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Eva-Maria Simms: The Playbook of Dictatorship

What Americans have to be Vigilant About

My family endured the Nazi years in Germany. My grandfather was an entrepreneur in the publishing business, and he was very aware of the power structure that the Nazi Party set up during and after the elections in 1932. People have often asked me how the madness of fascism could break out in a civilized country like Germany. From my family stories and my readings of political philosophy and history, the following picture emerges, which shows the building blocks of a totalitarian dictatorship. I offer it here as a warning from a German immigrant to my fellow citizens in the United States.

The playbook after Hitler’s transition to power:

  1. Incite and encourage unrest in the country, blame it on the left (communists and socialists), and create fear of civil instability.
  2. Encourage citizen militias and organize them as a para-military force (the Brownshirts)
  3. Push through martial law in order to suppress unrest.
  4. Make the parliament itself give up its democratic function and hand dictatorial power over to the leader, which includes suspension of civil liberties and suppression of the press.
  5. Organize large, well-staged rallies in order to maintain contact with the disgruntled citizens who elected the party.
  6. Create the discourse of “the other” (the Jews, the Bolsheviks) who are to blame for the economic and civic problems.
  7. Create the discourse of “our people” and produce an image of the (German) people as racially pure (eliminate diversity) and special (exceptionalism).
  8. Infuse the leader with emotional and magical power. Dissent against the leader is seen as dissent against “the people”.
  9. Create a network of spies and informants who penetrate all civic organizations (from bowling clubs to churches) and reward them for the information with public positions and economic benefits.
  10. Set aside individual and human rights and create a secret police which stands above the law.
  11. Create a judiciary which is indebted to your party and implements the laws created under martial law.
  12. Immediately pour resources into large infrastructure projects (the Autobahn) in order to appease the working class that half-heartedly voted for you.
  13. When the economic and internal problems become too complicated and political solutions are not forthcoming, incite a war. It trumps all other issues, hits people in their deepest fear, and justifies the rhetoric of exceptionalism, victimization, and power of the leader which got the leader elected in the first place.
  14. After the death of 70 million other people in these wars and 7 million (8.5%) of your own population and the ruin and devastation of every major city and cultural center of your country — kill yourself.

By itself each element of the playbook of dictatorship is nothing new and has been executed in many different places and times, but together they form an inescapable web that strangles freedom, democracy, human rights, and the law. Resistance against dictatorship has to target all these points, and I call my fellow Americans to be vigilant against each single one. How can we guard against the elements of the playbook of dictatorship and protect our US democracy? It takes the creativity of many good people with different skills and insights to invent peaceful and effective strategies to guard against the slide into barbarism. Here are a few preliminary suggestions – please come up with more:

Don’t give into the fear of civil instability: keep demonstrating, but demonstrate peacefully. Find and create new forums and activities for spreading the message of peaceful resistance and change. Use humor, art, music, and entertainers to criticize and disarm the right-wing agitators. As African-Americans have known all along: you might have to put your body on the line and endure the assault. Stay together in resistance: don’t let yourself be isolated as an individual. Keep taking pictures and post them here and abroad.

Beware of the part of the 2nd amendment that allows not only the carrying of guns, but also the forming of citizen militias. Do not let fear dictate the acceptance of martial law: make sure we will be able to vote in four years. Protect our constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and don’t let them be eroded, not even in increments:

The right to privacy

The right to be free from unreasonable searches of your home

The right to a fair court trial

The right to marry

The right to vote

Freedom of speech

Supporting the ACLU is one way of defending our civil liberties. In the media age, incursions into our civil liberties by government representatives can be broadcast widely and become easily visible. A free press and access to worldwide social media is a key tool in guarding our freedom. We can subscribe to domestic and foreign newspapers and websites that tell the truth and have no reason to support a dictatorship.

Refuse to attend rallies and/or wear any kind of badge or uniform that shows alliance to the leader. Never march in lockstep or all wear the same t-shirts at your demonstrations – diversity is good, uniformity is dangerous — unless it is meant to consciously refuse the discourse of the other. Legend says that the Danes all wore the yellow star so the Nazis could not identify the Jews. Show open solidarity with minorities that are attacked. We all might have to wear the Hijab or sign up for the Muslim registry. Refuse the discourse of false patriotism and white supremacy. What makes us Americans is the idealism of our living constitution, which unites us all independent of race, creed, or national origin. Keep singing Woody Guthrie’s This Land is your Land….. This land is ours not because it is our private property, but because we love it and its care has been entrusted to us. We do not need strongmen leaders and we will keep scrutinizing our country’s leadership. And keep Saturday Night Live alive — humor is a powerful tool against authoritarian leaders.

Today, spying on citizens is done by the NSA. Work with tech savvy fellow citizens and international friends to create protected spaces and media. Beware of secret police and enforcement agencies that pound on your neighbor’s door. Be ready to protect and hide the persecuted. Maintain your contacts abroad. Walls, as Germans know, don’t just keep people out, they also keep the population in. Do not allow the creation of identity papers and registries for Americans!

 Guard the impartiality of judges and enlist law-schools and state bars to scrutinize and ensure the independence of judges from party politics. On the home front, when it comes to large infrastructure projects, remember that the nice new airport or autobahn has a price: where is the money coming from, and what is not paid for? The creation of jobs does not justify the destruction of our common land, air, and water or the gearing up of a war economy. Abroad, create a vision of American foreign politics that understands the US not as a leader and policeman of all, but as a fellow citizen of our planetary community.

Let’s break down the fight against oppression into many different fronts and resist the assault on our constitutional rights wherever we can. America is not Germany in 1933, and I hope that my new country’s democracy and people are more resilient than those of my old country.

Copyright 2016 Eva-Maria Simms



 Hitler is welcomed by supporters in Nuremberg, January 1, 1933 

7 comments on “Eva-Maria Simms: The Playbook of Dictatorship

  1. caroline
    February 25, 2017

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well written article. Everyone should be alarmed, and take heed…


  2. charlesnd2013
    January 24, 2017

    This is practical wisdom born of encounter with those who witnessed directly the devastations wrought by the personas and stratagems of evil. Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Judi King
    November 27, 2016

    Thank you for this insightful article. I did share in online without my own comments.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John Samuel Tieman
    November 23, 2016

    I would add, to Eva Simms’ excellent essay, a word about the appeal of authoritarianism to veterans.

    When FDR and Congress passed the GI Bill, they weren’t just being nice. They were fully aware of the devastating role that disillusioned veterans played in the events that gave rise to Nazi Germany and other Fascist movements. Hitler was a decorated enlisted man. Goering was a genuine war hero.

    The danger is not simply ideological. Veterans are trained in the use of small arms and squad maneuvers. They work well in rigidly authoritarian structures.

    That said, there’s no rule that says that veterans have to be hard right. Howard Zinn was a veteran. As was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gore Vidal, and, for that matter, John XXIII. Veterans For Peace is pledged “to raise public awareness of the true costs and consequences of militarism and war – and to seek peaceful, effective alternatives.” There is nothing left or right about love of country. There is nothing left or right about flying the flag.

    Thank you for your wise warning, Dr. Simms.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. daniel r. cobb
    November 23, 2016

    Excellent essay. To believe that “it can never happen here” is the first mistake.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Daniel Burston
    November 23, 2016


    Liked by 1 person

  7. Arvin Simon
    November 23, 2016

    Excellent article, Eva. Am sharing online now.

    Liked by 1 person

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