Among those featured on BBC Radio 4’s episode of The Film Programme on Iron Curtain Directors was Czech director Milos Forman. Forman was a stern opponent of totalitarianism, having experienced both the Nazi and Soviet domination of his country, yet he noted that there were people who were content to live under a totalitarian regime.
It seemed odd that some people might have felt at ease living under the rule of Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. Perhaps some of them agreed with the policies being pursued, perhaps more felt that they were being offered stability and certainty. Perhaps there were some who felt that having a ruler who would offer an answer to every question for them, that having someone who would take all of the challenging decisions that needed to be made, had an attractiveness about it.
The people who were content to live under the totalitarian regimes that dominated the Czechoslovakia in which Forman spent his younger years would not have been so unusual in finding reassurance in authoritarian rulers, down through the centuries there have been countless people who valued direction and certainty over individual choice and freedom.
The Church created a totalitarian society more enduring than that of any political extremist. The definitions of reality and the moral strictures provided by the bishops were more pervasive than any party manifesto. People accepted church teaching and regulation, and if they did not they might pay with their lives.
Christendom was an ordering of society that could be more oppressive than the systems devised by the Twentieth Century dictators. There was no space for freedom of conscience, nor for conduct that did not conform with the clerical homilies. In parts of the world, there are societies still living in accordance with the theological interpretations of those bygone ages.
What is the attraction of such regimes? Perhaps they answer the existential questions people must face about the purpose and meaning of their lives. Perhaps they give simple answers to the everyday questions as to how people should behave and how they should treat others.
It is notable that the churches that have been most enduring are not those that have emphasised individual belief and individual exercise of conscience, but those which have been authoritarian, those which have told people what to do and how to think.
It is not hard to understand why demagogues have become established in various countries, they reflect a human tendency which is centuries old.