stalin, and all they heard was from the one station their government-created TVs and radios were created to receive.

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As stated by o.m., that there was typically a strong element of "we are the better than the alternative" at play.

The entire carrot and stick approach, is, I think, nicely encapsulated in the following propaganda poster.

Axis propaganda postcard

Honor, Freedom, and Bread is the exact message (which sounds awkwardly like the Bolshevik line of "peace, bread, and power to the soviet"). Honor relates to upholding the diktat of the state, freedom relates to the fear of being conquered by the enemies of the reich, and bread relates to the economic capabilities of the state that may be threatened both within and without. To really hammer home the message, it sets the symbol of the state (the swastika) ensnared in no-mans-land. Honor, Freedom, and Bread consequently are tied directly to a conflict to protect the state.

Other propaganda from other regimes follow similar devices (although they might not be quite as on the nose).

Soviet propaganda

Here's a Soviet propaganda poster from Leningrad which declares "We never surrender the gains of October!" (October in this case relates to the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917). Same message: everything that you hold dear is predicated on the survival of the regime.

And a much more recent example of Baathist propaganda from Iraq, which very clearly shows Saddam Hussein as the only thing standing between peace and chaos.

saddam hussein propaganda

Of course there's a whole separate line of propaganda which show totalitarian regimes as being the best forms of government, typically by highlighting real or imagined economic prosperity that has been achieved under its auspices. This type of propaganda tends to entirely leave out a message of fear though.

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Exceptionalism

The creation myth of most powerful states involves the belief that the people within it are somehow special - pure, immune to contradiction and perhaps divinely ordained. Often this means that the system they live in is also beyond reproach because to reject that means to also reject being special, and part of the group. How strong this feeling is depends on how embedded the creation myth is. Insecure states use violence to embed to need to feel part of the group.

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I think you are overstating both the "fear" and the "better than any other countries" aspect. The reality might be a bit more subtle.

Except in the first and the last year of Nazi rule, Nazi Germany was not particularly terroristic towards the majority of the population (those that were not Jews and were not active opponents of the regime). Stalin's post-1937 terror was seen as an exception afterwards. Post-WWII Eastern Europe was not a particularly scary place to live.

I am more familiar with 1980s Eastern Europe, so I will ignore the other examples.

I believe that these regimes fit the description as "totalitarian" reasonably well. However, there are some special circumstances that do not really apply to other totalitarian regimes, i.e. Soviet military hegemony. So these regimes are a bit of a special case.

How did they communicate that they are the best governments?

First off, you do not need to be the best government in every aspect. Being better in some crucial areas while not being abysmal in other crucial ones is OK.

And you can to a certain degree warp your people's perception of the severity of problems in other countries via media. That even works in a free press environment: you can have Americans convinced that Sweden is a total hellhole and Swedish people convinced about similar things re. America.

Eastern Europe had a high level of social security (no unemployment, no homelessness, no drugs) and low prices for basic commodities such as food and rent. Consequently, reporting about Western Europe constantly emphasized social problems. Eastern Europe had a constant lack of consumer goods and you had to. wait years to own a car or a telephone connection at home. Eastern Europeans could not travel the world. But are that not mere inconveniences compared to the danger of losing your home due to unemployment, or your children due to drugs?

Secondly, even if other countries are demonstrably better-off, it may still be possible to find reasons that any other government could not have done better in your own country.

E.g. after WWII, Western Germany got economic aid from the US, while the East got Soviet work crews that would move anything of value to the Soviet Union. Up to the railway tracks that were dug up and moved away. The first point (U.S. economic aid) was often played up in the media. The second one not so much for obvious reasons, but it was part of living memory.

Thirdly, people tend to be complacent and get used to a lot of things. The opposition was not able to organize, did not get access to the media and there were no opinion polls.

An individual may know that it is discontent with the state of affairs. But most people also know that there are always people who are content and people who are discontent. How does the individual know whether it is part of a vocal minority (in which case it would be dangerous, pointless and maybe unethical to openly show her/ his opinion) or part of a large majority?

This "silent majority" argument is still quite often used today, e.g. in Russia or until recently in Hong Kong. Though in the case of Eastern Europe in the 1980s, it was quite obvious that serious discontent was widespread among the population.

What about the "fear" aspect?

Of course the population was also controlled via fear. Just that this fear did not come in the form of prison or death, but in the form of educational or professional opportunities being denied for people who did not pay sufficient lip-service to the regime. I.e. such people would be denied the opportunity to attend university, which would only make them eligible for low-level jobs. Or if people who already had started their career were becoming rebellious, they would lose their jobs and be relegated to very low-level positions. E.g. engineers to the production line or to a janitor position.

And above this there was the clear message and experience that large-scale revolutionary or even evolutionary political change would not be tolerated by the Soviet Union, as demonstrated in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Finally, since this also seems to be a thread about book recommendations, I would recommend Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which describes all of this much better than I could.

