On over-seized egos and the rule of fear in politics

Alan Bullock: Hitler and Stalin – Parallel lives. ISBN 978-0-679-7294-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book is a brick. It is some 900 pages long, but it is an exceptional book about world history and power politics, meticulously researched and well written. It covers the history of the first half of the 20th century seen through the eyes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Dugashwili, later known as Stalin. The book, published before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is a huge scientific achievement and a book of utmost relevance today. It touches a number of psychological points highly interesting to anyone interested in how political leaders see and shape today’s world.

Propaganda is key

The way Adolf Hitler, a low profile soldier and artist, conquered political power and managed to put Germany under the spell of a racist ideology leading to World War II and the long list of atrocities committed by German soldiers and the SS is significant as Hitler used means very similar to those used by Donald Trump to gain access to the White House. A key element is and was the spreading of fear deriving from wild conspiracy theories among the political constituency – the Jewish worldwide alliance against Germany in the case of Hitler, Europe and China cheating on the US and the threat posed by the establishment in Washington (the “swamp” that still waits to be drained) in the case of Trump.

Both Hitler and Trump achieved this through a constant propagandistic drumbeat. Hitler excelled as an orator and dispatched Nazi speakers with a road-show to all corners of Germany saturating the public debate with his populist slogans and his foul speech while Trump uses friendly media outlets and social networks to spread lies, slander rivals and spin the public debate to suit his personal ambitions.

Vying for the disenchanted masses

Building a political career on the resentments of the constituency is another parallel. Germany’s already weak economy was heavily hit by the Great Depression and political stability was shaky after 1918. Thus Germans were hard to convince of the benefit of their first truly democratic experience and readily listened to anyone suggesting a firm leadership and quick fixes, however unrealistic they seemed to an unbiased observer. Today globalization has produced a great number of people losing out in all industrialized countries and specifically in the US. Many of those became easily convinced that Trump could make America great again and thus restore their former personal position in society.

Stalin came to power in a very different way than Hitler. He gained a foothold in politics by becoming a professional revolutionary in Georgia, his native region, and by joining the Communist cause. Once he had become part of the inner circle of Lenin, he made sure to become Lenin’s successor instead of Lev Trotzky as the leader of the Communist Party by eliminating all rivals through bureaucratic manoeuvring or by inventing conspiracies and having his rivals arrested. From the 1920s on until his death in 1953 Stalin ruled by fear. He succumbed to many economic, political and military mistakes that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, but very few people were allowed to contradict him. They could all too easily lose their position, their privileges or their life.

Alan Bullock’s description of Stalin’s grip over the Soviet Union reminds me in many respects of the ways the president Vladimir Putin rules Russia today. Of course, there are no Gulags anymore and the FSB does not deport hundreds of thousands to Siberia. The means have become more subtle, more polished to maintain the illusion of the rule of law. But the basic logic remains unchanged: Shut up or else!

Denying reality and “fake news”

Both Stalin and Hitler show how far leaders can become removed from reality, : Hitler never visited the front, he locked himself up in his bunker during the last months of World War II, unwilling and unable to acknowledge that the war was lost and that he had sacrificed Germany for a fantasy i.e. conquering “Lebensraum” (living space) for racially pure German colonists and to satisfy his own ego. Up to the last days he maintained that he was the saviour of Germany, finding an astonishing variety of scapegoats: the  General Staff of the armed forces, the officer corps and the leadership of the SS, all of them having betrayed him at some point, and of course Great Britain who had failed to understand the benefit of a coalition with the Nazi regime.

Stalin isolated himself no less from reality by surrounding himself with legions of yes-sayers. Any reports not fitting with his opinion would be deemed a fabrication. The psychological mechanisms at work in the case of these two leaders remind me very much about reports on how the White House handles current affairs and the time Trump devotes to identify and denounce “fake news”.

Leaders are vulnerable

Finally Bullock’s study shows that the paramount driving force for both leaders was fear. Hitler had to prove himself everyday that Providence had chosen him to save Germany, that Germany adored him for his spiritual leadership and that Germany could rule Europe through the sheer power of will (Thank you Schopenauer for giving this man such grand ideas!). He had founded a religion and cast himself in the role of God. Omniscient, omnipotent. Fear to be proven wrong kept Hitler going until his last days in Berlin. The war could not be lost, because it would have called into question his abilities and the fate that Providence had reserved for him, Germany and the rest of the world for that matter.

