Saturday, June 15, 2013

From Hitler and Mussolini to Putin and Erdogan: A short history of authoritarianism in modern Europe

Authoritarianism as an ideology has existed since time immemorial. In the twentieth century, the term became synonymous with Fascism amongst the left-wing, and with Communism amongst the right-wing. It has become the stick to beat your enemies on the other side of the political spectrum with.

The end of the Second World War was assumed as many to be the end of authoritarian government in Europe. After the tragedies brought upon Europe by Fascism, no-one thought it would ever happen again. The modern EU, and its precursor, the EEC, are attempts to stamp out its ideology; though the irony is that, by now, some in Europe (especially on the political right) see the modern EU as little more than an authoritarian super-state. Many people in Southern Europe see the EU's bureaucracy as ran from Brussels, but financed from Berlin. Whatever your point of view, authoritarianism never truly dies; it simply learns to adapt to the new rules, and morphs accordingly.

The ideology is simply about the concentration of power in the hands of the state, and an erosion of freedom, accountability, inclusion and democratic principles: in other words, tyranny.
Authoritarianism in Europe can be simply explained through the (male) personalities that have helped to define it.

After the First World War, Europe was economically weak. The European nation-states were broadly (if imperfectly) democratic, but wracked by political weakness after the legacy of the war. For many states, all it needed was a strongman with a vision, and a bit of good fortune and timing, and the house of cards could come collapsing down.


With the rise of Bolshevism in Russia, this was Europe's bogeyman at the time. All major countries were affected by civil and political strife because of this. Benito Mussolini in Italy was the first person in a major European country to strike a blow for authoritarianism, with his "Fascist" party.
Mussolini's "March on Rome" in 1922 was basically a coup d'etat against the elected government. At the same time traditionalist yet revolutionary, Mussolini's party appealed across class divides. As he was a charismatic speaker with a hypnotic personality (Hugo Chavez being a contemporary, if ideologically-opposed, comparison), he held on to power through force of will.

It is often forgotten now that Mussolini's early years in power involved coalitions of Fascists with other parties. His path to an authoritarian police state was a gradual one over several years.
He changed electoral law to raise the threshold for other parties to enter parliament, and increasing use of propaganda was used to discredit parties opposed to Mussolini's "reforms". After excluding more and more parties from parliament, by 1926, Italy was a one-party state; a strong personality cult around Mussolini was created, as well as youth organisations to add to the militant (violent) wing of the party, to intimidate any remaining opponents. Before long, anyone in state employment (such as teachers) had to adhere to "Fascist" principles, while the media became tightly controlled so that they were obliged to follow the government line. Although there was technically a "free press", in reality, all media outlets needed licences issued by the government, though this fact was not widely known to the public.
Under Mussolini, the Italian economy became an amalgam of socialist and capitalist ideas; on the the one hand providing subsidies and agricultural projects for farmers, while on the other destroying union power and encouraging "prestige projects", that gained Italy international economic credibility, as well as a fortune for those capitalists with links to the government.

For more about the "economics of Fascism", see here.


While Mussolini was the yardstick for any aspiring authoritarians in Europe to follow, there were people like Hitler in Germany who wanted to take things even further. While Mussolini was learning the the ropes of government, in 1923, Hitler and his "Nazi" Party attempted a coup in Munich in 1923. This landed Hitler in a short term in prison, and while Germany's "Weimar" government was able to find a way through the same crisis years that had brought Mussolini to power in Italy, when the Great Depression hit in 1929, the mainstream parties of Germany suffered from a lack of credibility and vision.
By now Hitler had made the "Nazi" Party one of the biggest parties in the country, with its own militia, the SA. The SA had an ugly reputation, mostly for beating up Communists and Socialists. 1932 was the pivotal year, when the economic crisis and mass unemployment sent many voters to either the Nazis or the Communists. Political violence increased. President Hindenburg met with the then-Chancellor (equivalent to Prime Minister), von Papen, who represented the main moderate rightist party, after election in the autumn. Neither Von Papen nor Hindenburg liked Hitler, or took him too seriously, but at the same time took the rise of the Nazis as a worrying threat to Germany's stability. As the Nazis were the largest party, von Papen suggested offering the Chancellorship to Hitler, with von Papen as the vice; effectively there to keep Hitler under control, but allow Hitler to take the blame for any blunders, or so he thought.

But Hitler was no political novice, and was able to turn the tables on von Papen very quickly. The Reichstag fire in February 1933, shortly after Hitler assumed office, was used for Hitler to gain emergency powers. Von Papen was quickly sidelined, and for the next eighteen months, Hitler set about "Nazifying" the rest of Germany. Under the cloud of crisis, attacks on Jews increased, concentration camps for political opponents (and some Jews) were established, while the general air of menace increased. The Gestapo (secret police) were established, which massively increased the surveillance of the population. There was a move towards "co-ordination" encouraged by the Nazi government, which led to massive self-censorship, and encouraged a willingness to fall in behind the revolutionary air of Nazi Germany.
While all this was happening, however, the increasing role of the SA, and its leader, Ernst Rohm, was a source of political infighting amongst the Nazi hierarchy. Rohm wanted the SA to replace the regular German army, who were loyal to President Hindenburg. By the late spring of 1934, the political infighting and casual violence of the SA was of such concern to von Papen and Hindenburg, that Hindenburg was seriously considering a coup d'etat to have Hitler replaced. By now, Hitler was equally paranoid about Rohm and the SA's power, and in the "The Night Of Long Knives" later on that summer, had Rohm, other SA leaders and any perceived allies in the Nazi party, killed.
Hitler then spun this as a successful counter-attack against a Rohm-led coup d'etat, which earned the respect and gratitude of Hindenburg. Soon after, Hindenburg died, and Hitler abolished the title of "President", and made himself "Leader" as well as Chancellor of Germany. From this point on, there was no looking back.


Apart from Mussolini and Hitler, the most successful authoritarian leader in Europe was Franco in Spain. In simple longevity and endurance, Francoist Spain (whose Fascist ideology was called Falangism) long outlived Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Franco borrowed heavily from Mussolini and Hitler, but was much more like Mussolini in that his ambitions were mainly internal rather than external. Franco wanted a strong state; he was less interested in recapturing the colonies of the former Spanish Empire, as it was a practical impossibility.
In this sense, Franco's longevity could be down to learning from the "overstretch" that brought about Hitler's fall, and similarly, Mussolini's disastrous alliance with the Nazis. He emphasized Spain's Catholic heritage, as well as the Capitalist (and staunchly anti-Communist) side of Fascism, in its own Falangist style. Franco's emphasis on neutrality during the Second World War, and the fact that he was staunchly anti-Communist when the Cold War began, meant that Franco was left to his own devices, or seen as a friend of Capitalism to America and the West. This is what allowed Fascism to endure in Spain until Franco's death in 1975.


Authoritarianism in Russia is nothing new; in fact, Russia has hardly known any different. In that sense, comparing authoritarianism in Russia to that in Europe is a little unfair. That being said, I said earlier that authoritarianism is best seen through its leading personalities, as most authoritarian regimes need a strong leader in order keep them in power. In Vladimir Putin, postmodern Europe has its best exemplar of how to create and maintain an authoritarian state.
As a KGB man in the Soviet Union, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin initially retreated into anonymity. The Russian state in the 1990s resembled many of the qualities of "Weimar" Germany: a weak central state, an economy out of control, with a military of uncertain political loyalty. In another sense, though, it was worse. Corruption exploded, with the rise of the "oligarchs", who took advantage of the state's weakness by making newly privatised industries their own private fiefdoms. Putin entered into President Yeltsin's cabinet in 1997, where he quickly rose, becoming Prime Minister in 1999. By this time Yeltsin was seen as a political liability and incapable of effective (or even sober) leadership, leaving Putin ideally placed in the forthcoming presidential elections when Yeltsin resigned at the end of 1999.

Putin saw his role as recapturing the functions of the Russian state that had been allowed to fall away during Yeltsin's tenure; that even included actual territory, such as Chechnya, which had been effectively independent since 1991. Putin saw that Chechnya was brought back into the fold by whatever means necessary, in a brutal war that lasted through the winter of 1999-2000.
Under Putin, the oligarchs were brought under control of the state. Those that didn't abide by Putin's rules were either forced into line, imprisoned, or forced into exile. At the same time, other oligarchs that were Putin allies came into prominence to challenge the "old" oligarchs.
While the economy improved significantly under Putin's watch, the media came under unprecedented attack from the state. Some critical journalists were killed, while others were imprisoned. Meanwhile, the media in general was regulated tightly by the state. Opposition media outlets were allowed, but the impression seemed to be that they served a purely cosmetic function - even providing the government a useful scapegoat when necessary. It hardly needs to be mentioned that the legal system in Russia is tipped heavily in favour of the status quo.
The same can be said of opposition parties. Putin's party, "United Russia" have an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament, with the opposing parties giving a fig-leaf of democracy. Election procedures are widely seen to be rigged. Meanwhile, like in previous authoritarian (Fascist) states, there is a widespread youth wing to Putin's party called "Our Russia"; these zealous teenagers have been known to vandalise and intimidate other "enemies of the state", while the police turn a blind eye. The same can be said of any hooligans who attack democracy campaigners, or social liberals.
The constitution has also been amended to suit Putin's wishes. The constitution allowed for only two consecutive presidential terms, so before he stepped down to swap places with Dmitri Medvedev, his Prime Minister, he boosted the powers of the PM at the expense of the President. Then, during his term as PM, the law was changed to increase Presidential terms from four to six years. As agreed with Medvedev, they swapped places once more in 2012, so that now Putin may potentially run for another two consecutive terms, but now for twelve years rather than eight. So Putin can be president until 2024.


