A century ago, as the post-war world struggled with recovery from the Spanish Flu pandemic, totalitarian movements rose to power and would go on to shake the very foundations of human civilization. Two ideologies, German National Socialism (Nazism) and Soviet Communism, left behind a legacy of mass death, unparalleled destruction, and soul-shattering poverty.
Today, as the world struggles with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the United States and other liberal democracies face serious challenges to their fundamental principles at home, while newly emboldened authoritarian regimes abroad grab more power. While we are fortunate that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have been consigned to the dustbin of history and people alive today are among the freest and most prosperous, the conditions that give rise to totalitarianism are still with us, and, most regrettably, many have not learned the sorry lessons of the past.
In the darkest days of World War II, F. A. Hayek published his renowned classic The Road to Serfdom. Hayek witnessed firsthand how the forces of collectivism and totalitarianism swallowed his native Austria, and he wanted to warn his new Anglo-American compatriots of the threats they face. While the book’s main message about the incompatibility between central economic planning and authentic liberal democracy is usually understood, Hayek’s diagnosis of the roots of illiberal ideas and movements has not received the full recognition it deserves.
In particular, Hayek took pains to point out that Nazism was a variant of socialism that was “the culmination of a long evolution of thought,” which had percolated for decades in Germany. Furthermore, “the connection between socialism and nationalism was close from the beginning,” especially among the intelligentsia who cheered for the centralization of the German state in the late 19th century. The transition from socialism to fascism was subtle but not entirely surprising given their commonalities. Above all else, these collectivist intellectuals and their practitioners in the German state bureaucracy shared a mutual hatred of liberalism, especially its main doctrines of individualism and the free market economy.
At the grassroots level, Hayek also highlighted “the relative ease with which a young communist could be converted into a Nazi or vice versa” and how “they competed for the support of the same type of mind and reserved for each other the hatred of the heretic.” This phenomenon is worth emphasizing given that the two camps shared more similarities than they both would be willing to admit:
“To both, the real enemy, the man with whom they had nothing in common and whom they could not hope to convince, is the liberal of the old type. While to the Nazi the communist, and to the communist the Nazi, and to both the socialist, are potential recruits who are made of the right timber, although they have listened to false prophets, they both know that there can no compromise between them and those who really believe in individual freedom.”
In short, these were movements of, by, and for collectivists who sought domination over other human beings.
The interchangeability between followers of mass movements, especially those fueled by ideological fervor, was also noticed by Eric Hoffer in his classic 1951 study The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements. Fanatical disciples of one ideology, whether it be national socialism or communism, easily switched allegiance to another depending which way political winds blew. In the aftermath of World War II and the partition of defeated Nazi Germany, many Gestapo and SS veterans—seasoned practitioners of mass murder, torture, and surveillance—found new employment as Stasi officers in the new communist East German regime. Germany’s dual experience with national socialism and communism demonstrates how easily totalitarian regimes transition into new forms of tyranny, notwithstanding their political rhetoric.
Today, ominous parallels can be observed in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since its founding in 1949 and to this very day, the PRC remains under the absolute control of the Chinese Communist Party (unlike its Eastern bloc counterparts). Like 20th century Germany, the PRC’s embrace of socialism, nationalism, and the worst elements of collectivism have resulted in unspeakable horrors.
Under Mao Zedong’s rule of China, the end goal was communism—the abolition of private property (which Karl Marx himself stated is the one-sentence summary of his philosophy). Industries were nationalized, farms were collectivized, and all private property was seized. Civil society itself—a private life and existence outside the state—ceased to exist. The end result was the greatest man-made famine in history and 30-45 million deaths. More mass death, destruction, and chaos would follow in the Cultural Revolution.
The PRC’s bloody trail of atrocities—from its very genesis to the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution to the present—cannot be openly discussed in the mainland to this day and, more accurately, is systematically covered up by the Chinese government.
While modern China has largely ridden itself of the worst aspects of economic collectivization, the Chinese Communist Party has refused to relinquish an inch of its power. Calls for greater social and political freedom have been suppressed, exemplified most dramatically in the brutal military crackdown of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989.
We argue China’s incomplete liberalization has left it susceptible to a relapse into full-blown authoritarianism. Former Russian chess champion and human rights activist Garry Kasparov once described socialism as an “autoimmune virus that destroys a society’s ability to defend itself from tyrants and demagogues.” Although he used this metaphor in the context of post-Soviet Russia, this analogy can also be applied to China, which has never thrown off the rule of the Communist Party.
Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, many intellectuals, international businessmen, and their Chinese counterparts working and living in the mainland rightly recognize that China has become less free in recent years. Although “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is still the official guiding ideology of the land, Chinese nationalism underpins the outlook of the Chinese Communist Party, both in domestic politics and foreign relations. This toxic stew of nationalism and socialism—combined with a victimhood mentality in its populace (a psychological precursor to aggression and, in the worst cases, mass murder)—has brought China back onto a road to serfdom that is likely to pave over the people of Tibet, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and many other unwilling lands.
Consider the PRC’s ruthlessness toward any opposition. For over two decades, the PRC has tightened its grip on the free people of Hong Kong. Alarmed by last year’s protests, the Chinese government passed a sweeping national security law. A city that not so long ago breathed a modicum of freedom is now suffocating under Beijing’s totalitarian vice grip. The annual Tiananmen vigil was banned for the first time, pro-democracy books were pulled from libraries, opposition lawmakers and prominent activists were arrested en masse, and a creeping atmosphere of self-censorship has settled over what was once one of the most vibrant cities in Asia.