Stalin fared no better: His early career as a revolutionary, forced to operate in clandestine ways, made him prone to a paranoia that took exceptional dimensions under the strain of conducting a war first against Russia’s peasants and then against Germany. Stalin would not have trusted his own shadow. And he had plenty of reasons to fear to be assassinated: He had made himself legions of enemies during the purges of the Communist Party and the armed forces, and his dramatic miscalculations in the early stages of the German offensive had led many to believe he was unfit for office.

When appreciating today’s world leaders this book offers a key to understand their true motivations and the decision-making processes that define their policies irrespective of the time. At the centre is the concept of fear – the fear to lose the power they have gained, the very same fear they use to come to and stay in power. They use fear and they know it works. And they fear it could be successfully used against them. This fear makes them corruptible for it makes them vulnerable. If we want to get rid of them, this is the weak spot we have to strike at. But before that we need to overcome our own fear.

This post would not be complete without a reference to music and I suggest Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 “Leningrad”. Shostakovich lived in constant fear of Stalin’s animosity, and the siege of Leningrad was an early example of the contest of will-power between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany:

A symphony born out of rubbles


Moscow’s weakness and our own moral corruption

John Le Carré: The Russia House. ISBN 978-0-141-19635 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ⭐️ I remember the day the Soviet Union ceased to exist: December 26, 1991. I was dumbstruck by disbelief. The Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war had been part of my cosmos since I had been able to think for myself. The Catholic priest in our little chapel once had remarked we were lucky to live close to a NATO logistics hub. In case of war we would be vaporized instantly by the nuclear blast. No suffering, no radiation sickness. A fellow student of mine had protested against the fielding of nuclear-tipped SS-20 missiles aimed at NATO countries. The Soviet Union was a fact and I had every reason to perceive it as a threat.

I came to think of that time when I read Le Carré’s spy novel “The Russia House”, his first post-glasnost novel, published in 1989. At the time I wanted to believe in Mikhail Gorbatchev’s new policy: a Soviet Union embracing transparency (glasnost) and setting out to systemic reform (perestroika). My dad called it a lie – the Communists were not to be trusted – and warned me: Don’t come home with one of these t-shirts with “CCCP” written all across it or else…

I greatly enjoyed “The Russia House” for it gives the blurred emotions of hope and misgivings I felt back then precise contours. After Gorbatchev had made public his ideas on glasnost, a Soviet scientist working in the field of nuclear misdiles, wants to pass intelligence about the failing Soviet system to the West, hoping to trigger nuclear disarmement by exposing Moscow’s weaknesses.

Idealism, the hope for peace, the moral responsibility towards the next generation – these factors propel the plot forward. The detailed and cynic narrative of a joint US-UK intelligence operation – running a reluctant agent in Moscow to make contact with the scientist – provides the background for a much more philosophical insight: that the Western societies at the time were no less corrupt and failing than the Soviet Union before its dissolution. The Soviet Union was a convenient scapegoat for many things that went wrong, a wonderful excuse for morally dubious policies. The Soviet Union suited the West fine as a projection of its own dark side.

You may ask of what interest this may be today, some 28 years later. Well, first it is a goid read. Le Carré is a brilliant story-teller and this novel is yet another proof of hos talent. Second, the Soviet Union has been replaced by an autocratic and thoroughly corrupt Russian Federation, the nuclear arsenal remains in place, Moscow pursues an aggressive foreign policy hoping to restore its former Soviet lustre (if it ever had any) and we seem to be again at the threshold of a new confrontation, possibly on European soil. As for our own moral corruption, the examples of the United States and the United Kingdom are not exactly reassuring.

It is certainly no coincidence that Le Carré picked Dmitry Shostakovich’s music to illustrate the only consolation of a secondary character of the plot, a man who had just been released from the Soviet forced labor camps. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in C minor amounts to a look back at the Soviet Union, times of fear and broken dreams.

Paranoid feelings as the sun sets on the countryside

Being a Jew – a choice, a fate, a burden?

Paul Spiegel: Was ist koscher? Jüdischer Glaube – Jüdisches Leben. ISBN: 978-3-548-36713-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ As regular visitors to this blog and my classical music blog know, religion is a subject that occupies my mind a lot. The recent uproar against the US president’s initiative to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the ensuing anti-semitic and anti-zionist protests compelled me to educate myself about what it means to be a Jew, to be a Jew in Israel, to be a Jew of the diaspora, i. e. living outside Israel. I wanted to know how these people live, how the Jewish religion evolved over time, how it relates to Christianism and Islam. All this with the question in mind where the hate against Jews comes from and how it could be overcome.

