A Guide for Tyrans and Would-Be Dictators

Gustave Le Bon: La Psychologie des Foules. (Psychology of Crowds) ISBN 978-2-13–062062-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Over the past two decades, several historic developments have baffled me: the high approval rates of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the naive belief of Islamists that they can submit Western democracies, Brexit and finally the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Each event involved fascinated crowds, masses of people obeying a type of logic that defied my understanding. I was intrigued, and while I was reading books about Putin, the grief of ordinary Americans and the theories of the political scientist Eric Voegelin assimilating Communism and Fascism to modern religions, a distant memory from my studies in sociology re-surfaced: Gustave Le Bon’s early study of the psychology of crowds.

I had only read a short introduction to Le Bon’s theories as a student, which was good enough to pass that exam, but now that I actually had read “Psychology of Crowds”, I realize I should have read it much earlier. Even if certain ideas of Le Bon did not survive the test of time – social sciences, psychology and medicine have made a lot of progress since 1895 – the general trust of his theory remains valid.

Crowds, in Le Bon’s sense, are marked by “the evanescence of the conscious personality [of the individuals forming the crowds] and the orientation of feelings and thoughts in one direction.” Crowds cannot undertake actions that require a high degree of intelligence, they are easily manipulated, animated mostly by emotions and prone to violence that can take the shape of an act of heroism – soldiers charging in a battle against all odds – or an act of riot or vandalism. One of Le Bon’s basic ideas is that a crowd will act in a way that may harm its individual members, but since the individual’s conscience has been switched of, this apparent contradiction becomes irrelevant. Thus a crowd will take decisions that the isolated member of the crowd would most likely not take.

A crowd easily takes up any ideas “whose time has come”, ideas that have been around for some time without being articulated by a large number of people. Le Bon identifies long-term factors preparing the ground and short-term factors triggering a crowd into action. Crowds just as easily switch ideas, and the attention of a crowd is best captured by an image that embodies such an idea. Two telling examples came to my mind:  Christ on the cross and Donald Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Even if the fact of Jesus’ existence and his crucifixtion can be scientifically disputed, the oral transmission of this “breaking news”, the exceptional character of the story and much later the graphic representation made this, real or imagined, act of martyrdom a symbol so pwerful that it became one of the key elements of a 2000-year-old religion.

A more modern idea is Donald Trump’s wall. Everybody can picture a wall, the image suggests a means of defence against an invasion of “bad hombres”, another powerful Trumpesque image, a protection against an external enemy. It may also suggest the protection of an internal resource, like the US steel economy. Again, it is not important whether the wall will ever be built or whether it will actually keep criminals out. A positive emotion is attached to the image, and that’s why this idea animated so many to vote for Trump. That’s also why Trump fights so hard for it. The key element of his credibility is at stake.

From these initial findings, Le Bon moves on to other interesting theories. A dysfunctional society cannot be changed for the better by remodeling its institutions. What has this to do with crowds? Le Bon identified in the French society at the turn of the century a crowd of unhappy citizens, the product of a misguided educational system. He was greatly concerned about it and he was right. World War I was seen in France as a great chance to purify the a society deemed rotten. An illusion of course, but it explains the initial enthusiasm of French soldiers and the huge public support for the war.

In our days we see unhappy crowds too: the “Gilets jaunes” in France, the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. The European Union has failed to mitigate the consequences of a globalised and deregulated economy. They angry crowds have no constructive solutions at hand, their power is exclusively destructive. If Le Bon is right, these crowds could only be tamed by a new narrative of Europe, a convincing image of prosperity, hope, pride and protection, embodied in a new a European identity. What is Europe supposed to be? What do we Europeans want it to be? Those are the questions to be asked. Giving the European Parliament greater leverage and holding a referendum on the issue of summertime was not nearly enough. Europe suffers an identity crisis. If Europeans cannot be fascinated by the idea of building a peaceful, economically thriving and cosmopolitan society, then the European project is dead.

To amuse you I would like to quote Le Bon’s idea about leaders, leaders of a crowd or leaders of a pack. “They are being recruited among those neurotic, excited, half-alieniated who border the insanity.” Well? Anyone coming to your mind? I bet. And how did this person come to power? Partly by aaccusing the media to spread “fake news” and circulating through social networks a counter-narrative, full of lies, half-truths and distorted facts that appealed to his voters.

