Play #3 in the Dictator’s Playbook: Political Violence

One of the most effective tactics in the Dictator’s arsenal is the introduction of violence into the daily life of the public. When we think of terror in the modern world, we think of September 11, or the Paris attacks, or the Oklahoma City bombing.  While I wouldn’t say that Dictators are averse to those tactics, I’m not talking about isolated attacks by a few individuals. What I’m talking about is mass extrajudicial killing of ordinary, often scapegoated citizens.  Murdering people in streets and homes has a way of terrifying communities.  This terror helps a would be Dictator consolidate power because the Dictator himself is the only person who can stop the killing.

The Nazis are, as usual, the most famous team to run this play.  They used mass terror to consolidate power both before and after Hitler became Chancellor in February of 1933.  The Nazis had a private army, called the Sturmabteilung or SA, which had a membership of over 400,000 men in the summer of 1932, which was more than the German military.  After the July elections, the Nazis became the largest party in Parliament.  However, the conservative party, which controlled the presidency, refused to appoint Hitler to the Chancellorship.  During this period, when the Nazis were not getting what they wanted, the SA engaged in street fights with communist partisans and murdered people all over Germany.  The violence was so prevalent that the conservative government issued an emergency decree prescribing the death penalty for political murder.  It was not remarkable to have three dozen acts of political violence on the same day.*  This violence created a climate of instability and terror that made people want order and, more importantly, someone to end the violence.  It gave Hitler a powerful bargaining chip in his negotiations with the conservative government, and it did not stop after he became Chancellor.  The Nazis used obvious and public extrajudicial killing of political opponents and dissidents up until Hitler had a total grasp on power. Once he had it, they purged the leaders of the SA in an act of terror called the Night of the Long Knives in order to prove they could govern without violence.

Another way of provoking terror in the population is to incite mass vigilantism.  Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has offended the world while consolidating his own power by declaring a vigilante war of drug users and dealers, and other suspected criminals.  Thus far, over 6,000 people have been murdered.  The advantage to such a program, from a would-be Dictator’s perspective, is that by including suspected criminals among the categories of people who can be murdered at will, anyone could potentially be killed.  Recently, a South Korean businessman was detained by police and murdered.  Fear of death is the most forceful incentive to get with the government’s program.  If you’re on the government’s “team,” it’s a lot less likely someone can murder you and get away with it.

How can we tell if this play is being used? This is one of the few plays in the Dictator’s Playbook that is not subtle and cannot be graded on a scale from “nasty but ordinary shenanigans” to “definitely seeking autocracy.” If people next door are being murdered by a private government army, or the President asks you to murder your neighbors, the government has decided to provoke terror in all of you.

*Kershaw, Hubris, p. 381.