Paul Spiegel’s introduction to the Jewish religion and the Jewish “way of life” – they can’t be seperated actually since religion permeates life from birth to death in one way or another – gave me some valuable first answers. I have more books on Judaism on my bookshelf, thanks to my fellow blogger Juna Grossmann, but this one was a good start. Paul Spiegel chaired the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the over-arching association of Jews in Germany, for many years and did a lot to improve the mutual understanding of Jewish Germans and Gojim. This book is perhaps the essence of his lifelong mission.

Spiegel explains in detail and with a lot of humour all the moral obligations of a faithful Jew. Belonging to God’s Chosen People amounts to quite a burden, it would appear. He presents the different traditions, hard to understand for an outsider, and retraces the long anti-semitic track record of the Catholic church. Spiegel also deals with deliberately spread fake news and conspiracy theories about Jews and the difficulties that arise from cultural assimilation of Jews in Western Europea societies.

The two faces of assimilation – the danger to loose one’s identity and the chance to bypass anti-semitic discrimination – seem to me to be a particularly tragic fate of Jewish communities. Two composers come to my mind in this respect: Felix Mendelssohn, who did not like the family name “Bartholdy” that his father adopted, and Max Bruch:

United we pray

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

“We’re all gonna die!”

Don Delillo: Underworld. ISBN 978-1-4472-8939-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What a brilliant, disturbing tale! “Underworld” is one of those books that initially left me speechless when I had finished it. I was stunned by its powerful language, its intertwined plots and the precision of the writer’s social study. At the centre of the book is Nick Shay, an expert in waste management and his personal quest to give his life a meaning. His life is  a complex story beginning with a not-so-ideal youth in the Bronx and leading to random encounters with other people looking for wisdom like himself, trying to make sense of their lives. Multiple invisible links connect the different characters, some meet several times under unforeseeable circumstances.

It all happens in the midst of the Cold War, and the story is told backwards gradually reveals these links. Delillo’s calm and detached narrating style brutally exposes the absurdity of life in a world defined by the possibility of nuclear annihilation, by the unequal chances in the American society any an ever-growing production of consumer goods and mountains of waste the consequence. It can be summarized by the ironic outcry of an US stand-up comedian at the climax of the Cuba missile crisis: “We’re all gonna die!”

While reading this novel, I discovered the beauty of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera “Love of the Three Oranges” and the piano suite that he derived from it: The quest for identity or a fool among fools

Robespierre – the face of the Terror

Max Gallo: L’homme Robespierre. Histoire d’une solitude. ISBN 978-2-262-02863-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️Maximilien de Robespierre is one of the great names linked to the French Revolution. His name stands for demagogic speeches and bloodshed; already shortly before his own execution, he had become a scapegoat for the indiscriminate violence accompanying the revolt against the nobility and the fight against anyone deemed opposed to the revolution – the Terror. And that is what Robespierre’s name stands for until today.

The brilliant French writer and historian Max Gallo traces a portrait of the man Robespierre behind the politician Robespierre – at times ironic, but usually well researched. Robespierre appears as a man constantly looking to bolster his ego, nothing seems more important than the recognition by his peers. Gallo defines the disappearance of Robespierre’s father as the source of the man’s emotional vulnerability and his vanity. At the same time Robespierre is convinced of the rightness of his principles and ideas – a dangerous mix leading to the catastrophic “collateral damages” of the French Revolution.

Now, if Gallo’s typology reminds you of the current US president, you would do Robespierre unjustice. Robespierre, a well-read man, had consistent political ideas, a strict sense of duty and was called “The Incorruptible”. Mastering the challenge to rise from being an unknown provincial lawyer to becoming the head and face of the French Revolution fueled his arrogance, no doubt, but at the same time it was a great personal achievement. Trump, the son of a rich father, did nothing of that sort and his vanity is self-serving. Trump has no other policy than promoting Trump. Robespierre was an idealist politician, a relentless agitator ready to sacrifice himself to empower ordinary people. Trump is a salesman for his own interests, ready to sacrifice anyone else for his personal desire for power. Trumpesque.

The French Revolution and later European revolutions around 1848 had lasting impressions on artists in Germany, France and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In this context I would like to point you to a piano cycle named “Hexaméron” and composed by Franz Liszt, a sympathizer of German and Italian revolutionaries, a musical genius and at times a very arrogant man: Liszt gives the “Young Italians” a voice