Le Bon would have been horrified by the possibilities of social media. At the end of the 19th century he identified three elements threatening good governance: the weakening of traditional beliefs, the freedom of speech of the crowds and the many newspapers printing everything and anything. At this early stage of modernity already, Le Bon observed that politicians lose the initiative in setting an agenda and are increasingly driven by the opinions popular with the crowds. “If one single opinion could gain sufficient track to impose itself, it would soon exert a tyrannic power”, he writes. Lenin’s communism, Hitler’s totalitarian regime, Trump’s wall and Brexit – they all fit perfectly into this scheme. What a prescient man Le Bon was!

However his book deserves a cautious interpretation. Le Bon derived a large part of his theories from his personal observations. He did not collect and analyse empirical data as modern sociologists would do. His opinions about the natural inferiority of women and a hierarchy among races are obviously wrong. Nevertheless Le Bon’s “Psychology of Crowds” remains a n interesting read, especially in these troubled times. I am sure that Steve Bannon has read it. I am sorry Hillary Clinton did not read it.

The Nazis used a powerful, evocative music written by Franz Liszt as a propaganda tool. It was broadcasted several times a day as the jingle announcing the news from the Eastern front. It’s from the symphonic poem “Les Préludes”:

How a romantic composer got hijacked by the Nazis

Blood, Sweat and Tears or the Delight to Be a Victim

heroic failure

Fintan o’Toole: Heroic Failure. Brexit and the Politics of Pain. ISBN 978-1789540987⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Now that Theresa May has failed to secure a majority for Brexit plan A, it begins to show that neither the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn nor May herself have a plan B. Actually, there shouldn’t even have been a plan A. The initiators of the 2016 referendum never meant it to succeed. They wanted to shake up the political establishment, but not to ruin their country by pushing it out of the European Union. Fintan o’Toole, an Irish historian, literature critic and columnist, has written a well-researched, well-articulated analysis of the British, or rather the English, psyche that led to the disgraceful spectacle we have observed over the past two years.

As my desperation has been nurtured over the past two years by the many lies told by Brexiteers to their unsuspecting victims, the British voters, I take the unusual step of wrapping a review of this interesting and irritating book in two distinct personal letters. My frustration has to be vented, and this is the place to do it!

Dear Brexiteers,

I know you are busy toppling your government and polarizing your country even further, so I will be brief and not detract your attention from serving your country. About Brexit – I wish you to leave the EU as fast as you can. Preferably without a deal. Because I want you to fall flat on your face. I want you to feel the heat of competition under WTO rules, the burden of bankruptcy of your inefficient economy, the dead weight of a dysfunctional public administration and the shame triggered by derelict infrastructure no longer funded by Brussels. I WANT YOU TO FEEL PAIN! ENORMOUS, UNBEARABLE PAIN.

Fintan o’Toole’s book pushed my anger at British politics at a new level. The book’s general idea is easy to understand. Emotionally, the UK has not overcome the fact that victory in World War II did not lead to prosperity and international prestige, but translated into economic hardship, the dissolution of the empire and a relative decline in global importance. I perfectly understand that this amounted to a huge disappointment. However the psychological trick that UK politicians used to deny this fact and to compensate this feeling of loss is appalling: self-pity.

The UK apparently feels best when it’s beleaguered, but once the enemy is vanquished, heroism has lost its purpose. O’Toole shows that politicians looked for a new villain that a) could be used as a scapegoat for all that went wrong (Thatcherism, the Falkland War etc.) and b) that could make Britons rally around the Union Jack. The EU was perfectly suited for both. Self-pity went viral through the endless repetition of “It’s all Brussels fault” and “Germany still is the enemy, only now it sails under the European flag.” If you marry self-pity with auto-suggestion, you end up with Brexit, hard or soft, depending on the size of your ego.

Why did all this work? O’Toole speaks of a perfect cycle of self-pity and self-love. “We deserve to be loved, but we are hated because we are so wonderful”, he says. British logic? British humour? The lack of recognition has over decades been sublimed and transformed into political masochism. “The political erotics of imaginary domination [by the EU] and imaginary submission are the deep pulse of the Brexit drama”, o’Toole writes. The pleasure to be a victim, the delightful feeling to be exempted from any responsibility, has become the goal of British politics. The EU’s function is “to be a more insidious form of Nazism”. O’Toole presents a horrifying analysis here, but I suspect it comes very close to the truth. You relish pain? You’ll get pain. Plenty of it.

Dear Remainers,

I wish you a lot of courage. The less enlightened part of your journalists and politicians has condemned you to spend blood, sweat and tears, and is far from certain that your coming sacrifices will ever be rewarded. These people have left the path of rationalism long ago, they discard the empirically verified for day-dreams and wishful-thinking as Fintan o’Toole shows with many examples at hand. Since those politicians have been democratically elected, there’s little to be done about that, as long as a majority of British voters prefer lies to truth. We, the European people, will offer you exile anytime, but unfortunately the United Kingdom can only be saved by its own people. That’s you.

O’Toole puts forward an interesting fact that should be considered by all Remainers. He reflects the improbable alliance between two social classes, far apart one from each other, that support Brexit: parts of the working class and parts of the upper class. As a binding agent he sees “the sheer joy of being able to fuck everything up.” It’s stupid to break stuff, but let’s do it anyway, just for fun. And never mind the consequences, says the political punk Boris Johnson. A little bit of “Dunkirk Spirit” and British improvisation will do miracles.

If this is the spirit of the Brexiteers, Remainers must acknowledge that the next generation will have to pay for the fun that old, bored, rich, white men like Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg have right now. This a point women are sensible to. They don’t want the future of their children being gambled away for the thrill of a former stock broker like Farage. Brexit is about emotions, o’Toole says. On both sides. Right. So let’s use emotions like the Brexiteers do. There are only 32 million men compared to 33 million women in the UK. That gives women a real majority. Use it! It may be too late to stop Brexit, but it’s not too late to shape a post-Brexit future limiting the damage Brexit will do.

Unless a miracle happens between today and March 23, the UK will hit a wall at full speed abd finally wake up and acknowledge the realities of the 21st century. Economically, it is of marginal importance, compared to heavy-weights like the China, India, the US and the European Union. As for its political and military potency, let’s not talk about it. The EU Council fares better without constant British interfering, and the UK’s nuclear weapons are just as obsolete as the British pound. Past sacrifices on Europe’s battlefields will not be forgotten, but the United Kingdom itself has made them irrelevant by not embedding them in a narrative of a sustainable European peace and prosperity after the war. Britons fought for Europe from 1940 to 1945, yet they fought against Europe almost since the German capitulation.

And before you get me wrong: The EU botched up a lot of things, as o’Toole underlines. But Brexit is going to make the situation worse, especially for the UK. Many on this side of the Channel are sick of trying to convince Britons that, on the long run, cooperation is better than confrontation for both sides. Dear friends, for you will remain friends, you can fight now with Russia, China and President Trump on your own. Soon, you will be alone. Good luck and good-bye.

Am I angry? You bet. What about music? I’ll settle for something violent and cruel tonight: Aribert Reimann’s opera “Lear”:

Lear – You are men of stone

A Perpetual Fate, a Perpetual Disgrace

Roth, Joseph: Juden auf Wanderschaft (English title: The Wandering Jews) ISBN 978-3-423-13439-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Kafka, reading about Kafka and reflecting the fate of the Jews from Eastern Europe – it’s all part of the same story. Kafka was an assimilated Jew living in Prague, and during World War I, thousands of Jews from Russia and Galicia fled to what would later become the Czech Republic. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was suffering defeat after defeat on the Eastern front, and former Austrian outposts were overrun by Russian troops, forcing the local Jews to flee. Russia was no friend of the Jews. Neither was Prague.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) , a writer turned reporter, narrates the story of the Eastern Jews, despised by their assimilated cousins in Western Europe and most of the rest of Europe. Filthy, poor, dishonest, uneducated – thise were Jewish prejudices against Jews, gladly taken up by anti-Semitists anywhere in Europe. “The Wandering Jew”, published in 1927, is a disturbing book, even after so many years. So little has changed. If you look at the current stereotypes attributed to refugees from Syria, Irak, Afghanistsn, Libya… you know where they stem from. And Anti-Semitism of course is alive and kicking.

Roth’s book is brutal when it comes to describe how Eastern Jews have been treated since the late 19th century and up to 1933, a date after which all Jews in Europe risked to run a common fate: annihilation. This is balanced by his description of the Eastern Jews’ communities, their industriousness, their internal solidarity, their faith, the rich cultural traditions, their unshakable will to live and their courage to pursue their luck in foreign countries, whatever price they may have to pay.

The wandering of the Jews – for up to the foundation of Israel they lacked a true fatherland in a territorial sense – pushed them to seek a political and ideological home: Palestine. Not just a territory, no, a political concept, a dream. Zionism, the logic consequence of more than 1000 years of European Anti-Semitism, the way out of the eternal dilemma: assimilation or discrimination? It’s hard to say what was worse in Roth’s eyes since he showed little sympathy for the superficial Western bourgeois society of which he was a product. Roth studied in Lviv and Vienna, he later lived in Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Roth explains it all very well, and any honest reader looking at the refugee debate in Europe, President Trump’s idée fixe about a protective wall on the Mexican border or the Middle East shows that the so-called Western civilizations use stereotypes and concepts in their debates almost identical to those used some 100 years ago. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the biggest fool of all? Speaking about fools, Roth taught me something I didn’t know yet. Every Stetl had its Batlen, a storyteller, a joker or, as Roth puts it, somebody who reflected useless ideas. I sense a subversive element here and I love this kind of social subversion. Watch and listen to the Batlen, for he speaks the truth!

The laconic style in which Roth describes life in a Stetl, the relationships among Jews and between Jews and gentiles and between the Jews and God made me smile occasionally. These descriptions appear funny like in “funny little people” – the Hobbits come to my mind. Actually, there is nothing funny about them. The stoicism with which the Eastern European Jews supported their internal political and cultural divisions and the hostility of the environment is remarkable. It hides the earnest that filled these people’s minds. Roth says the Jewish people can be punished by God, but never abandoned.

Finally, in the context of Eastern Jews settling in Berlin, Roth mentions something important: “Everything is improvised […] One must always be ready to move and carry one’s few belongings, some bread and an onion in one pocket, the Tefillin in the other. Who knows whether one will not be forced to wander again in the next hour.” From German Jews I occasionally hear that, once more, “the suitcases are packed”. In the light of a revival of Anti-Semitism in Germany, this is no surprise. It certainly is a disgrace. At the same time it would appear that it never has been different: a perpetual threat, a perpetual disgrace. And this text grows longer and longer, and it’s message will reach, once more, the wrong audience…

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, qis celebrated with a prayer, the Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch and Arnold Schönberg have set it to music:

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

Trapped in an Anonymous Judicial Machine

Franz Kafka: Der Proceß (English title: The Trial) ISBN 978-3-596-90356-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Imagine being arrested without being given a reason. Imagine being arrested and being free to go to work, to the movies or to stay at home. Imagine being judged without being informed whether you have been charged or why. The judges remain invisible, lawyers are merely tolerated, and the more you try to defend your obvious innocence, the worse your case gets. Arbitrariness seeps into your normality and usurps the place of the rule of law and logic in a form of bureaucratic brain-washing.

This is the frightening world Franz Kafka describes in his inimitable, dry, matter-of-fact language. “The Trial” is Kafka’s best known novel and without any doubt a masterpiece. He wrote it in 1914/15, but it was published only posthumously in 1925 by Kafka’s friend Max Brod. It is an unfinished work, with several fragments written but not inserted into the actual draft of the novel. Kafka’s inspiration driven story reflects the author’s complex personality, his relations to his family, his fiancée and his fiancée’s family. It takes up his experience as an office clerk as well as characteristic elements of the society in Prague, e.g. a voluntary deference to authority, and the Jewish community Kafka was part of.

Kafka’s narration of the fate of Josef K., arrested and judged for reasons unknown, is an allegory of his own psychic turmoil, and at the same time a description of man’s growing isolation in modern society. It also shows how men, by tolerating an initial restriction of his individual freedom, get trapped in a vicious cycle where the surrender of parts of his rights leads to the abolition of all of its rights. But while every man has to fight for himself, the ruling authority, that is the top-tiers judges, has to uphold at least the fiction of legitimacy. One of the surprising vulnerabilities of the anonymous tribunal is the concern it has for human relationships, necessary to maintain what Kafka calls “the cohesion of society”.

The risk of open revolt against the judges can be banned by creating the illusion that the final judgment can be influenced. Herein lies the only weapon an accused has: open and immediate revolt against a limitation of his basic rights, civil disobedience, the refusal to play by the (illegal or amoral) rules set by the judges. Josef K. fails in the novel where Kafka failed in his own life. It is remarkable that Kafka recognizes this lesson and still fails to live up to it. It is very well summed up in the scene in the dome. After a debate with a preacher about the nature of the law and the role of the gatekeeper, confering knowledge of the law to some but not all. At some point, Josef K. says with utter resignation: “The lie becomes the principle of the world order.” The law can and must be challenged, for laws are not immutable, they have been created by men for men.

During most of his life, Kafka felt he had to justify himself: for the job he chose, for the fiancée he picked, for his writing, for his inability to write, for his cold attitude towards his family, his lack of interest in the family business, in short, Franz Kafka felt he had to justify being Franz Kafka. Social exclusion, real or imagined, voluntary or imposed, was a constant issue, resulting in periods of depression, in self-depreciation as a human and as a writer and in self-inflicted psychic wounds. And fear of exclusion corrupted his mind. It seems that he never considered stepping outside the sphere governed by rules alien to him. He accepted the rules, suffered and succumbed. By doing so, he gave us some of the greatest pieces of prose ever.

