I have written about the blueprint for fascism, and about the fact that there are ten classic steps to closing down a democracy. I have to note with sorrow and alarm the fact that we are now in a time period that also has historical foreshadowings: just as people begin to wake up to the real danger to society and to start to put the pieces together, those who are seeking the crackdown begin to escalate the assaults on democracy and make them more shocking. You saw this in Italy in the 1920s and Germany in 1931–33 as well. This period is truly a dual race against time — the leaders seeking to shock and disorient a population before they can mobilize effective resistance, and the population struggling to 'get it' in time to take appropriate action. Unfortunately, historically, the leaders in question have the tactical advantage. (There are exceptions but they are based on citizens waking up in time; Pakistanis, for instance, who were alert to the classic warning signs of such a shift — hello America, the effort to put cronies in positions of power in the legal system and the judiciary, and the push to criminalize speech — just pushed back aggressively as their own martial crackdown started to unfold and Musharraf is now on the defensive).
When I was researching the book, the general principles that leapt off the pages of history, about how leaders crush an open civil society, were alarming enough. Knowing 'the blueprint' was shocking as I looked around at what was unfolding in America, because it was so predictive. From reading German history, which shows how a 'fascist shift' is engineered by expanding the definition of 'terrorist' increasingly to include citizens that look more like you and me (a tactic imitated by Stalin, the East German Stasi, the Chinese Politburo and now the Egyptians, who are referencing the Patriot Act as they round up opposition leaders and put them in jail) one could tell in fall of 2006, when laws were passed to make Animal Liberation type action against property a form of 'terrorism,' that environmentalists would start to be targeted and tried as terrorists — which actually happened by March of the next year.
From reading the memoirs of ordinary German citizens such as Victor Klemperer, a French Literature professor, and Count Harry Kessler, you would know that the dismantling of constitutional protections for free speech and other civil liberties by the German Parliament, even before Hitler was Chancellor, led within two years to scenes like the one we saw in Florida this week. Kessler and Klemperer both write movingly about being in a lecture hall in the early days of a fascist ascendancy — when all is still nominally a working democracy — and seeing someone stand up, ask a unacceptable question, be surrounded by thugs and dragged out of the hall. And everyone else — all good citizens — tolerant, educated, inclusive, progressive — sat absolutely still in their seats, just as the audience did in Florida this week. Count Kessler describes his urbane, liberal circle saying just the kinds of things we are saying now: these people are criminals — surely they will be a flash in the pan — the system will right itself — this can't get any worse. Klemperer also describes the hush that descends in his university classroom after such scenes start to play out; he, a Jew, is still teaching — but his students think twice before asking certain questions, just as students in Gainesville are likely now to think twice.
From reading history, one could predict with absolute certainty that within two years of citizens accepting laws that permit the suspension of habeas corpus and the abuse of prisoners by the State, that the State would start to hurt people at home. (I challenge readers to name a single society that has created a network of secret prisons where torture takes place — that then did NOT eventually use force against dissidents, opposition leaders and other members of civil society at home).
So those predictive elements of 'the blueprint' are bad enough. But these are still generalizations — you can intellectualize them away. What really set me aback profoundly, though — actually setting my hair on end at times — was what I have come to call 'historical fingerprints.' These are the moments when the small details of events in fascist crackdowns of the past are so directly echoed by small details — signature details — of events in the present that it is very hard to avoid the hypothesis that someone influential in this administration has rather brilliantly studied history — not just the politics and tactics of fascism but its culture and imagery and language — and is reusing what has been shown to work.
The National Socialists introduced the term 'Heimat' — Homeland. The Bush administration introduced the term 'Homeland,' as in 'Homeland Security,' to take the place of the more neutral 'Domestic' or 'Internal.'
Stalin coined the hyped notion of what he called 'sleepers' or 'sleeper cells' — these were purported to be secret terrorist agents of global capitalism who would pretend to be good Soviet citizens, perhaps for years, but who would rise up at a signal to wreak mass havoc on Soviet society. By 2002 the White House introduced the term 'sleeper cells,' which was not in common usage in America.
