The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Thanks for your patience this past week, as I was unable to add this chapter last Friday.
Well I am back today, because this lesson is such a big deal. And it’s something we need to all begin practicing now, because later could be too late.
It circles round to an idea proposed several times – that conformity is an extremely powerful motivator for humans. In previous lessons, we’ve seen the unflattering, but consistent data such as in the notorious Milgram experiment.
In Lesson 7, as well, we examined how the most normal, everyday cops and soldiers were easily bent by the need for conformity and obeying authority, even when subject to horrific, repugnant orders from the commanding Nazis.
In this lesson, Dr. Snyder goes a little deeper, offering two very important examples of how a single individual can make a tremendous difference.
When Conformity Is Arrogant and Deadly
Long before WWII began, Snyder tells us, “Numerous European states had abandoned democracy for some form of right-wing authoritarianism.”
First, Italy in 1922 handed over their government to a fascist regime. They then became a military ally to Germany. Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were, he explains, “drawn to Germany by the promise of trade and territory.
“In March, 1938, none of the great powers offered any resistance as Germany annexed Austria.”
In fact by September of that year, he tells us, “The great powers — France, Italy, and Great Britain, then led by Neville Chamberlain — actually cooperated with Nazi Germany in the partitioning of Czechoslovakia.”
If we wish to offer them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they honestly believed that they were parlaying with one of their own, an educated elite willing to dance the sophisticated diplomatic dances, traditionally filled with subtlety and nuance.
In such gentlemanly affairs, rules are not broken. Concessions and agreements are honored, and the pie is carved up nicely for everyone who plays nicely.
But of course, that is not what happened. Hitler was a thug of the worst sort, and only interested in complete domination, as well as the elimination or enslavement of everyone except his master race.
So, step by step, while Western Europe fell to the Nazis, Britain’s leadership haggled over whether they should sue for peace or try in some other way to appease Hitler.
If this had happened, Great Britain surely would have met the fate of most of Europe, so much of which fell to the iron power of the Nazis. And where Jews were disappearing.
Except Poland. And because Poland chose to fight back, this activated prior treaties and agreements with France and Great Britain, bringing them quite reluctantly into the war.
By May, 1940, Britain alone remained a free sovereign nation.
It would have been so much easier to bend to Nazi rule. Britain would have still been essentially Britain, right?
Historians have noted, as does Snyder, Hitler rather admired Great Britain and British culture, and there is a good chance he would have liked to just divvy up the world with them. (At least, at first).
But little by little, a true understanding of the massive evil behind the Nazis had finally reached the cloistered halls of the power class in Britain.
And stepping up to fight back and never, ever surrender was the 65-year old “Bulldog” who had become prime minister.
The British Bulldog
Winston Churchill was a man with many flaws. But it took enormous moral courage and a stubborn temperament to fight against the popular current of surrender and appeasement.
He well knew that standing alone against the Axis would be a nearly impossible task. But he knew that any compromise with Herr Hitler would never last, and rather than preserve the British Isles, Nazism would destroy them.
As he famously remarked, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
So stand alone he did, even though he knew the results would be devastating for those bitter years of war and blitzkrieg.
Inspired by this one man who refused to pretend that the Nazi’s conquest, as well as the genocide that accompanied it could be ignored, the British people rallied and the course of history was changed.
As Snyder writes:
Other politicians would have found support in British public opinion to end the war. Churchill instead resisted, inspired, and won…
Churchill did what others had not done. Rather than concede in advance, he forced Hitler to change his plans. The essential German strategy had been to remove any resistance in the west, and then to invade (thus betraying) the Soviet Union and colonize its western territories.
In June, 1941, with Britain still in the war, Germany attacked its Soviet ally.
Now Berlin had to fight a two-front war…
History looks with admiration at Churchill’s courage and determination, but at the time, he was a man under heavy criticism and very much alone.
Snyder notes, “Today, what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time, he had to stand out.”
But What About Ordinary People?
Meanwhile in Poland, a young high school girl named Teresa Prekerowa had, with her family, been forced to move to Warsaw, after the Nazis confiscated all their belongings and property.
One by one, her father and then two uncles were killed or imprisoned. Times were desperate and terrible, as the resisting Poles had lost 25,000 citizens in Warsaw alone during the German takeover.
It would have been absolutely understandable if young Teresa had decided to lay low, blend in, and not stir up any trouble.
But that is not what happened.
In late 1940, the Nazi occupiers starting dividing up sections of Warsaw into ghettos and the Jews were then herded into and cordoned off in these sections. Snyder tells us:
One of Teresa’s brothers had been friendly with a Jewish girl and her family before the war. Teresa observed that people quietly allowed their Jewish friends to slip away from their lives.
Without telling her family, and at great risk to herself, Teresa chose to enter the Warsaw ghetto a dozen times in late 1940, bringing food and medicine to Jews she knew, and Jews she did not.
By the end of the year, she had persuaded her brother’s friend to escape the ghetto. In 1942, Teresa helped the girl’s parents and brother to escape.
That summer in the Warsaw ghetto, the Germans carried out what they called “The Great Action,” deporting some 265,040 Jews to the death factory at Treblinka to be murdered, and killing another 10,380 Jews in the ghetto itself.
Teresa saved a family from certain death.
It was not until much later in her life as a holocaust historian that she agreed to speak of her role. She called her actions normal, but we can see that her courage and refusal to go along with a status quo of evil was extraordinary.
Dr. Snyder writes, “Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks.”
We, my loves, must be prepared to be extraordinary. That is why #Resist is so much more than a clever social media slogan. We must cultivate our willingness to stand out.
Let us begin now.
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
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed