and Combat Totalitarianism in the World
During the 20th century, totalitarianism led directly to the deaths of well over 100 million people. Totalitarianism isn’t defined by any particular philosophy, but rather by the ambition of a government to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives. In Germany, this took the form of National Socialism, also known as Nazism. In Italy, it was Fascism. In the Soviet Union and China, it was communism. When Danielle becomes president of China at fifteen in the novel, the country had already had some reforms, but was still suffering from the lingering effects of totalitarianism.
You can combat totalitarianism yourself in two main areas: helping those currently ruled by totalitarians, and making it harder for totalitarianism to come to your own society in the future.
So how can you do this? First, make sure you understand the basics of the problem. Here are a few helpful videos on totalitarianism:
- An advanced high school-level talk on totalitarianism1 and how it works. Focuses on the World War II era.
- A fast-paced, fact-filled video on totalitarianism in China,2 from John Green’s Crash Course Although China is no longer totalitarian, the influence of totalitarianism there still influences the world’s most populous country.
- A short explainer by Vox about North Korea,3 the world’s only remaining classic totalitarian regime.
In addition to the totalitarian government of North Korea, the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also ISIS, ISIL, IS, or Daesh) also rules its territory with a system like totalitarianism. Over 25 million people live in North Korea, and at its peak, eight million people lived in ISIS-controlled areas, although most of them have now been liberated. These people have no political freedom, their rulers torture and kill anyone who opposes them. Widespread shortages of food and medicine sicken men, women, and children, and the rulers try to brainwash everyone into hating people in the outside world.
It is difficult and sad to confront the terrible suffering experienced by our fellow human beings in totalitarian controlled areas, but it is also frustrating, because it seems difficult for people thousands of miles a way to make a difference. Yet there are some important ways you can help these people.
It is too dangerous to travel to war zones to help directly, but many young people are raising money and awareness to support the brave work of several relief organizations making a positive impact in the lives of those suffering under totalitarianism. These include:
- Liberty in North Korea.4 The policies of the North Korean government caused about 1 in 10 of its people to starve to death during the 1990s, and the population still suffers from serious malnutrition and food shortages. Yet the government blocks most foreign relief organizations from the country, which makes it hard to help the people there. North Korea’s leaders have banned most citizens from leaving, so each year thousands of people risk their lives trying to escape. Those who successfully get out of the country are known as defectors, and face great challenges as they try to make new lives in South Korea or the United States. They are without their families, lack education and money, and have never had access to the Internet or accurate news about the world. It is a very difficult adjustment. Liberty in North Korea provides aid to defectors and also raises awareness about the struggles of those left behind inside North Korea. You can request a speaker to come to your school,5 and bring together your friends to raise funds and make donations.6
- International Rescue Committee.7 The International Rescue Committee provides crucial help to the people affected by ISIS totalitarianism. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes, lost all their possessions, and been separated from their families. The IRC focuses on supporting health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and equal rights for these people. You can raise awareness and support for their work by sharing videos8 like these within your social networks, or having them shown at your school or place of worship. Over 92 percent of all donations go directly to helping those in need.
- Doctors Without Borders.9 One of the most serious problems for victims of ISIS is that many of them have lost access to even basic medical care. Doctors Without Borders sends medical teams into high-risk areas to help those who need it most. This includes women and girls who have been injured by religiously-motivated violence and female genital mutilation. They also provide life-saving treatment to those tortured by ISIS or wounded in the fighting. Learn more about their work here,10 and share this information in your community. These doctors work for a small fraction of the money they could make elsewhere, which allows the charity to make the most of all the donated money it receives.
