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How Modern Tyrants Use Terror Management to Consolidate Power

Be ready for an American Reichstag fire when it comes.

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit

Adapted from On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on—this is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it. Modern tyrants are terror managers. Do not allow your shock to be turned against your freedom. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that aspiring tyrants exploit such events in order to change regimes and to consolidate power.
The Reichstag fire was the moment when Hitler’s government, which came to power mainly through democratic means, became the menacingly permanent Nazi regime. It is the archetype of terror management.
On Feb. 27, 1933, at about 9 p.m., the building housing the German Parliament, the Reichstag, began to burn. Who set the fire that night in Berlin? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this spectacular act of terror initiated the politics of emergency. Gazing with pleasure at the flames that night, Hitler said: “This fire is just the beginning.” Whether or not the Nazis set the fire, Hitler saw the political opportunity: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.” The next day, a decree suspended the basic rights of all German citizens, allowing them to be “preventively detained” by the police.
On the strength of Hitler’s claim that the fire was the work of Germany’s enemies, the Nazi Party won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections on March 5. The police and the Nazi paramilitaries began to round up members of left-wing political parties and place them in improvised concentration camps. On March 23 the new parliament passed an “enabling act,” which allowed Hitler to rule by decree. Germany then remained in a state of emergency for the next 12 years until the end of the Second World War. Hitler had used an act of terror, an event of limited inherent significance, to institute a regime of terror that killed millions of people and changed the world.

The authoritarians of today are also terror managers, and if anything they are rather more creative. Consider the current Russian regime so admired by the president. Vladimir Putin not only came to power in an incident that strikingly resembled the Reichstag fire, he then used a series of terror attacks—real, questionable, and fake—to remove obstacles to total power in Russia and to assault democratic neighbors.
When Putin was appointed prime minister by a failing Boris Yeltsin in August 1999, he was an unknown with a nugatory approval rating. The following month, a series of buildings were bombed in Russian cities, apparently by the Russian secret state police. Its officers were arrested by their own colleagues with evidence of their guilt; in another case, the speaker of the Russian Parliament announced an explosion a few days before it took place. Nonetheless, Putin declared a war of revenge against Russia’s Muslim population in Chechnya, promising to pursue the supposed perpetrators and “rub them out in the shithouse.".......

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