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Dreaming of Freedom in a Totalitarian Rule

This year I came across a very interesting book—interesting because I found it relatable even though it was released in Germany in 1966. 

The Third Reich of Dreams is a diary, a collection of dreams of the people under Nazi rule. Charlotte Beradt, a Jewish journalist, woke up night after night terrified of being hunted by storm troopers. This led her to wonder whether she was the only one having these horrific dreams, turns out she was not. With more than three hundred dreams that she journalled under utmost secrecy, Beradt compiled a book of seventy-five dreams of Germans, both Jewish and non-Jewish people, alike. Strange as you might find it, their dreams had common undertones. Their dreams whispered truths that they could not talk about aloud. As you read the book, you realise how a totalitarian rule affects peoples’ subconscious. This can be seen in a dream that a factory owner narrated to Beradt, he said, “Goebbels came to my plant. He had the workers line up in two rows facing them. I had to lift my arm in the Hitler salute. It took me half an hour to get the arm up. Goebbels watched my efforts as though it were a spectacle, with neither approval nor disapproval. But when my arm was finally up, he said six words: ‘I do not desire your salute,’ and went to the door. I stood there in my own plant, amid my own people, my arm raised. Never in my life have I felt so humiliated.”

Here are some excerpts from the book. Some of them may feel all too familiar and uncomfortable. 

“Destroyed is the healthy balance between submission and self-assertion. The third Reich invades and controls even the deepest, the most private recesses of our mind, until finally, even in the unconscious, only submission remains (page 155).”

This echoes George Orwell’s 1984 where the protagonist finally loses hold over reality, his independence, his sense of truth, and submits to Big Brother. Another character—Parsons, who considered himself a true believer and shouted Party slogans the entire day, was arrested when his daughter listened through the keyhole and heard him saying “Down With Big Brother” in his sleep. Horrified that he might have been disloyal in his sleep, he was proud of his daughter for turning him into the police. Though it was written in 1948, Orwell’s fiction was closer to the truth than many could have imagined. Under an authoritarian rule, fear mongering, and propaganda can wash away all sense of common sense, resilience, and autonomy until the majority wins.

We see how a totalitarian rule can affect the subconscious through the dream of a German woman. She was a child when she had this dream in 1960. In her dream, she noticed a pile of letters in her apartment. All the letters had been opened, and she wondered why the censors of that time had not used more scientific methods. While complaining to her doorman, she noticed another man beside him who had come to meet her on account of the letters. As she was about to explain herself, he demanded to see her identification papers. The man grew taller and turned into the man with the black suit, with insignia that gleamed and sparkled. She tried to defend herself saying that he did not have any right to ask for her papers without authority; she wanted to complain; she was a free citizen. The man became physically violent towards her, bound her wrists and took her away saying, “It doesn’t matter anyway. We know you and what you are.” The woman said to herself that she had hoped to be able to recognise their kind immediately but wasn’t able to and it was her fault. Then she began to scream in the desperate hope that someone would come and help. But she knew that now no one would ever come, never again.

“Amid all the ‘musts’ of life under totalitarian rule, this almost touching magic formula, ‘don’t have to’, demonstrates once again what effort it costs to be against a state where freedom is a burden and bondage comes as a relief (page 119).” 

This part reminded me of something I learned in Psychology called learned helplessnessLearned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so. In a totalitarian rule, when, faced with negative, stressful situations such as opposition to the individual or independent thought, surveillance of private lives, censorship of truths and facts, curtailment of freedoms, and harsh repercussions for breaking the rules repeatedly, people sometimes give up trying altogether because they eventually believe (or are led to believe) that they have no control over the situation. Any act of rebellion or desire to fight for one’s rights or freedoms is stifled. Bitten innumerable times, people eventually tire of fighting systemic oppression and learn to be helpless and go with the flow. 

In 1934, a 45-year-old eye doctor had a dream where – storm troopers were putting up barbed wire on all the hospital windows. He had sworn not to allow that to happen to his ward, but he put up with it anyway. “I stood like a caricature of a doctor while they took out the window panes and turned a ward into a concentration camp. But I lost my job anyway. I was called back, however, to treat Hitler because I was the only man in the world who could. I was ashamed of myself for feeling proud and began to cry.”

