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When Authority Turns to Oppression: A Historical Pattern of Persecution

Nations and empires around the globe have had their times of prosperity as well as times of hardship and failure. However, when minority groups become a threat to a totalitarian government or a governing body, people in power begin to reveal their malicious intentions. This is when persecution arises and people are targeted, even those just living on their land peacefully.

One example from history is the Protestant movement that arose across Europe in the 1400s. The Catholic Church, which still had an authoritarian grip on Europe, began the persecution of the growing Protestant populations. Soon, Protestant denominations, such as Lutheranism and Calvinism, were the target of persecution as their beliefs went against the structure of the Church.

During this time, the sale of indulgences came under fire as the Church taught that salvation and forgiveness of sins could be bought with money. Additionally, the Catholic Church taught that a priest would have to intervene to have a relationship with God. Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism, countered these beliefs in his ninety-five theses. He argued that salvation only came through a personal relationship with God as well as an act of repentance. In response to this and other condemnations, the Catholic Church excommunicated Luther. This would only be the beginning of many more excommunications of people who spoke out against the Catholic Church.

Another example from history following the First World War. After that war, Germany was forced to take the blame, leaving the nation in an economic crisis, including hyperinflation and a state of economic desolation. Infamously, the National Socialist Party, or Nazis, came to power in Germany and Hitler became the face of the party.

The Nazi Party’s beliefs encompassed extreme nationalism, militarism, and racism. As they gained power, Hitler promised the people to make Germany a great nation again. In the process of doing so, he believed he had to purify the Germans to make the “perfect Aryan race”. He did this by getting rid of, and later killing people he saw as defects and blemishes. This long list of people included Jewish people, Romani people, people with disabilities, homosexuals, and many more. Hitler saw these people, but especially the Jewish people, as the root cause of Germany’s problems, including Germany's defeat in World War I. These people didn’t meet his standards of “pureness”.

The rise of Joseph Stalin was similar to that of Hitler’s. Stalin saw that his plans were thwarted because of a certain class of people. In the late 1920s, Stalin began the rapid industrialization of Russia and what he called “collectivization”. Collectivization was a process where Stalin forced Russian peasants to surrender their land to join communal agricultural units controlled by Russia’s communist government. However, many were not cooperative with Stalin’s rule, so many land-owning peasants, referred to as Kulaks, counterattacked with the slaughtering of millions of horses and cattle.

Nevertheless, Stalin continued to rapidly industrialize and continued the collectivization process. As he took more land from peasants, he sent them in crammed cattle cars to remote places in the Soviet Union or prison camps. Life wasn’t much better for those who did surrender their land as they had to work in factories and face the adversities of urban settings such as confined living spaces, food shortages, and improper infrastructure. By 1933, Stalin commenced what's now known as the “Great Purges,” including executions and assassinations of those who defied the Soviet government.

Looking back at history, a pattern of destruction is clear. When groups in authority become self-interested, history shows us a common tendency of oppression toward the most vulnerable. Throughout human history, this pattern is especially true when a totalitarian government takes power and seeks to control its people.

[Sources: The Western Heritage Since 1300 Eighth Edition; Atlas of World History]

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