Kafka was aware that writing was the reason for his existence, the essence of being Franz Kafka, and the search for his “inner truth” – looking into an psychologic abyss – produced novels like “The Trial”. A cruel creative process. The brutality of an anonymous, judicial machine that Josef K. does not understand, the inevitability of his tragic fate, his gradual transformation from a combative innocent to a cooperating witness against himself, expressed in Kafka’s detached style, inspired me horror and fascination at the same time. And a deep respect for the author. Writing such a novel was a superhuman act, and only Kafka could have conceived and produced such a book, coherent in its laconic style and grotesque logic from the first to the last line. He paid a high price: constant misery, a poor health and occasionally the fear to become insane.

Kafka’s novel about an arbitrary judicial system reminded me of the trials organized by the Stalin regime in the 1930s and the feeling of insecurity it created in the Soviet Union. A composer with first-hand experience of Stalin’s arbitrariness was Dmitry Shostakovich. Here is his Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (Op. 40):

Whistling in the dark to keep monsters away

Hate Without Border. Antisemitism Here and Now.

juna grossmann

Juna Grossmann: Schonzeit vorbei. Über das Leben mit dem alltäglichen Antisemitismus. ISBN 978-3-426-27775-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ My fellow blogger Juna Grossmann is a German Jew. A Jewish German. A German citizen, born in Germany, of German parents and with German grand-parents. And she happens to be of Jewish faith. She has written a book, a good book. A frightening book. An important book. She has compiled stories of Antisemitism in Germany as they happen today. Daily verbal assaults, stemming from prejudice, ignorance and the wilful violation of basic human rights.

Antisemitism in Germany is everywhere, and it comes in different forms and shapes. It does not remain restricted to people with limited exposure to education, far from it. It is not limited to anonymous letter writers or social media trolls. More than ten years ago already, it was articulated by German politicians in the disguise of criticism targeting Israel’s domestic and foreign policy. Prominent Jews in Germany received and still receive letters with threats, less prominent Jews are being discriminated when they look for flats or jobs. Or sell vegetables. Many are asked to “go home”, as Grossmann ironically points out, herself included. Home? Germany is her home. People signal her to go to Israel – a country many antisemitists deny the right to exist. And more than just a few come up with an obvious, logic conclusion: Auschwitz.

It’s frightening and revolting. Would I like to live door-to-door with such people? The fact is, I do live door-to-door with such people. Antisemitism doesn’t stop at the border. Luxembourg has it’s own sad history of segregating and discriminating Jews. Luxembourg officials did nothing to keep Germans from rounding up Jews in 1940. People disappeared, no questions asked. Luxembourg was a victim of Germany’s expansionism, few cared about the Jews’ fate. Without being a Jew, I have witnessed Antisemitism in Luxembourg. I remember certain “jokes” told at school. That was in the 1980s. I noticed prejudices held by people I respected. And of course, being a blogger, I am well aware of social networks being an excellent environment for the propagation of hate-speech of all kinds, including Antisemitism. Hate without borders.

Grossmann’s chronicle is a gruesome, highly recommended reading. It shows to what extend open and hidden Antisemitism has become the norm in Germany once more, paralleled only by hate against Arab refugees. The book is important since it documents the plurality of the sources of Antisemitism: educated, respected people as well as people knowing next to nothing about Judaism or European history. Anonymous trolls on Twitter and people sending letters on official stationery with their name and signature. Antisemitism here and now and everywhere.

“Wehret den Anfängen” is a German slogan meant to remind Germans to fight early indicators of antisemitism. It was already wrong at the moment it was coined. Antisemitism had never left Germany, it had merely gone into hiding after 1945. The “re-education” efforts by the Allied powers in the aftermath of the German defeat were a failure, an excellent example of a completely misguided policy. After the Nuremberg trials, West German courts were slow to prosecute former Nazis for the complicity in the extermination of Jews. Right-extremist groups were courted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies during the Cold War. Grossmann was born in the GDR, where antisemitism officially did not exist. But the GDR’s ambiguous attitude towards Israel and the impossibility to discuss the Holocaust and Germany’s responsibility in a closed society nurtured Antisemitic prejudices that have become visible in the past two decades.

The time of hiding is over. Antisemitism is out in the open, unfiltered, unbound, viral. Read this book! Open your eyes and ears and stand up against any form of racial or religious discrimination! Democracy is not for free. Today it may be the Jews, the Arabs, the LGBT community, tomorrow it may be you or me. And here is a Jewish voice that was not silenced by the Nazis. In 1946, the composer Erich Korngold wrote his violin concerto in D major, Op. 35. He had left Austria before Antisemitism led to mass murder on an industrial scale:

A witty violin concerto written in Hollywood