CHAPTER 15: Making an Obedient Mass
It is too easy to say that the German soul was predisposed to totalitarianism. Even if the people were inured to submissiveness through iron discipline for generations, they were never, before Hitler, genocidal maniacs.
Since World War II, several books have appeared which, while not dealing directly with the Nazis, are of invaluable aid in explaining how ordinary people can be transformed into automata, devoid of conscience or reason. They help us to understand, not only the Nazis, but millions of disciples of movements in Western countries today who, almost overnight, are weaned from their customary behavior and attachments and indoctrinated with irrational beliefs. They are The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, The Mind Possessed by William Sargant, and The Rape of the Mind by Joost Meerloo.
What is the formula for producing pliant followers?
Take people, not wholly preoccupied with subsistence, who despair of being happy either in the present or in the future. They feel the sharp cutting edge of frustration. Either through some personal defect or because external conditions do not permit growth, they are eager to renounce themselves, since the self is insupportable.
Many German men were in this position at the end of World War I. They came home to a civilian life without purpose, in which they had no part. In the chaos and collapse, vast armies of uprooted people felt threatened by the war's economic and social aftermath. National Socialism gave them a chance for a fresh start. As Eric Hoffer points out:
People who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worthwhile purpose in self-advancement. The prospect of an individual career cannot stir them to a mighty effort, nor can it evoke in them faith and a single-minded dedication. They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil; something unclean and unlucky. Anything undertaken under the auspices of the self seems to them foredoomed. Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be good and noble. Their innermost craving is for a new life -- a rebirth -- or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause. An active mass movement offers them opportunities for both. If they join the movement as full converts they are reborn to a new life in its close-knit collective body, or if attracted as sympathizers they find elements of pride, confidence and purpose by identifying themselves with the efforts, achievements and prospects of the movement.
To the frustrated a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.
The movement, in turn, encourages self-renunciation. It does not attract the individual who believes in himself, nor does it care to; on the contrary, he is precisely the individual whom it ridicules. It popularizes the idea that the private person who finds his own satisfactions is halting the progress of civilization. But to the person with the unwanted self, unable to believe in himself, the movement provides something larger to believe in. As Hitler pointed out: "Monkeys put to death any members of their community who show a desire to live apart. And what the apes do, men do too, in their own manner."
The movement also provides justification. To those who find no meaning or purpose in life, it says: "The world is out of joint, not you" or "The world that most people inhabit is an illusion... No longer alone in its misery, the frustrated mind now has company, which includes even those who protest that they are happy, because it is taught to see through that so-called happiness.
As one Nazi, Karl-Heinz Schwenke, a tailor, described it:
I had ten suits of my own when I married. Twenty-five years later, when their "democracies" got through with me in 1918, I had none, not one. I had my sweater and my pants. Even my Army uniform was worn out. My medals were sold. I was nothing. Then, suddenly, I was needed. National Socialism had a place for me. I was nothing -- and then I was needed.
The movement also provides a suitable outlet for the pent-up rage which frustrated people feel, against themselves and the world. It fans that rage and honors it. The believer's rage may actually increase in proportion to what he has had to give up to become part of the movement: his former life, his friends, his family, his privacy, his judgment, sometimes even his name and worldly goods. He is willing, even eager, to make these sacrifices and more, of course, because by making them he can slough off the undesirable self. He receives, in return, an artificial sense of worth. His stature grows through involvement with the group. He is assured that he is great, one of the chosen.
SS men were held together by the idea that they were a sworn brotherhood of the elect. Their mystic rituals gave them special obligations, some too abhorrent to contemplate, but also special privileges.
The believer becomes a fanatic. As a frustrated person, incapable of acting in his own best interests, he never had a firm grip on reality. He can enter into the fantasy life of the movement and act on behalf of impossible dreams, which impose less risk on his fragile ego than he would encounter if he were to tussle with personal hurdles. He gets a sense of omnipotence, too, from tackling world-shaking tasks.
Running away from an acceptance of his own nature and the world as it is, the believer is prone to credulity. He believes because it is impossible. He can be persuaded by the irrational and led by the nose by charlatans. It is easy for him to become irresponsible, since he is not following his own will.
Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, was the perfect exemplar of will-lessness. As he confessed at Nuremberg: "I had nothing to say. I could only say Jawohl! We could only execute orders without thinking about it.... from our entire training the thought of refusing an order just didn't enter one's head, regardless of what kind of order it was."
Since life has been irremediably spoiled for the believer, he has relatively little hesitation about spoiling it for others. This gives him an advantage. He can be unscrupulous under the disguise of idealism. His self-righteousness permits him to convince himself that he is destroying people for their own good. Josef Goebbels felt it his duty "to unleash volcanic passions, outbreaks of rage, to set masses of people on the march, to organize hatred and despair with ice-cold calculation." Eric Hoffer explains such inhumanity:
It seems that when we are oppressed by the knowledge of our worthlessness we do not see ourselves as lower than some and higher than others, but as lower than the lowest of mankind. We hate then the whole world, and we would pour our wrath upon the whole of creation.
There is a deep reassurance for the frustrated in witnessing the downfall of the fortunate and the disgrace of the righteous. They see in a general downfall an approach to the brotherhood of all. Chaos, like the grave, is a haven of equality. Their burning conviction that there must be a new life and a new order is fueled by the realization that the old will have to be razed to the ground before the new can be built. Their clamor for a millennium is shot through with a hatred for all that exists, and a craving for the end of the world.
This recalls Alfred Rosenberg's argument that "the denial of the world needs a still longer time in order to grow so that it will acquire a lasting predominance over affirmation of the world," and his equation of the Jew with world affirmation.
To be bored is also to be potentially an easy mark for a movement. It provides the meaning and purpose which are gone from the life of the isolated individual, burdened with freedom. As one young Nazi put it just before World War II, "We Germans are so happy. We are free of freedom."
What sort of social milieu is it that breeds people who want to be free of freedom?
Precisely that which has increasingly prevailed since the nineteenth century: a mass society in which the individual is atomized and counts for very little. He stands completely alone. His ties with the community, the family, the kinship group have been broken. Paradoxically, he needs them more than ever, because individual life becomes increasingly absurd and incoherent the more mass society advances.
Uprooted from village and ancestral loyalties and shifted to the anonymous city, the individual suffers culture shock: The old values are out of place in the hostile, competitive world. As an isolated person, no longer part of a settled group whose norms he accepted, he is uncertain and empty -- unless he is an independent thinker or a creative spirit, in which case he may feel himself well rid of the influence of the group. But with the encroachment of mass society, it is less and less likely that he will be able to think or create. A philologist, specializing in Middle High German, described the situation candidly to Milton Mayer (They Thought They Were Free):
... suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was "expected to" participate that had not been there or had not been important before.... it consumed all one's energies.... You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.... The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway.... Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about -- we were decent people -- and kept us so busy with continuous changes and "crises" and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the "national enemies," without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?
Through mass education and mass communication, the individual is propagandized and molded into conditioned responses, like one of Pavlov's dogs. His innate ability to figure things out for himself atrophies, with predictable consequences.
To soften the pain of emptiness, he is drowned in entertainments, which offer him hero-surrogates who are able to live for him. Eternally occupied either as hustler, machine, or spectator, he seldom has a moment to notice that he cannot think, feel or live; that his life is petty, shabby, and totally without meaning; that his authorities are deceitful and manipulative, his society disintegrating, his relationships hollow, and worst of all, that nothing is being done to remedy these horrors.
The irony is that the individual in mass society has only himself. The authority of his parents has been undermined. He has moved from the soil where he was born and experienced certain local allegiances. His work is inhuman and mechanical. No meaning, responsibility, or dignity attaches to it. It requires his participation, but actually develops passivity. It regiments him, and he remains an apathetic machine. He is dependent on his job, and in periods of economic insecurity, glad to have it, but he feels diminished by it.
His relationships lack intimacy and affection. He can no longer trust anyone. He must have answers that will explain the problems of his life. Yet, because he has been trained not to think for himself, he faces a void, and his life becomes unendurable.
