If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Last time, we examined the dangers of paramilitary groups that can be bent to the will of the aspiring tyrant. And we have seen how such groups are currently fertile and growing, becoming “normalized” in our everyday apparatus.
This week, Lesson Seven examines how, in addition to these special security details and thug groups, the “regular” police and armed services can be ensnared in the brutality of the transition to tyranny.
Indeed, it is pretty much a prerequisite.
History shows us that while special riot police and secret police forces may successfully eliminate protest and “enemies,” without the aid of the traditional police and military troops, the massive genocides that took place could not have occurred.
The Great Purge
In the Soviet Union, between 1937-38, the Soviet NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) recorded 682,691 executions. These supposed enemies of the state were primarily peasants and minorities. Some 1.3 million of these unlucky souls were arrested and many hundreds of thousands were sent to the cruel Gulags, where many perished from starvation and exposure to the elements.
Dr. Snyder writes:
Perhaps no organ of violence has ever been more centralized or better organized than the NKVD of those years. A small number of men carried out the neck shots, which meant that certain NKVD officers had thousands of political murders on their consciences.
Even so, they could not possibly have carried out this campaign without the assistance of local police forces, legal professionals, and civil servants throughout the Soviet Union.
During this massive purge, also known as the Great Terror, all policemen were subordinate to the NKVD and its “special tasks,” as Dr. Snyder calls them. “The policemen were not the principle perpetrators, but they provided the indispensable manpower.”
It is interesting to note what became of the NKVD. After its monopoly hold on all law enforcement in the Soviet Union from 1934 to the end of World War II dissolved, there were several reorganizations of its jurisdiction. Finally, in 1954, it had split between the affairs of more traditional law enforcement (the MVD) and the police force that provided internal security, crushed dissent, carried out espionage, and, in short, was the secret police – the infamous KGB.
After the KGB’s chairman and eight others led a failed coup of the government in 1991, the KGB was dismantled and replaced first by the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK) of Russia, and then by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB).
Notably, the current head of Russia and darling role model of P45, Vladimir Putin, is a former officer and foreign agent for the KGB.
Policing the Holocaust
Dr. Snyder points out that when we think of the Holocaust, we usually imagine the Nazi storm troopers rounding up the Jews and sending them off on trains to highly mechanized, impersonal slaughterhouses like Auschwitz.
He remarks that this is a convenient way to frame events, especially for the larger German population, many of whom would prefer to claim they had not known what was happening behind those grim gates.
But that’s not how it was.
“In fact,” he writes, “the Holocaust began, not in the death facilities, but over shooting pits in eastern Europe.” While it is true that some of the high command that oversaw the Einsatzgruppen (the shooting death squads) were SS commanders, and so were prosecuted for their war crimes at Nuremberg and other courts, “these trials were a kind of minimization of the scale of the crime.”
Dr. Snyder stresses, “Not the SS commanders alone, but essentially all of the thousands of men who served under their command were murderers.”
The camps were places of unspeakable horror.
But the mass shootings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen were staggering. There were more than 33,000 Jews massacred outside of Kiev in Ukraine, over 28,000 shot near Riga, Latvia, and many more.
In fact, historian Raul Hilberg estimates that between 1941 and 1945, the Einsatzgruppen and related auxiliary troops killed more than two million people, including 1.3 million Jews.
“Every large-scale shooting action,” Dr. Snyder emphasizes, “…involved the regular German police. All in all, regular policemen murdered more Jews than the Einsatzgruppen.
“Many of them had no special preparation for this task. They found themselves in an unknown land, they had their orders, and they did not want to look weak.”
What Would You Do?
Naturally this demands some soul-searching of our own, especially if we are in a job that requires us to carry weapons.
Yes, there were certainly some that agreed with the ideology of Stalin, or the Nazi dream of mass annihilation of the Jews and other non-Aryans. But for otherwise ordinary people, not so different from us, how would we confront such a dilemma?
As awful as it is to contemplate this, if you are in law enforcement or the military, this week you are challenged to prepare ahead of time where you would draw the line and what you would do.
Would we be courageous enough to say “no,” if we were given an order that violated our moral boundaries and humanity?
Would we follow along, just out of fear for our own skins? Would that be enough to keep us going to work day after day, shooting down men, women, and children by the thousands?
Or tearing thousands of sobbing children and babies away from their mothers’ arms and sending them off to an uncertain, dangerous future in “detention” camps?
We would of course like to think we never would kill people in cold blood. But there is no doubt that is what countless ordinary Russian and German soldiers and police would have thought.
Conformity is a powerful motivator. Many of those who participated in the mass shootings were just afraid to stand out.
Too bad, because, Dr. Snyder writes, “In the rare cases when they refused these orders to murder Jews, policemen were not punished.”
And if that’s not enough to help you, as you consider such an unthinkable, but not unprecedented scenario, there’s this:
Without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible.
Just finding your way here? Thanks for joining us, and also for sharing with your friends.
If you’d like to go back and re-read from the beginning, no problem:
Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays: Lesson One – Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Two – Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Three – Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Four – Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Five – Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Six – Be Wary of Paramilitaries