After the uprising of the 17th of June,
The Secretary of the Writers' Union,
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee,
Stating that the people,
Had forfeited the confidence of the government,
And could win it back only,
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier,
In that case for the government,
To dissolve the people,
And elect another?
- Bertolt Brecht
In his stand-alone novel, In The Presence of Mine Enemies, Harry Turtledove postulated that the Third Reich would eventually face a Soviet-style crisis: economic collapse, a crisis of legitimacy and, eventually, a decline into near-irrelevance. This would, as it did in the Original TimeLine (OTL), spur a demand for political reform, a re-examination of the founding principles of the Third Reich and the abandonment of its principles. There would neither be a Third World War nor a civil war.
I was not so optimistic.
We were amazingly lucky that Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Soviet Union did not lead to a civil war. Hard-liners within the Communist Party and the KGB could not have welcomed the changes, even if they understood that something had to change. The levels of stored hatred they’d built up ever since the Communist Party took a firm grip on power could easily have led to a bloody slaughter. Indeed, they did try to mount a coup - only to lose when it became clear just how little support they really had. And it was their coup attempt that led to the inevitable breakup of the USSR.
Gorbachev simply did not - could not - control the pace of change. The first signs of weakness led to other challenges to Moscow’s authority. Indeed, there was a strong feeling in many places - Poland, in particular - that the time had come to stand up or lose everything. Each successive problem led to more as Gorbachev veered between appeasement and repression, each failure weakening his own position. Once the ice began to melt, the changes were utterly unpredictable. There was no way to slow the pace of change.
The Third Reich, assuming it survived, might not cope anything like as well. It would have faced many of the same problems, yet it might have reached for very different solutions. And yet, no matter what happened to the protesters, they would be unable to hide from the underlying problems pervading the Reich. The coup plotters in Moscow, even if they had succeeded in turning the clock back by shooting everyone who assembled to stop them, would still have had to deal with a collapsing economy. It had simply fallen too far to be stopped.
But a different decision, at a different time, might have changed the course of history.
The problem facing repressive regimes - Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia (and the USSR after Stalin), Mao’s China, Saddam’s Iraq, Gaddafi's Libya, Kim’s North Korea, etc - is that they tend to be very bad at coping with change. Power is organised in a pyramid structure, with the dictator and his cronies at the very top and everyone else in successive levels working their way down towards the common people at the bottom. It can be very hard for the dictator to truly understand what is going on at the bottom, even if he doesn’t have to deal with his subordinates constantly lying to him.
It doesn't take long for the rot to set in. Each of the dictator’s cronies will try to gather as much power to himself as he can, relying on a patronage network to both protect him from the other cronies and set the stage for eventually usurping the dictator. Even if there are pre-dictatorship power structures - the military, for example - they will eventually be corrupted and folded into the dictatorship. The dictator will become corrupted by the unlimited power at his disposal, while his cronies will eventually become outright criminals.
If the state is based on ideology - Nazi Germany and the USSR, in particular - and it has avoided the trap of being led by a single family, it may be possible to mask this reality for decades. But the blunt truth is that the tools used to impose the ideology eventually create the dictatorship, if it wasn't already present. In order to impose communism on Russia, Lenin created a system - spearheaded by the NKVD - that allowed Stalin to take control and gather all the levers of power into his hands.
[This should not have surprised anyone. Attempts to impose ideologies - anything from Communism to Radical Islam - will always meet opposition. The proponents will then have to decide if they want to abandon their plans or start forcing people to comply. Inevitably, they always choose the latter - and open the doors to a Stalin.]
Such a state’s leadership, therefore, may be split between true believers and the more cynical (and sometimes criminal) opportunists. The true believers will react to any threat to their power with horror - like the fanatics they are, they see the needs of the state as twinned with their own needs. They will ignore any inconvenient realities - such as a looming economic collapse - secure in the belief that their good intentions will see them through. Anything is justified in the name of their ideology. The opportunists, on the other hand, may be more interested in their personal power bases, but also more inclined to understand that a state that doesn't bend - when the winds shift - may simply break.
This is not to say that these people - both groups and everything in-between - are not genuine patriots. They may believe that they truly do have the best interests of their country at heart (this was certainly true of the plotters in Moscow) and they may have good reason to fear for the future if the reformers (or rebels or whatever you want to call them) are allowed to run free. But these people always see the interests of the country, as I noted above, and their own interests as being identical. They are rarely able or willing to separate themselves from their country.
Their opposition, on the other hand, may be hopelessly disorganised. Rampaging mobs do not tend to lead to good - or any - governance. Dictators rarely leave any other power structures intact to allow their opponents a chance to build up overt support. Even if the opposition does manage to build up a common front, it may run into problems deciding what will happen after the dictatorship is defeated, allowing the dictator a chance to play divide and rule with his opponents.
The end of a dictatorship, therefore, tends to be a messy business. If living under iron control tends to breed bitter resentment, the collapse of that control tends to lead to madness. Iraq and Libya fell into civil war after their dictatorships were removed because there were no alternate power structures on a national scale. The Syrian Civil War continues to rage because the dictatorship has been able to play its opponents against one another, as well as summoning assistance from outside powers. There was no reason, in 1991, to assume that the collapse of the Soviet Union - and the Warsaw Pact - would be peaceful ...
... And there is no reason to assume that the collapse of an alternate Third Reich would be peaceful too.
Democracies have - or should have - one great advantage over dictatorships. There are multiple leavers of power, established to make it difficult - if not impossible - for a single person to collect and wield them all. Political parties share power, acting as both the representatives of the people and as brakes on the ambitions of the political class. A political leader can, if the votes are there, be challenged and unseated by his former supporters, if they see his actions as a threat to their ideals. They may not take those ideals as seriously as they should, but they do understand the importance of paying lip service in front of the voters.
And yet, across the West, democracy is under threat.
I write these words in September 2016. In two months, the United States will go to the polls, forced to choose between two deeply unsatisfactory candidates: Hillary Clinton, a woman whose behaviour is outright criminal, and Donald Trump, a man with a particularly filthy mouth. Yet this is merely the tip of the iceberg. The United States has seen the rise of a political class - an incestuous union between political families and the media - that has achieved a stranglehold on power and is now trying to reshape the country to suit itself. But this has provoked resistance from men and women bitterly determined not to surrender any more ground ...
Let us make no mistake. A Hillary victory means criminality and corruption on an unprecedented scale. There are good reasons to believe that she rigged the nomination process that made her the Democratic Party’s candidate for President. She will put her personal interests ahead of those of the country as a whole. But a Trump victory means his supporters wrecking vengeance on everyone they blame for their woes. And why should they not? Their enemies have not been remotely subtle in using their power to quash dissidence, suppress free speech and ride roughshod over the rest of the country. The PC Thought Police have fuelled a mania for revenge, savage undirected revenge.
And why did this happen?
It happened because the political class - the political elites - lost touch with the general mood of the country. Trump rose to prominence because he addressed the needs and fears - legitimate needs and fears - of vast numbers of people who felt ignored by their rulers. And Bernie Sanders came close to winning the Democratic nomination because he followed the same line. He too addressed the needs and fears of the people.
I am not sanguine about the future. Civil discourse has all but evaporated. It is impossible to hold a reasoned discussion about anything, nor is it possible to discuss one’s politics without fearing savage retribution. Both sides are convinced that the other is out to get them, that the other will be utterly merciless if it take power. And both sides may well be right.
Democracy, as Winston Churchill remarked, is the worst system in the world ... apart from all the others. And he was right. I would not care to live under a dictatorship. But one cannot expect politicians - particularly those born to the political class - to work to uphold democracy when democracy gets in their way. Expect, instead, for them to try to subvert the will of the people. As far as they are concerned, their interests come first.
And if we let them have their way, we may wind up with shackles on our wrists - or forced to launch a revolution. But if we did there would be no guarantee of a happy ending ...
Christopher G. Nuttall
United Kingdom, 2016