If We Forget How Tyranny Began, We Will Repeat It

1 November 2021


In the West, our obsession with the present causes us to forget the mistakes of the past. In this excerpt from Cross and Culture, Kurt Mahlburg warns that some of the worst atrocities of history could be repeated if we fail to remember how they came about.

The view of history that is now widely embraced across the West declares that humanity conquers the past to build a better future. We alone are responsible for the world’s progress, the logic goes, and every period of time is by definition better than what went before.

But this conception of history comes with a dangerous blind spot. Our preoccupation with what is yet to come has given us amnesia about the past. Younger generations are disconnected from their family histories; in fact, most Westerners know very little about the story of their own culture or nation. As Rod Dreher explains,

In the twentieth century, every totalitarian government knew that controlling people’s access to cultural memory was necessary to gain dominion over them. Today in the contemporary West, our cultural memory has not been taken from us by dictators. Rather, like the comfortable, pleasure-seeking drones in Brave New World, we have ceased caring about the past because it inhibits our ability to seek pleasure in the present.

History is vital to our self-understanding, our freedom, and our future. Parents and teachers encourage children to learn from their mistakes. But how can we do this on a collective scale if we’ve forgotten what our mistakes were?

Communism, Fascism and the False Hope of Politics

Terrible things have been done by the human race under the guise of progress. Some of the worst atrocities in history took place within the lifetimes of people still alive today. Because of our involvement in World War II, most of us in the English-speaking world have some idea about the Nazis and the eleven million people they killed in the Holocaust, six million of whom were Jews.

Less well-known to us, but far more deadly, were the regimes last century in lands like Russia, China, Cambodia and North Korea that collectively killed over 100 million people. As communist or socialist states, they were committed to Karl Marx’s idea that a society’s wealth should be redistributed and shared by everyone: a very noble aim.

But the only way that governments can make good on promises as grand as this is to become totalitarian—to make every aspect of life the concern of the state. This is precisely what happened, and it paved the way for horrors on a scale never seen before. Everywhere that they have been trialled, Marxist ideas have produced far more injustice than they have sought to eradicate. C.S. Lewis sagely observed that,

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. […] Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Perhaps the most vital lesson to learn from both Hitler’s fascism and the results of Marxism is that we must resist turning to politics as an all-encompassing answer, or as a leap of faith towards meaning and hope. With good intentions—and in a secular context especially—it is very easy to make a religion out of politics, and a god out of the state. Handing over increasing levels of power to government would be a shortcut to all sorts of progress, and this is a real temptation in times of cultural upheaval like our own. But as last century showed time and time again, it doesn’t end well.

Totalitarianism and the War on Truth

In the midst of World War II, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) cautioned, “We are living in a nightmare precisely because we have tried to set up an earthly paradise. We have believed in ‘progress’. Trusted to human leadership, rendered unto Caesar the things that are God’s.”

Like many, Muggeridge was very attracted to communism in his youth—so much so that he moved to Soviet Russia in the 1930s. But before long, he had fled back to Britain, later converting to Christianity. He had witnessed the dark consequences of filling the God-shaped hole with dreams of utopia and an all-powerful state.

A 2020 Wall Street Journal column described what Soviet Russia’s “utopia” looked like in practice:

Totalitarianism strips men and women of their liberty, transforming them into “affirmative cogs” in service of the state and obliterating what had taken centuries of Western political development to achieve. Totalitarianism not only enslaved people physically but crippled their spirit.

It did so by replacing ordinary human language, in which words signify things in the outside world, with ideologically sanctioned language, in which words signify the dominant party’s ever-changing ideas of what is and is not true.

A Freedom From Within

Western governments play an important role in minimising injustice. But this is a double-edged sword. The more power we give the state, the more it will tend towards corruption and tyranny, since governments are made up of fallen people just like us. Muggeridge was insightful in identifying that “the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”

America’s Founding Fathers accounted for this. Thomas Jefferson warned that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” Where last century’s totalitarian states went so wrong was actually in their excessive optimism about human nature. They neglected the crucial insight at the heart of Christianity: without checks and balances, humans in power will abuse that power, leading to tyranny and despair.

The founders of the United States believed something we seem to have forgotten: the best antidote to injustice isn’t more law imposed on us from without; but more virtue rising up from within. In the words of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Patrick Henry (1736-1799) likewise warned that “it is when people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.”

Cross and Culture is currently on sale for $24.95 with free shipping. You can purchase a copy here.

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  1. LINO DANIEL 1 November 2021 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Well said , God bless

  2. John Launder 1 November 2021 at 11:28 am - Reply

    I agree totally with your article Karl, understanding about human nature and history have been forgotten in our “Me” society.

  3. Omi 1 November 2021 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    THANK YOU Kurt…I’ve been *trying* to say this to people in my circle. Sometimes falling on deaf ears sometimes not so good to hear it from someone else. THanks

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