Human beings can't stand being unimportant. Most will readily accept the idea of further and further "massification" -- the greater leveling and equality which is evidence of greater democracy -- as a sign of progress. Mass society is symbolized by modernism and egalitarianism, two popular myths of progress. In Germany, this egalitarianism culminated in Hitler's boast that
sixty thousand men have outwardly become almost a unit, that actually these men are uniform not only in ideas, but that even the facial expression is almost the same. Look at these laughing eyes, this fanatical enthusiasm, and you will discover how a hundred thousand men in a movement become a single type.
What does the movement offer the faithful?
Nothing less than a new life. His rebirth is sometimes symbolized in a new name, exotic and foreign, to make the change of identity tangible. Now there is certainty. He knows exactly what is expected of him. Within a circumscribed set of rules, all is permitted: rage without guilt, relief from responsibility, the assertion of superiority over others.
He knows what action is required of him in the present and can look forward to a millennial future as well. There is no more ambiguity. The conflicts, tensions, self-criticisms, and doubts that assail the rest of us are washed away, and he enjoys a state of equilibrium. He is no longer a passive participant. Righteously, he looks down at those whom he formerly felt to be superior. The same society which scorned him now is forced to recognize that his beliefs are important. The mass man becomes a power in the world. Rudolf Hess, the melancholy student who became deputy leader of the Third Reich, remained grateful to the end. As he testified at Nuremberg:
It was granted to me for many years of my life to live and work under the greatest son whom my nation has produced in the thousand years of its history. Even if I could I would not expunge this period from my existence. I regret nothing. If I were standing once more at the beginning I should act once again as I did then, even if I knew that at the end I should be burnt at the stake. No matter what men do, I shall one day stand before the judgment seat of the Almighty. I shall answer to him, and I know that he will acquit me.
In exchange for this miraculous transformation, the individual willingly subjects himself to a thorough brainwashing, through which his old beliefs and personality are eradicated. He may never be aware that he is being brainwashed. It may happen instantly or gradually, but he puts absolute trust in the leaders of the movement. The group becomes the good father he may never have had, the proxy whom he depends on to solve all his problems, the authority to which he owes obedience. From the moment he is captured, he identifies with the group and begins to think as they do. Their common undertaking insures that he will never have to shoulder any personal blame for failure or shortcomings. So long as he behaves according to the rules, he will be accepted. The rules are clear and consistent, or seem to be.
The Germans were used to compulsion from early childhood. Rudolf Hoess's reminiscence is fairly typical, and makes his subsequent acquiescence in running Auschwitz more plausible:
It was constantly impressed upon me in forceful terms that I must obey promptly the wishes and commands of my parents, teachers, priests, etc., and indeed of all grown-up people, including servants, and that nothing must distract me from this duty. Whatever they said was always right.
These basic principles on which I was brought up became part of my flesh and blood. I can still clearly remember how my father, who on account of his fervent Catholicism, was a determined opponent of the Reich Government and its policy, never ceased to remind his friends that, however strong one's opposition might be, the laws and decrees of the State had to be obeyed unconditionally.
From my earliest youth I was brought up with a strong awareness of duty. In my parents' house it was insisted that every task be exactly and conscientiously carried out. Each member of the family had his own special duties to perform.
The group is beyond criticism. Its realm is sacred. Even if a man has convictions which run counter to those of the movement, he can still be led to act in a manner which contradicts his own beliefs, either because his will is weak or because he is the victim of certain techniques which cause his will to be transcended. He can say, with Hermann Goring, "I have no conscience! Adolf Hitler is my conscience!" or "It is not I who live, but the Fuhrer who lives in me."
It is important to examine these techniques if we are to understand how people can be made to follow a Fuhrer wherever he may lead.
The proselyte is isolated at first. No free exchange with unbelievers is allowed. He is cut off from ties of loyalty with the past. His family and friends are discredited. Feelings of exclusivity are encouraged.
His mind is barraged with repetitive propaganda until it is made weary. The indoctrination may go on uninterruptedly for sixteen hours or more a day, for weeks on end. Even if the proselyte rejects what he hears, argues against it, or falls into apathy, the Pavlovian conditioning ultimately seduces him, and he surrenders to the training.
Mechanical drill, rhythmical marches, dance rituals, and repetitive chanting are also effective in breaking down resistance.
