There’s an old adage that says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most people take that statement to mean that leaders with absolute power inevitably become corrupt, which historically has tended towards being true.
But what if what that statement really means is that anything in the presence of absolute power will become absolutely corrupt? In this case, the people who are under the authority of totalitarian leaders are destined to became corrupt simply by association?
I am not arguing that every person who has ever been under the influence of an authoritarian leader is inwardly or outwardly a corrupt and evil person, simply that an authoritarian environment can breed corrupt displays of power even among average people.
In On Tyranny Timothy Snyder comments on the experiments done by Stanley Milgram, and the idea that under the influence of an authority figure people will do almost anything, even things they know to be morally wrong.
I think that Snyder in his book and history in general show us a lot of examples of people just needing to be given the opportunity in order for them to do evil things. Think of the French police (even the French people for that matter) during the Holocaust, think of all of the military personnel in the South American Dirty Wars who tortured, raped, and killed innocent people, think of the white supremacists who have been rearing their ugly skinheads since Trump’s election. All that any of these people needed was a nudge in order to do evil things. They weren’t coaxed or cajoled. They openly and often enthusiastically chose to participate.
I don’t think that “evil” authoritarian governments can be blamed for all the bad that happens during their reign. Because without the complicity of at least some of the people, without what Snyder refers to as obeying in advance, their power would hardly exist at all. They are simply giving people an opportunity to express something that deep down they’ve been wanting to for a while, whether that’s a desire to please or something more sinister.