How Authoritarian Regimes Create a Climate of Fear

Why are so many societies becoming susceptible to authoritarian thinking again? Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature, has given a lot of thought to this question and talked about politicizing fear as well as her own experiences under a dictatorial regime.

Armin Käfer | February 2018
Herta Müller beim Stuttgarter Gespräch
Max Kovalenko/Lichtgut

Fear is a very personal and intimate emotion. At the same time, it is a political issue and the foundation of dictatorial governments: Without a climate of fear, authoritarian rulers could not hold on to their power. But how can a longing for authoritarian leadership arise in a free society? Answers to this key question may lead us to understand the current development in many Eastern European countries, and nobody would be more qualified to comment on this issue than novelist and poet Herta Müller. Last Tuesday, she offered her attempt at an explanation to an audience of 600 people at Stuttgart’s Haus der Wirtschaft (House of Economy). The 2009 Nobel prize winner in literature was a guest at the Stuttgart Dialog, an event series organized by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and daily newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung. The evening event was hosted by Joachim Dorfs, editor in chief of Stuttgarter Zeitung, and Maja Pflüger as the representative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Born in Romania in 1953, Herta Müller was harassed and ostracized repeatedly as a young woman: first as part of the German-speaking minority of Banat Swabians, then as a dissident under the socialist regime, and finally as a critical voice within her own cultural community. In 1987, she was granted permission to emigrate to West Germany, where she spent the following decades creating an oeuvre that illustrates, among other things, how the political manipulations of totalitarian systems undermine the life of the individual, eating away at it like a cancer.

Organized fear is at the heart of authoritarian regimes

Freedom is normally seen as a privilege and not a reason to be afraid. But many people did fear freedom, Ms. Müller commented on the developments in Eastern Europe. The initial euphoria of finally being set free had soon worn off and evaporated, replaced in many places by fear. Fear, she said, “is as complicated as freedom.” Adding momentum, organized fear is at the heart of all authoritarian regimes, which try to literally raise people to be afraid. “Others, however, grow up to strongly reject authority,” she added, clearly sounding as if she was speaking from experience.

Herta Müller on stage with students
Max Kovalenko/Lichtgut

Three Stuttgart-based students – Asrai Soos, Dominik Wabersich, and Xiaocui Qui (from left) – joined Ms. Müller on stage to ask questions.

“Fear multiplying like bacteria in a petri dish”

Ms. Müller considers the susceptibility to authoritarian ideas an “aftereffect of those long years of dictatorship.” Several countries with a past characterized by authoritarian regimes were currently experiencing “a kind of backlash,” represented by personalities such as the Hungarian right-wing populist Viktor Orbán, his Polish counterpart Jaroslaw Kaczynski, or Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Theirs and similar careers thrive the greater a country’s isolation. “In such a climate, fear multiplies like bacteria in a petri dish.” To isolate one’s country, Ms. Müller added, internal and external enemies were key, and those could be strategically built up. Mr. Orbán and his kindred spirits “actually create enemies,” according to Ms. Müller. “The authoritarian system invents its own enemies.”

Among the invented enemies of many Eastern Europeans are the refugees. Talking about this topic, Ms. Müller sounded particularly emotional: “I was a refugee once myself,” she commented, adding that she felt for today’s refugees. “There is nothing worse than having a homeland that you cannot live in.”

Given the fact that all Eastern Europeans of a certain age had experienced flight or relocation in some form or other, Ms. Müller found it completely incomprehensible that they, of all people, should try to close their countries’ borders to refugees. During socialist rule, the predominant wish in many of these countries had been to “just get out.” Compared to Syria today, however, the conditions back then had been “more like a small mishap,” she commented, before posing a radical question: “Are we happy when someplace else others die a wretched death?”

Herta Müller im Gespräch
Max Kovalenko/Lichtgut

Herta Müller talking to Maja Pflüger (left), Robert Bosch Stiftung, and Joachim Dorfs, Stuttgarter Zeitung.

“Where would I be today if I had not grown up in a dictatorship?”

Ms. Müller also spoke about the fears she herself had had, back in the day in Romania, fears that had never been strong enough to give up resistance to the dictatorial regime. “I didn’t even have a choice but to resist,” she said, despite the fact that the “representatives of fear” were everywhere. She calls them “the guys with the sleazy suits but clean hands,” and she remembers them as “intolerably dumb, uneducated, rude.”

Three Stuttgart-based students – Asrai Soos, Xiaocui Qui, and Dominik Wabersich – joined Ms. Müller on stage to ask questions. Ms. Qui, a literature major, inquired about the sense of freedom Ms. Müller had felt when arriving in Germany. The feeling of being free, Ms. Müller replied, had been associated with great uncertainty, and the “fear that they would kill me” had stayed with her even in exile. While she continued to live in Germany, the country had never become a second home to her. Ms. Müller left Romania on her own accord, “but only because I didn’t have a choice but to want it.” Often enough, things reminded her of her native country: “And then I realize that I will never again be where I would be if the dictatorship hadn’t happened.” These were the moments when she understood how much “political intimidation can turn your world upside down.”