I wrote last week about Erdogan's role in the Gezi Park protests, and when looking at his behaviour over the twelve years of his premiership, his behaviour more fits that of an authoritarian than a democrat. I compared him before to Britain's demagogue-like former-PM, Margaret Thatcher, but although she did largely reshape Britain in her own image, it was because of her economic ideas, and she did not tinker massively with the inner workings of the state, such as the judiciary, the military, media regulation and so on. Erdogan has, and that's what makes him less of a democrat and more of an autocrat. Yes, he has been working within the confines of a democratic system, he has also been reshaping that system to fit to his own wishes. Circumstances simply force him to player a longer and more cunning game. Mussolini did the same thing before; so did Hitler; so has Putin.
What makes Erdogan seem out-of-place compared to those above is the fact he is Muslim. But Franco was passionately Catholic, and used his faith too to explain much of what he did to Spain. Erdogan uses his faith to explain the need to make social reforms so that they, so he implies, more closely reflect the ideas of the devout majority. But this is not democracy; it is ochlocracy - rule of the mob, where a demagogue most feels at home. Authoritarianism uses the same techniques to stay in power; it is called "divide and rule".
While Erdogan says he is happy to abide by the democratic will, he has already moulded the political system to his benefit. The electoral system was altered to raise the threshold for parties to enter parliament, limiting number of parties in parliament.. He has also intimidated the media so that they dare not criticise him or face prison (Turkey has the highest numbers of journalists in prison in the world at the moment). Meanwhile, the judiciary have already been filled with Erdogan place-men, and the military, once a strong force in the background of Turkish politics, has been emptied of Erdogan critics so that it no longer can disrupt the political process (or replace any politician that oversteps the boundaries). He has hugely expanded the number of Islamic schools, using education as a tool being another common method of "spreading the word". Education (as a form of indoctrination) is one of the most valuable weapons in the authoritarian armoury.

Peaceful protest, like in Gezi Park is met by overwhelmingly disproportionate police force. Using the language of authoritarianism, peaceful protesters are seen as equivalent to terrorists, thus justifying brutal police behaviour. Like in Russia, now that Erdogan has the support of half of the population, the "other fifty per-cent" (the mostly secular, Western-minded opposition), are seen as a useful scapegoat for all Turkey's problems. They are the "roadblocks to reform".
Foreign conspirators are blamed for unrest; another common authoritarian (and fascist) scapegoat, blaming the Western media for spreading "disinformation" (i.e. the truth). For ten years Erdogan has courted Western attention, and has seen Turkey's economy grow massively as a result. Now that Turkey has grown self-sufficient, and paid off its debt to the IMF, Erdogan no longer needs to worry about Western opinion: they have served their purpose. Erdogan's careful nurturing of the Middle East and the Gulf States (as well as Russia and the Far East) in tandem with the West, has meant he can now safely ignore the West's haranguing and focus on the East, using the West and "Western immorality" instead as a useful scapegoat for any internal dissent. This follows the same path that his contemporary Putin followed (in initially flattering the West in his first few years in power, before using them as a scapegoat when Putin no longer needed Western investment). Previous authoritarian (Fascist) dictators made this approach typical.
Like Putin, Erdogan wants to become President, once he has altered the constitution to give him greater powers. The Gezi Park protests, now that the media, judiciary and military are under Erdogan's thumb, may be seen as a vehicle to advance his cause; an opportunity for him to destroy the secular half of the country through provocation, stoke up fears of violence from his opponents, then use the "emergency" to make a further, irreversible power-grab.
This is a standard method of gaining power by authoritarians; engineer a crisis, and seize the opportunity.

Authoritarianism never dies; it simply learns to adapt to the rules of the game.

Read here for more about Erdogan and his ministers' Orwellian use of language to achieve their aims.

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