Fanatics and madmen

Adolf Hitler was evil and perhaps a madman. But throughout history, there have been many evil madmen in many corners of the Earth. Few have attracted millions of passionate followers; fewer still have conquered Europe and committed genocide. So what made Hitler different and — for a time — effective?

Start with this short list: He understood propaganda, the dynamics of public opinion formation, what it takes to persuade. He comprehended the mechanics of mass movements, how to harness the dark desires of restive crowds. And there was nothing — no matter how vile or inhuman — he would not do to achieve his ends.

This is not a matter for historians and political philosophers alone. Today, once again, free peoples have enemies who know how to manipulate words, images and ideas, are organizing mass movements, and are utterly ruthless. They are openly intent on conquest and genocide. We deny the parallels at our peril.

In a recent column, I noted that in 1933 many in Britain were adamant that they would not fight a war — not even to defend themselves against Hitler’s fanaticism. A friendly critic pointed out that the memory of World War I was then still fresh. Hardly anyone in Britain was untouched by the carnage.

True, but that fails to account for this fact: More than twice as many Germans as British were killed in the conflict. So why did so many in Britain conclude that War Is Not the Answer (as the bumper sticker on many Volvos these days has it) while so many Germans — and Italians and Austrians who also lost significant numbers — were positively eager to use violence to get what they wanted?

If you agree that Hitler’s ability to nurse grievances and stoke ambitions played a decisive role, consider this: Osama bin Laden, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah and other militant jihadists are doing exactly the same today.

Alexander Ritzmann, a former member of the Berlin State Parliament and now a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, points out that it requires a “strong narrative” to recruit members to a radical cause. The Islamists stress that Islam “was once a winner’s religion.” The Muslims began as a small group in 6th century Arabia, yet within a few generations they ruled a territory that stretched from Spain to India. By the year 1,000, Islam was on top by all measures: health, wealth, literacy, culture, power. What went wrong?

To Islamists, it is an article of faith — literally — that Muslims lost ground because they strayed from the road of righteousness, the path trod by the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. They allowed themselves to be seduced and corrupted by the West and its vices — materialism, individualism and lasciviousness among them.

Also, as Hitler railed against the “victimization” of the Germans by Jews and other “foreigners,” so Islamists insist that the world’s Muslims are under assault by Jews, Christians and other “infidels.” To “defend” themselves, no acts — no matter how vile and inhuman — are forbidden. Hitler would have approved. “Terrorism,” he once said, “is the best political weapon.” With uncanny prescience, he said too: “Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination. This is the war of the future.”

Hitler preached that Germans and Aryans were a master race, born to rule over others. Militant Islamism is similarly supremacist.

But Islamists offer one incentive even Hitler could not: the afterlife. Those who fight and die for Islam become shaheeds — martyrs entitled to a seat next to Allah and 72 virgins. (Female martyrs spend eternity with the man of their dreams). Forty more seats in paradise are reserved for friends and family.

The 20th century’s greatest analyst of mass movements was Eric Hoffer, a self-educated longshoreman who wrote 10 books and won a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In “The True Believer,” published in 1951, he wrote: “Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalist, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one. The same is true of the force which drives them on to expansion and world domination.”

He wrote as well: “The practice of terror serves the true believer not only to cow and crush his opponents but also to invigorate and intensify his own faith.”

Bin Laden, Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and others of their ilk may be evil and perhaps they are mad. But it is a serious mistake to underestimate them, as so many of us do.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)

2 Responses to "Fanatics and madmen"

  1. old_curmudgeon  January 24, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    “Osama bin Laden, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah and other militant jihadists are doing exactly the same today.”

    Uhmmm – you forgot one. The Bush administration have mastered the Hitlerian use of propaganda and manipulating public opinion quite nicely. It was the only way he could have possibly gotten elected, especially the second term. He was/is a man of little substance and needed the “spin” Rove and Cheney supplied. The American people underestimated the depth of the Bush evil. And now we are paying in spades.

    But that’s just this old curmudgeon’s opinion…

  2. DejaVuAllOver  January 24, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    You missed the point entirely. Hitler got power because so many people were mad as all get out at the bum-deal that Germany was forced to accept after WWI, a war they didn’t start and were no more guilty of prolonging than France, Austria, Prussia and others. Germany lost a LOT of land, power and prestige, and the Germans weren’t happy about it. I’m not saying Hitler was a good guy, but a major war would have happened even without Hitler. One man does not a war make.
    And after 90 years of the West allowing and aiding the Chosen Race in it’s takeover of Palestine, to fulfill an old prophecy of Moses,I guess you think those horrible Muslims should just roll over and say, “Here, take whatever you want.”
    The Master Race or the Chosen Race? What’s the difference?

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