Joseph Goebbels pioneered the 'embedding' of reporters with military troops as a way to support favorable coverage; William Shirer was embedded with German troops in the invasion of France and Nazi filmmaker Leni von Riefenstahl was embedded with German troops in Poland.
Early on, Hitler sought legislation that retroactively protected the SS from war crimes. This was a major step to opening the door to the violence against German citizens that followed. The Bush administration has sought to shield its violent interrogators retrospectively from being charged with war crimes.
Lenin set up military tribunals that bypassed the judiciary. Mussolini imitated this and did the same. Stalin imitated Mussolini and set up secretive military tribunals that bypassed the established judiciary. The National Socialists created the 'People's Courts' that bypassed the legitimate judiciary. These courts stripped prisoners of habeas corpus and were characterized by prisoners having no right of appeal.
Stalin pioneered the use of sleep deprivation, extremes of hot and cold, standing (or 'stress') positions, psychological humiliation, the use of dogs, and a separate facility to punish uncooperative prisoners in the Gulag with prolonged isolation. Guantanamo and US-held Iraqi prisons reproduce the same tactics. (By the way, after a few days in a 'standing position,' which you recall Donald Rumsfeld supported, innocent prisoners in the Gulag would 'sign anything.')
Nazi propaganda claimed that Jews hid from arrest in 'mouseholes.' When the scene of Saddam Hussein's capture was presented to the world, talking points, widely picked up by the media, introduced, again, a term that was generally unfamiliar in the US: Hussein had been hiding in what they called a 'spider-hole.'
German troops tormented the imprisoned leader of Austria, Kurt von Schuschnigg, by blasting popular music into his cell day and night; US interrogators do the same with rock and roll in US-held Iraqi prisons.
National Socialists shaved the beards of Jews in streets and in the early days of the secret SA prisons, as a form of psychological humiliation. Incredibly, unbelievably, a US spokesman gave an interview yesterday in the Washington Post about a detention center he oversees in Iraq — where, he seemed to be saying, prisoners could be kept indefinitely at his discretion, a set of guidelines I am struggling to distinguish from those that formally define a gulag or a concentration camp. He proudly told the reporter that moderate Muslim prisoners had forcibly attacked and shaved the beards of more radical Muslims. This would be an act of mass prisoner violence that, if this story is indeed true, would surely have been prevented by US troops unless it was seen as acceptable. Human Rights groups have reported that prisoners in US custody have had their beards forcibly shaved as part of their humiliation in US held prisons.
The Chinese Politburo calls the secret surveillance file that keeps track of the work and private life of every Chinese citizen an 'iron triangle.' Bush referred to his former key group of advisers as the 'iron triangle.'
When the WMD argument ran dry, the White House argued that we had to invade Iraq, a country that was not at war against us, because, the administration claimed, Iraq was a staging-ground for Muslim terrorists to attack us, and because Saddam had massacred ethnic minorities like the Kurds. National Socialists told the German people that the country had to invade Czechoslovakia, a country which was not at war with Germany, because, they argued, it was a staging-ground for Bolshevik terrorists to attack Germany, and the Czechs were butchering ethnic minorities, the Slovaks, Germans, Magyars and Poles.
A US government spokesman, in the wake of the foiled sneaker-bomb plot from London, gave a sound bite that was widely picked up — and one that was unusual, for a government bureaucrat, it its use of dark poetry: if this had gone forward, he said, the world would have stood still. Hitler said of his military plans in 1940–41, that 'When "Barbarossa" begins, the world will hold its breath.'
I will stop there, because this is hard to absorb; but it is no less important for its difficulty.
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Naomi Wolf is the author of The Beauty Myth, an international bestseller; Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood; Misconceptions; and The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from my Father on How to Live, Love and See. Her most recent books are The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot and its sequel, Give Me Liberty. She lives with her family in New York City.
Books mentioned in this post
Naomi Wolf is the author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries