Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
A number of days ago I wrote an article about the dehumanization of people and genocide. Since I am a historian and much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.
One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.
Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:
“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”
But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.”
Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:
“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)
But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:
“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”
In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.
In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.”
For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “they will make America great again.”
When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”
There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.
But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”