October 4, 2018

‘Enemy of the People’: An Ugly Phrase with a Dictatorial History


Nov. 20, 1961. With armed guards looking on, East German workers set up anti-tank fortifications on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall after the confrontation between U.S. and Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie. / CIA, Wikimedia Commons


Over the course of the last century, it has been used repeatedly by dictators and autocrats to delegitimize opposition parties and dissenters.


By Veronika Bondarenko / 02.27.2017


Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to media outlets that he dubbed the “fake news media” as “the enemy of the American People.”

The phrase “the enemy of the people” has a long history.

Over the course of the last century, it has been used repeatedly by dictators and autocrats to delegitimize foreign governments, opposition parties, and dissenters.

Though the phrase dates back to Roman times and the reign of Emperor Nero (who was declared “an enemy of the people” by the Roman Senate), it came into use in the modern period during the French Revolution. Ennemi du peuple was used to refer to those who disagreed with the new French government during the “Reign of Terror,” a period during which thousands of revolutionairies were executed by guillotine.

While it was featured as the name of a Henrik Ibsen play, its next prominent use was by the Nazis. During the Third Reich’s rule in Germany, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels referred to Jews as “a sworn enemy of the German people” who posed a risk to Adolf Hitler’s vision for the country, according to The Washington Post.

It gained its widest use by Joseph Stalin during the early years of the Soviet Union. In the nation’s early years, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin used the term vrag naroda (enemy of the nation/people) to refer to those who disagreed with the ideologies pushed forth by the Bolshevik government and, later, adopted by the newly-formed Soviet Union. This could include anyone from the clergy who did not want to adopt state-enforced atheism to writers to political opposition that questioned the ideologies of the new government. Later picked up by Stalin, such a designation could mean immediate imprisonment or removal to a labour camp.

“All leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, a party filled with enemies of the people, are hereby to be considered outlaws, and are to be arrested immediately and brought before the revolutionary court,” said Lenin in November 1917.

As reported by The New York Times, the phrase lost popularity in the 1950s when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came into power and denounced Lenin and Stalin’s use of the term to refer to anyone who disagreed with the leaders.

“The formula ‘enemy of the people was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals,” Khrushchev said in a 1956 speech to the Soviet Communist Party.

Nina Khruscheva, Khruschev’s great-granddaughter and international affairs professor at the New School in New York, told The New York Times that it was particularly shocking to hear the language of “state nationalism [that] is always the same regardless of the country.”

In recent years, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez also called political dissenters “enemies of the homeland.”


Originally published by Business Insider.

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