I never considered the distinction between those two nouns until I read Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945, by Richard Overy.
In laying out every detail leading to and encompassing World War II, Overy tells us that the Third Reich, having invaded and occupied much of Europe, dictated that certain of its conquered people would no longer be citizens; they were now reduced to being subjects.
A citizen has rights; a subject has none — not even the right to live. With a word, the Nazis labeled people as their intended victims, and separated them from “citizens” within the occupied countries. “Subject” was actually a pleasantly neutral term for people Hitler considered sub-human and intended to murder, after selecting the useful ones for slave labor on behalf of the Reich. (He used the “citizens” too: he commissioned them as supplemental Einsatzgruppen, death squads.)
Subject and citizen. I found this distinction so startling, I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and applying what I learned to history and to contemporary politics.
Slave-owners were citizens. Slaves were not.
If you live under a monarch or any other type of tyrant, you are a subject, not a citizen.
If you bow to a god, you’re a subject, not a citizen. If you vote for a strongman, you’re relinquishing your citizenship, changing it into subject status.
Who would do that? Apparently, the MAGA crowd would. So would radical American Christians.
Why would they give up being citizens to worship at the shrine of gods they themselves invented? I suggest it’s because citizenship has its complexities, demands and irritations, the most galling of which is imperfection.
But being someone’s subject is simple. It’s the end result for the “leave me alone!” people. Don’t bother them with a few responsibilities, like thinking about government, like voting for representatives. Hand them a simple blueprint for life that requires nothing of them but abject obedience. Then let them be.
Being a subject of a despot means obeying his rules. A lot easier than frequently evaluating and changing the rules, which is what we citizens do. Despotism is metastatic paternalism. Accepting a despot is a regression to childhood, the initial form of subjection, especially if your father was an absolute monarch.
These are the thoughts I woke up with this morning. Which is why I’m going to re-read Erich Fromm’s 1941 classic, Escape From Freedom, his exploration of why people reject citizenship after having accepted it, and return to despotism — as Germany did in the 1930’s.
I just opened the book and saw on the first page several quotes, one from the Talmud, one from Thomas Jefferson and an intriguing one from an Italian Renaissance philosopher whose name I recognized but whom I knew nothing about, Pico della Mirandola:
Neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal have we created thee, so that thou mightest be free according to thy own will and honor, to be thy own creator and builder. To thee alone we gave growth and development depending on thy own free will. Thou bearest in thee the germs of a universal life.
Della Mirandola, my kind of guy. A heretic.
Being an American citizen is a prized position. As a citizen, I can avail myself of the essences of democracy: the rule of law, and electing my government. A subject, though, is ruled by a despot.
We American citizens have had a history of almost a quarter of a millennium of working on the notion and application of democracy. On becoming and being citizens. That’s a long time, longer than any other country on earth.
As a contrary example, it seems easy for Hungarian citizens to give up democracy to vote in a phony election for a despot. How long had they been used to subjection? Oh, more than 900 years. How long had they been citizens? Roughly twenty years. They need more practice.
How can you tell whether someone running for office wants you to be a subject, not a citizen? Easy: he prods at your anger by designating and promoting people and attitudes you can hate. If he wins your hate, you’ve transitioned from citizen to subject.
I’d like to say, “Think about this,” but it’s the reigning characteristic of subjects not to think. Ergo, I say, “Go fuck yourselves, you subjects.”
We are citizens; we know how to do this; and we outnumber you by millions.