The English psychiatrist William Sargant could better grasp how Hitler was able to bring even intelligent Germans into "a condition of intellectual and emotional subjection" through "mass rallies, marching and martial music, chanting and slogans and highly emotional oratory and ceremony" after witnessing the subservience of certain African tribes to their leaders and seeing their powerful initiation rites:
Whether in a "primitive" tribe or at school or in the army, the process is essentially the same. Severe stress is imposed on the new recruit, by subjecting him to arbitrary and frightening authority, by bewildering him, abusing or ill-treating him, by telling him that his old values and sentiments are childish, and so inducing in him a state of unease and suggestibility in which new values can easily be drummed into him, and he recovers his self-confidence by accepting them. The initial conditioning techniques may have to be reinforced from time to time by further conditioning procedures, and follow-up indoctrination is considered most important in all types of religious or other conversion.
Once the proselyte has been broken down and sensitized, his thinking and feelings can be manipulated, and delusions implanted. He falls under the suggestive power of the group and accepts its distortions as objective truth.
Most people are suggestible and can be hypnotized against their will, obeying commands even when they go against the grain. Dr. Sargant observes:
It is not the mentally ill but ordinary normal people who are most susceptible to "brainwashing," "conversion," "possession," "the crisis" ... and who ... fall readily under the spell of the demagogue or the revivalist, the witch-doctor or the pop group, the priest or the psychiatrist, or even in less extreme ways the propagandist or the advertiser.
In the suggestible state, the proselyte may attribute divine powers to his leader and accept dogmas which he might have rejected in a more normal state. Some of the men closest to Hitler, for example, acknowledged that they believed in his divinity. Himmler's masseur, Felix Kersten, relates that he once answered the phone and heard Hitler's voice before passing the phone on to Himmler, who exclaimed: "You have been listening to the voice of the Fuhrer, you're a very lucky man." Himmler told Kersten that Hitler's commands came "from a world transcending this one" and "possessed a divine power." It was the "Karma" of the German people that they should be "saved" by "a figure of the greatest brilliance" which had "become incarnate" in Hitler's person.
And even disbelievers and scoffers can also come to accept irrational dogmas -- through contagion, imitation or sudden conversion.
Beliefs have the power to infect. The onlookers at a mass rally, where emotions are being stirred up, often feel the same intensity of excitement that the participants feel. We can "catch" ideas that are completely foreign to us. In early Judaism, for example, there was no concept of a demonic force. God was responsible for both good and evil. But with influences from Iran, Egypt, and Greece came a tendency to explain evil as the work of demons. Soon after, people began to see manifestations of evil spirits everywhere, and "every misfortune, every illness, and particularly, under the name of possession, all disorders of the nervous system were ascribed to them," according to Charles Guignebert in The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus.
Hitler's early speeches were so mesmerizing that even people who were repelled by his ideas felt themselves being swept along. The playwright Eugene Ionesco mentions in his autobiography that he received the inspiration for Rhinoceros when he felt himself pulled into the Nazi orbit at a mass rally and had to struggle to keep from developing "rhinoceritis."
We "catch" ideas, too, because we want to be like others, particularly when we want not to be our despised selves. If we're satisfied, we don't need to conform, but if we're not, we imitate people whom we admire for having greater judgment, taste, or good fortune than we do. Obedience itself is a kind of imitation. Through conformity, the person who feels inferior is in no danger of being exposed. He's indistinguishable from the others. No one can single him out and examine his unique being. Conformity, in turn, sets him up to be further canceled out as an individual, to have no life apart from his collective purpose. This gives a movement tremendous power over the individual. Even intelligent people are not immune from the desire to conform. Heinrich Hildebrandt, a schoolteacher who was anxious to hide his liberal past, joined the Nazi party, and to his own disgust, found himself "proud to be wearing the insignia. It showed I 'belonged,' and the pleasure of 'belonging,' so soon after feeling excluded, isolated, is very great.... I belonged to the 'new nobility.'"
Above all, he [the true believer] must never feel alone. Though stranded on a desert island, he must still feel that he is under the eyes of the group. To be cast out from the group should be equivalent to being cut off from life.
