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