- Save the Children.11 The population ruled by ISIS has a very high proportion of babies and children. They are especially vulnerable, and many have been orphaned by the fighting. Save the Children provides emergency relief services to these children, and also campaigns to raise awareness about their suffering in countries like the United States. The goal of this is for citizens to insist that their politicians work harder to find solutions to the crisis and protect children at risk of violence. This charity is a particularly good choice for young people to support, because it is easy to ask yourself: “What if I had been born in another part of the world?” This connection to suffering people your own age is emotionally powerful. Some students hold car washes and other drives to collect direct donations,12 while others set up fundraisers with special athletic activities,13 like races and triathlons.
- Yazda.14 ISIS is an ultra-extremist group within Sunni Islam, and it commits horrible acts of violence against anyone who doesn’t share their religious views. But they have been especially brutal to a small minority group in majority-Muslim Iraq called the Yazidis, who follow a religion that combines influences from Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. In 2014, ISIS conquered the small area where the Yazidis lived, and tried to commit genocide against them. Many Yazidis escaped, but lost their homes and their families, and are struggling to put their lives back together. Your support of Yazda can help this ancient community recover.
Although totalitarianism has been ended in most of the world, it would be wrong to think that it is impossible for it to return. Really, totalitarianism is just a more extreme form of authoritarianism. There are many authoritarian governments still in power, such as Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. There are also authoritarian movements within many democratic countries, including the United States. Sometimes these movements are based on ideas of racial supremacy, or hatred for a certain religious group. They all share the idea that some people don’t deserve full rights in society. Like Danielle, all citizens should vigorously oppose these ideas.
Here are some concrete ways you can combat the ideas that might lead to totalitarianism:
- Practice and promote critical thinking. Totalitarianism only gets power when millions of people buy into it. Totalitarian leaders use dramatic, emotional language and images to discourage people from thinking independently and logically. They also try to create the illusion that everyone in society is united in support of their extreme ideas. When people feel like everyone else is supporting the movement, this makes them less likely to question whether it promotes immoral ideas.
This is why it is so important for you to think critically—questioning what you are told, to test whether it is correct and ethical. If other people see you questioning injustices, they will be more likely to stand up to those injustices too. For more information on how to build your critical thinking skills and encourage critical thinking in your community, see the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and Advance Critical Thinking.”
- Support good journalism. Because totalitarianism is so harmful, people will only go along with it if they are fed lies and propaganda. Brave journalists inform citizens about abuses by their government and expose truths the government wants to keep hidden. For this reason, totalitarian governments try to shut down independent journalism (often by arresting or killing journalists who do not follow their ideas) and force people to rely on official propaganda. In less extreme cases, leaders may try to intimidate journalists, or discredit them with the public by claiming they are biased.
In many countries, journalism is also under threat for economic reasons. Because so much free content is available on the Internet, high-quality newspapers and investigative news magazines have seen their paid subscriptions fall dramatically. This means there is less money to hire talented journalists, and more pressure to churn out simple articles quickly instead of working slowly and patiently on more important stories. You can fight this trend by finding a publication doing good work on issues you care about, and investing in a paid subscription. Many have student discounts available.
- Create pro-freedom technology. Totalitarianism requires that a government be able to control the lives of its citizens. In the 1930s, this was easy because people got most of their news from newspapers and radio stations. If a government sent soldiers to seize control of the printing presses and radio transmission towers, they could control the information available to the people.
Today, though, information is much more decentralized. The Internet now links billions of devices that can talk to each other directly. So, to control the flow of information, authoritarian leaders have to develop new technologies that can censor the Internet and monitor what citizens are doing. In response, people have used platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate, and technologies like Tor15 to protect their privacy.
But oppressive governments are still finding new technologies to control people’s lives. With hard work and creativity, you could create the next pro-freedom technology that makes totalitarianism impossible. The best way to get started is to learn programming. For more information on how to do this, see the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and Learn to Program Computers from a Young Age.”
For more information, please see the following entries in the companion book A Chronicle of Ideas: A Guide for Superheroines (and Superheroes): George Orwell, From Each According to His Ability, to Each According to His Need, Totalitarian, Trains Leaving On Time in World War II Italy, Stalin, Hitler.