Punishing dissent is almost always one of the first steps a totalitarian regime takes after seizing control. Dissenters in Stalin’s Soviet Union paid a harsh price for facing down the dictatorial regime; they found themselves trapped in the harsh system of gulags, or worse. The first concentration camp opened less than two months after the National Socialists took power in Germany. Most of the early prisoners in the camps were political prisoners and others, who dared to disagree with the new power-brokers. In any totalitarian system—Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or contemporary China—dissent poses a threat to the regime and is often squelched through oppressive or violent means.
The forces of totalitarian collectivism tragically lead to some of history’s worst crimes against humanity. The forced-famine of Stalin’s Holodomor resulted in the death of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. Contemporaneously, the Nazis were in the early stages of their reign of terror, targeting groups they deemed “racially unfit.” In Germany, the persecution began quickly, but gradually. Boycotts of Jewish goods and businesses began viciously in the spring of 1933. By the fall of 1935, German Jews had lost their citizenship and the right to marry “Aryans” through the Nuremberg Laws. As the Nazi Wehrmacht plowed through Europe beginning in the late 1930s, the Nazis instituted their genocidal aims at a rapid clip. By the time the spring of 1945 arrived, six million Jews had been murdered, along with millions of others.
The PRC’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a primarily Muslim minority group living in Xinjiang, bears eerie similarities to the ethnic cleansings and genocides of the 20th century. Up to 2 million Uyghurs have been imprisoned in forced labor camps, where brainwashing is constant and conditions are deplorable. The PRC initially denied the existence of the camps until satellite photos of the institutions were published online. The PRC responded by claiming they were merely “re-education” centers, a claim uncannily similar to crackdown on dissent from totalitarian regimes of the past. And the news continues to worsen. Over 500,000 Uyghurs have been forced to pick cotton in brutal conditions as part of a “government-run work scheme.” Shocking reports from the Associated Press and the BBC documented widespread rape, sexual abuse, torture, and forced sterilizations of Uyghur women.
If this oppression is allowed to continue, the Uyghurs’ condition is likely to worsen even more. It is no wonder the United States Department of State recently labeled the PRC’s treatment of the Uyghurs as “genocide.”
Although totalitarian regimes often maintain tight control over the spread of information, it is nearly impossible to hide an ethnic cleansing or genocide for long. Former prisoners and/or escapees from Stalin’s gulags like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reported their travails to the world. Journalist Gareth Jones, the namesake of the film Mr. Jones, risked life and limb to expose the Holodomor to the world during the 1930s. Much of the Holocaust was reported in Western newspapers and transmitted to world leaders, including President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1942, a telegram transmitted from the World Jewish Congress in Geneva (and subsequently publicized) exposed the Nazi’s aims to “eradicate” the entirety of European Jewry. It is impossible to say “the world did not know.”
Given the voluminous documentation from numerous sources, China’s crackdown on both Hong Kong and the Uyghur Muslims is well-known, despite the PRC’s attempts to hide it. One question remains: What do we do about it? What is the United States’ role in curbing the aggression of the PRC and stopping human rights violations abroad? The answer lies in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” We must still be a country that provides sanctuary to freedom-seeking people around the globe.
The United Kingdom currently offers special visas for people fleeing Hong Kong and is processing them at a very rapid rate. There is currently no quota limiting the number of these visas Britain plans to give out. The United States should do the same, and quickly. Freedom in Hong Kong is shrinking by the day. A similar visa could also be considered for Uyghurs and other persecuted minority groups in China.
But there is still more to be done. The former Trump administration slashed the number of refugees allowed in the country and last year announced plans to allow only 18,000 refugees annually. During the Holocaust, the United States made the mistake of enforcing immigration quotas that turned away thousands escaping Nazi persecution. Those quotas were at least partially based upon fears that Germany would plant spies in the United States. While that fear was not wholly unfounded, the policy had a dramatic negative effect when thousands of freedom seeking refugees were turned away.
China, too, has been known to exploit our immigration system to plant spies in American universities. The solution to that problem, however, is not to limit all visa seekers. We should crack down on Chinese espionage and provide safe-haven for people fleeing the PRC’s oppression. The United States should consider providing an unlimited number of special visas for persecuted Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, political dissidents, and targeted religious minorities. The situation is dire; we cannot wait.
Appeasement, whether in the form of inaction or concessions, will only embolden tyrannical regimes. We have already seen the shameful behavior of the NBA, Blizzard Entertainment, Zoom, and too many other American companies acting as overseas censors on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party out of fear of losing access to the Chinese market. Worse still, American universities—where free speech and free inquiry should reign the strongest—have suffered from an “epidemic of self-censorship” when it comes to research and teaching on Taiwan, Tiananmen, Tibet (the 3 Forbidden T’s), and other issues considered “sensitive” to the Chinese government. The chill that has spread into American academia should dispel any illusions that China’s new national security law targeted at Hong Kong is limited by geography.
The lessons of the past and present reality both provide a sober warning that tyranny abroad will inevitably threaten our precious liberties at home.
Many of the challenges the world faces are nothing new. Collectivism and totalitarianism wreaked havoc across the 20th century. At times, the United States failed to meet the challenge strongly. With real tyranny on the rise, we cannot make that mistake again. If we want to remain the “last, best hope on Earth,” to quote our 40th president, we must learn from history and provide refuge for people around the world seeking freer shores. Most importantly, we need to find our own moral courage and stand up for our most cherished values.
Aaron Tao is a technology professional working in Austin, Texas. He holds an M.S. from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. from Case Western Reserve University. He can be found on Twitter @aarontao2.
Amy Lutz is a historian and Young Voices contributor based in Missouri. She holds an M.A. in History from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where she specialized in Holocaust Studies and Rumor Studies. She can be found on Twitter @amylutz4
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Merion West and has been reprinted upon agreement.