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To visit authentic dictatorships, travel back in time

To say that we live under tyranny means to ignore the cold, poverty, and terror in which millions of people lived for hundreds of years, and that many millions still suffer

Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu
Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, on an official trip.Régis BOSSU (Sygma/Getty Images)
Guillermo Altares

Twilight Zone: The Movie was an episodic film that, in 1983, brought together the directors who changed commercial cinema in the 1970s and 1980s: Steven Spielberg, John Landis, George Miller and Joe Dante. The first story, directed by Landis, was titled Time Out and narrated the tale of a racist and anti-Semitic man who, without further explanation, travels back in time and finds himself persecuted by the SS as a Jew in Vichy France, and then transformed into a Black man about to be lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. He ends up on a cattle train heading east in an unknown direction. I would not want those who believe that we live in a dictatorship or who shout racist and fascist slogans to be subjected to a similar lesson, but it wouldn’t hurt them to look back a little either.

Europe, for centuries, has suffered the most horrendous satrapies and its inhabitants have been subjected to state violence — Spain lived under a dictatorship until 1975 — although some of those protesting in recent days in Madrid seem to long for a return to it. Mary Beard’s latest book, Emperor of Rome, is an exciting journey through power in ancient Rome, but also a reflection on power in general, across all eras and at all times. It is also about the terror in which not only Roman citizens lived, but also the whole imperial court: it was never clear if one was going to get out alive from a dinner with the emperor.

But there is no need to go back to such a remote era, when a slave could be thrown into a pool to be eaten by lampreys for breaking a glass, something Beard tells us the aristocratic Pollio did. Frank Dikötter, an expert on communist China and Mao’s cultural revolution, which cost the lives of millions of people, in 2020 published a book titled Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, in which he reviews the lives of eight satraps from the last century, each one more bloodthirsty, egomaniacal, and ruthless.

Demonstrations in Bucharest against the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.
Demonstrations in Bucharest against the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.R. Sigheti (Reuters) / C. Platiau (Reuters)

The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989) destroyed an important part of the historical center of Bucharest and bankrupted his country to build himself a gigantic palace; he installed the largest mass surveillance system in Eastern Europe; he repressed the Hungarian minority; he condemned most of the Romanian population to live in misery. He did not even need to be particularly cruel, although he was when he needed to be: most of the dissidents had been killed during the ruthless rule of his mentor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Between 1949 and 1951, he carried out the so-called Pitesti experiment, one of the peaks of cruelty in the 20th century. It consisted of tortured prisoners being turned into torturers.

The ego of Ceausescu and his wife Elena knew no bounds: they received all possible academic degrees, had a legion of diplomats to obtain foreign decorations (or to invent them), gave themselves the most extravagant names — “Star next to another star in the celestial arc” for example — and it was mandatory for bookstores to stock their works. An old joke went that in Romania, only books by the Ceausescus or about the Ceausescus were sold. State television devoted half of its programming to the couple and the titles of the special programs produced about them were very suggestive: The Era of Nicolae Ceausescu, Twenty Years of Socialist Achievements.

To disagree strongly with a government and the laws it promotes is one thing. To say that we live in a dictatorship is to ignore the cold, poverty, and terror in which millions of people lived for hundreds of years and in which many millions still live. It is an affront to the victims of those regimes, to those who suffer today under constant threat to their lives, their property, and their families. Perhaps it is not necessary to go as far as the character in Twilight Zone: The Movie — a few seconds in a real dictatorship is enough to prove that there are things that, no matter how many times they are repeated, are still nonsense.

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