This is undoubtedly a primitive state of being, and its most perfect examples are found among primitive tribes. Mass movements strive to approximate this primitive perfection, and we are not imagining things when the anti-individualist bias of contemporary mass movements strikes us as a throwback to the primitive.
Sudden conversions, which may happen through hypnosis, emotional shock, despair, or exhaustion, can bring people into movements. William Sargant believes an apparently well-balanced person, "dominated by hypnoid and slightly suggestible brain activity," may suddenly give up his "previous intellectual training and habits of rational thought," to accept "ideas which he would normally find repellent or even patently nonsensical." Sargant is convinced that a heightened state of suggestibility accounts for many cases of demonic possession, or for sudden salvation. The history of mysticism offers instances of extreme opinions instantly reversed. The critical faculty is suspended, and what was formerly believed to be black is now white, and vice-versa.
Once the believer has been taken over by one of these means, it is difficult for him to revert to his former self. In a sense, collective totalitarian thinking can be compared with schizophrenia. In both, there is, says Joost Meerloo in The Rape of the Mind, a "loss of an independent, verifiable reality, with a consequent relapse into a more primitive state of awareness." In both, thought and action are arrested at an infantile level of development.
Since the totalitarian denies man's dynamic nature, views him simply as a submissive robot, and provides this robot with one single, simple answer to all the ambivalences, doubts, conflicts, and warring drives within him, all attempts to dislodge the official cliches clash with those same cliches. The believer's isolation in a fortress of other delusional thinkers gives him no opportunity for clear thought or contact with other influences. He is immune to reasonable propositions. He is convinced that he is reasonable, and that his enemies are not. Having burned his bridges behind him, broken with his family and old friends, he cannot go back. He is committed to his involvement in the group. To renounce it would be to repudiate himself. It would also mean giving up all the psychic benefits of omnipotence. His personality and prejudices have become crystallized around a set of actions and dogmas. They are irreversible. Any external stimulus which threatens to penetrate his armor and make him see the absurdity or injustice of his position is rationalized to further harden his rigidity. He has joined the movement at least partly because it handed him stereotypes in place of his vague notions and saved him from having to think things out for himself. Any stimulus which evokes a symbol causes a reflex action. With his weakened conscience and consciousness, he can no longer respond spontaneously, however he may appear to be doing so. He has become the movement. All thoughts and feelings that are at odds with it are snuffed out. This is what gives the believer the air of a one-dimensional man. He lacks depth. There is a limited range of possibilities open to him. If one wants, therefore, to convert him back to an autonomous human being, one finds that there is nobody at home. His mind is shut tight against new ideas. The slogans and ready-made judgments he has absorbed stretch forward into infinity. The believer is protected for all time. Within his sacred circle, all other knowledge is taboo. One might say that the most telltale sign of a believer is his refusal to examine ideas other than the divine commandments which have been implanted in him. One can't get to him because he will not and cannot engage in dialogue. What is particularly maddening about him is that, sterile and unimaginative, he masquerades as an exemplary man, an objective guide eager to spread enlightenment.
The ability to exercise his own judgment, having atrophied, is never restored. Even if he should drop out of one group, he will quickly seek and find another. Like a drug addict who needs his fix, he cannot live without his cliches.
At Nuremberg after the war, Allied examiners were shocked to see how unrepentant some of the Nazis were. Julius Streicher cried "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!" at his execution, until the opening of the trap door muffled his voice. Arthur Seyss-Inquart declared, to the last, that Hitler remained "the man who made Greater Germany a reality in history." Rudolf Hoess, by his own admission "completely filled, indeed obsessed" with his monstrous goal, was not guilty of arrogance when he proudly declared that "Auschwitz became the greatest human extermination center of all time." He was one of the countless ordinary men who had been turned into a believer. He gave validity to Hitler's contention "that by the clever and continuous use of propaganda a people can even be made to mistake heaven for hell, and vice versa, the most miserable life for Paradise." As Hitler knew better than perhaps anyone else: "The essence of propaganda consists in winning people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that in the end they succumb to it utterly and can never again escape from it."
We need not, however, look as far back as Nazi Germany for examples of people undergoing personality changes and extreme shifts in ideology. We can learn from present-day American groups.
-- Gods & Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, by Dusty Sklar