“In this dream, he recognizes the dangers implicit in remaining silent: that there is indeed a connection between doing nothing and wrongdoing (page 63).” 

We have been witness to the curbing of freedom, especially that of speech and expression, all around the world. Under the trappings of nationalism and patriotism, we are seeing an increase in intolerance. Journalism is fighting to remain true to what journalism is actually meant to do – convey the truth and facts. So many journalists are fighting for their lives and so many have lost their lives because they spoke up. We have heard of womenstudentsactivists – young and old being jailed or disappearing or dying in ‘encounters’. Gradually, people are growing more and more fearful of saying anything against the government. Is it really a government of the people, for the people and by the people if we have to scan the room before we open our mouths? As we grow quieter and submissive, totalitarian rule grows louder and more powerful. Therefore, there is a connection between doing nothing and wrongdoing.

The first small compromise, the first minor sin of omission marking the beginning of a gradual process by which man’s will was to become weakened to the point of atrophy. It deals with barely recognizable injustices and normal behavior under quite ordinary conditions, which was to produce the ‘guilt of the guiltless’—a state of mind, that, despite all efforts, remains difficult to explain (page 30).” 

Some people stick to their guns, their beliefs and principles, and face the effects of it. There is an article on Reuters about families breaking apart in America based on the candidate they voted for before and during the Trump era. Most people have succumbed to violence and intolerance. Have you held back from saying what you think? Have you deleted a text on a WhatsApp group? Have you lost a friend because of a difference in ideologies? Have you been made to feel you’re wrong just for having different opinions? Have you felt scared or even guilty for speaking what you truly think or feel? 

Hannah Arendt was Beradt’s contemporary and friend. She escaped from Germany and sought refuge in America. As a Jewish political philosopher and theorist, she wrote, “Totalitarian rule becomes truly total the moment it closes the iron vice of terror on its subject’s private social lives, and it never fails to boast of this achievement.” During Nazi Germany, people’s choice of food, clothing, what they read, whom they met, what they spoke, what music they listened to was closely monitored and controlled. Hitler prided himself on creating a country of a superior race. In different parts of the world today, people’s private lives and their choices about what they eat, which religion they follow and practise, their sexual identity and preferences, whom they choose to marry, are slowly being governed. While choice being taken away and submission due to fear is a sign of a failed democracy, a unified, homogenous front is presented to the rest of the world as a victory.   

“The warning that totalitarian tendencies must be recognized before they become overt—before the guise is dropped, before the people no longer may speak the word ‘I’ and must guard their tongue so that not even they understand what they say (page 147).”

Around the world, we have been seeing glimpses of totalitarianism emerging and gaining a strong foothold. Governments have been trying to control the public and private lives of their citizens by slowly curbing their freedom under various garbs. Any sentiment spoken against that which is acceptable by the government is seen as anti-national. In India, we recently saw the move to bring digital news and content providers under government control under the Information and Broadcasting ministry. All news and current affairs, or audio-visuals, or films might come under the control of the ministry. Our Constitution provided for the absolute separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. As the boundaries between these powers merge, due to political interference, they do not remain accountable to each other or their citizens. As a result, all voices – of dissent, of difference, of diversity, in any form are gradually being silenced. 

Beradt wrote that she collected these dreams because “dreams seemed to reveal a great deal about people’s deepest feelings and reactions as they became part of the mechanism of totalitarianism. When a person sits down to keep a diary, this is a deliberate act, and he remoulds, clarifies or obscures his reactions. But… these dreams—these diaries of the night—were conceived independently of their authors’ conscious will… Dream imagery might thus help to describe the structure of a reality that was just on the verge of becoming a nightmare.”

In the afterword to The Third Reich of Dreams, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s notes concurred with Beradt, “the dreamer can recognise deep down, what the system is really like.” Half a century later, do you recognise deep down how history is repeating itself? What do your dreams have to say about our current systems? 

Renita Siqueira is an Instructional Designer by profession and a poet by passion. 


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