How Modern Tyrants Use Terror Management to Consolidate Power

Be ready for an American Reichstag fire when it comes.

The arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin on Feb. 27, 1933.

National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

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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.”

The Russian nation rallied; Putin’s approval ratings skyrocketed; the following March he won presidential elections. In 2002, after Russian security forces killed scores of Russian civilians while suppressing a real terrorist attack at a Moscow theater, Putin exploited the occasion to seize control of private television. After a school in Beslan was besieged by terrorists in 2004 (in strange circumstances that suggested a provocation), Putin did away with the position of elected regional governors. Thus, Putin’s rise to power and his elimination of two major institutions—private television and elected regional governorships—were enabled by the management of real, fake, and questionable terrorism.

After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Russia introduced terror management into its foreign policy. In its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia transformed units of its own regular army into a terrorist force, removing insignia from uniforms and denying all responsibility for the dreadful suffering they inflicted. In the campaign for the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, Russia deployed Chechen irregulars and sent units of its regular army based in Muslim regions to join the invasion. Russia also tried (but failed) to hack the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election.

In April 2015, Russian hackers took over the transmission of a French television station, pretended to be ISIS, and then broadcast material designed to terrorize France. Russia impersonated a “cybercaliphate” so that the French would fear terror more than they already did. The aim was presumably to drive voters to the far-right National Front, a party financially supported by Russia. After 130 people were killed and 368 injured in the terrorist attacks on Paris of November 2015, the founder of a think tank close to the Kremlin rejoiced that terrorism would drive Europe toward fascism and Russia. Both fake and real Islamic terrorism in Western Europe, in other words, were thought to be in the Russian interest.

In early 2016, Russia manufactured a moment of fake terror in Germany. While bombing Syrian civilians, and thus driving Muslim refugees to Europe, Russia exploited a family drama to instruct Germans that Muslims were rapists of children. The aim, again, seems to have been to destabilize a democratic system and promote the parties of the extreme right.

The previous September, the German government had announced that it would take half a million refugees from the war in Syria. Russia then began a bombing campaign in Syria that targeted civilians. Having provided the refugees, Russia then supplied the narrative. In January 2016, the Russian mass media spread a story that a girl of Russian origin in Germany who had momentarily gone missing had been serially raped by Muslim immigrants. With suspicious alacrity, right-wing organizations in Germany organized protests against the government. When the local police informed the population that no such rape had taken place, Russian media accused them of a cover-up. Even Russian diplomats joined the spectacle.

When our sitting president and his national security adviser speak of fighting terrorism alongside Russia, what they are proposing to the American people is terror management: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy. The Russian recap of the first telephone call between the president and Vladimir Putin is telling: the two men “shared the opinion that it is necessary to join forces against the common enemy number one: international terrorism and extremism.”

James Madison nicely made the point that tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency.” For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. After the Reichstag fire, political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote that “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.” Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.

Adapted from On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century Copyright © 2017 by Timothy Snyder. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.