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Strategic reallocation of doubt

Existing fears of death are polarized for political ends, by means of shuffling around the things citizens have doubts about through mass media.

The message of terror enforces the following paradigms:

  • International relations are relevant to you as a citizen, because you will die:

    • There is an ongoing cultural hemorrhaging, manifest as civic unrest, leading to cultural decline.
    • This hemorrhaging can be stopped with ideological unity.
    • Ideological unity is reached by controlling public attitudes.
    • The wrong public attitudes will lead to ideological disunity and loss of ideological territory, which will lead to further cultural hemorrhaging.
    • This will eventually cause the whole culture to decline indefinitely, or to cease existing altogether.
    • This is a de-facto ongoing ideological war.
    • If we win the ideological war, war for territory will not happen.
    • If the ideological war is lost, war for territory will commence, because of (insert your favorite repressed region breaking away, OR insert your favorite oppressing faction invading).
    • If this leads to a loss of territory, either the enemy will kill you, or your brothers will kill you, to keep you from dishonoring yourself and your family, which would lead to greater cultural decline and which is unacceptable.
  • These specific qualities are primary to international relations that do not lead to death:

    • Preservation of national cohesion (implying repression of ethnic diversity).
    • Ideological unity (implying repression of speech).
    • An ideological framework that wards off loss of territory (implying repression of foreign or finer-grained native ideologies).
    • The state must survive intact (implying repression/destabilization of citizen-to-government feedback channels).

So these things become "certain" and "obvious" to the average citizen. It's a pretty standard mind-control structure, e.g. a strongly clustered set of concepts with some specific internal polarizations, constructed to nudge a geographic area in a particular direction.

It re-purposes existing doubts (it "leeches off them", in a sense), which are persistent attributes of human existence:

  • I may die some day.
  • I don't know why I'll die becomes I will die for defecting, or valiantly defending the homeland in a war.
    • (And not "I'll only know for sure when I'm dead.")
  • I don't know what to belief becomes this ideology is essential to survival.
    • (And not "I am responsible for my beliefs, and how I act on them.")
  • I don't know how to agree to disagree becomes ideological disunity is treason.
    • (And not "Proper forms of disagreement are more important than any one agreement." - the rule "Disagreement leads to death." is followed.)
  • I don't know who to trust becomes trust us, we're at war and this is the enemy.
    • (And not, "I am responsible for who I choose to associate with, and on what basis.")
  • I don't know what to think becomes ideological deliberation is treason - don't think, just act.

These patterns of thought may not be harmful per se, but they are certainly at risk of causing a lot of harm when they're the only legally allowed system of thought in a region.

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If you are the perfect government for the people, then it makes sense that any criticism is, by its very existence, an willful attack upon the well-being of the people - whose will the perfect government is serving - and deserves harsh and quick punishment, to protect the people.

The bad actors don't even really need to be foreign agents - although it certainly doesn't hurt. I am sure plenty of foreign enemies were real at the start of the French Terror of 1793-4, but I am also confident that it might have well proceeded without them if another trigger had been found. Repression for the good of the people can be an entirely internal dynamic, just a bit harder to justify. Once it gets started, it can run for quite a while.

And kudos for Animal Farm and 1984 answers (even if the AF movie was CIA-bankrolled - Orwell died in 50, movie came out 54). There was no need for exaggeration in AF, book or movie, it was all true.

Orwell was a brilliant, brilliant, man and we have much to thank him for in how we conduct our political affairs.

And although I don't like him much, Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent is a good expose of how you can pull off some level of tricks even with a free press, by repetition and relative weighting of facts. Sure, he gives the USSR a free pass in it, but what did you expect from him?

  • It's Manufacturing Consent, actually. – Quora Feans Jan 5 at 12:52
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Because the terror is promised to be temporary. The driving thought, present in every person, and promoted in totalitarian regimes, was identified succinctly be Solzhenitsyn:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.

Stalin and Lenin always just had to kill a few thousand more people and then the Socialist paradise would materialize.

It is obviously uncomfortable for citizens to be under a greater amount of oppression, but paying taxes is also uncomfortable. The difference is in degrees of oppression, and the argument can be made that the greater the oppression, the greater the achievement that can be made by a nation.

People, after all, do not seek comfort and freedom above all else (or else no one would ever get married and none of us would be here), but a higher cause. The Soviets were fully convinced they were bringing about a great new era for the whole world to enjoy, and that the violence would be temporary. In fact, socialist revolutionaries are generally very explicit about the fact that their revolutions will be violent (at least the Bolsheviks of Russia were, I think Mensheviks favored a more peaceful transition through capitalism first). There is a quote from a famous revolutionary that I read in the preface to Dostoevsky's Demons that stated a million heads would have to roll to bring about the revolution, and this was years before 1917.

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