He Studies Evil
Paul Hollander on political hatred and violence.


Hungarian-born sociologist Paul Hollander has devoted his life to exposing pernicious ideologies. He is the author of many books, including Political Pilgrims and Anti-Americanism. His two latest are The Only Superpower: Reflections on Strength, Weakness, and Anti-Americanism, which is a collection of essays, and Political Violence: Belief, Behavior, and Legitimation, an edited volume. He recently took questions from NRO’s John J. Miller.

JOHN J. MILLER: You’ve tackled grim topics as a scholar: political violence, anti-Americanism, and so on. What has motivated you to study these phenomena?

PAUL HOLLANDER: My American wife often remarked on this fact and asked how can I read and write about such horrible topics. Quite clearly my background and experiences growing up in Hungary have something to do with it. My family and I narrowly survived the Jewish persecution (1944). Later we were classified as politically unreliable by the Communist authorities (1951–1956) and as a result deported to a village. I was drafted into a labor battalion and could not attend the university.

I have personal recollections of the siege of Budapest, corpses littering the streets, Soviet troops raping women in 1945, the 1956 Revolution (corpses again on the streets). I always wanted to understand how political power can become so concentrated as it was under the Nazi and Communist systems: Why and how the few can intimidate the multitudes, how people succeed in dehumanizing other groups (a precondition of politically motivated mass murder), and the unpredictable and often tragic relationship between ends and means, political ideals, and realities. I have also been morbidly fascinated by the human capacity for self-deception.

I have three Hungarian friends of the same generation and background living in this country: one a historian, the other a philosopher, the third a social psychologist. They too left in 1956. All four of us have been preoccupied with and writing about various incarnations and manifestation of evil, without necessarily using that word.

I have also been baffled (as well as irritated) by many Western intellectuals who believe that Western capitalist democracies, and especially the United States, have been morally and otherwise inferior to state socialist systems.

MILLER: Is there any reason to hope that the 21st century will be less bloody than the 20th century?

I very much doubt it. But probably certain forms of mass murder — such as carried out in gas chambers — are less likely. The latter are too discredited and too widely known.

Does that mean you expect World War III to break out at some point, or murderous ideologies that are capable of reproducing Communism’s death toll of 100 million people?

I am reluctant (an incapable of) predicting any major historical event such as a new world war. Nobody predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or the Rwanda massacres — to mention a few recent, major historical events. However it is likely that fanatically held ideologies will continue to play a major part in mass murders of the future. Radical Islam is the most likely candidate. A plausible scenario would be some fanatics getting hold of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons of mass murder.

I’ve been looking at the galleys to a forthcoming book, Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq, by James R. Arnold. On the very first page, Arnold writes: “The American rebels [in the War of Independence] freely employed terror — whether the tarring and feathering of a British tax collector or the hanging of a backwoods loyalist leader — to advance their cause.” Were the Americans who fought under George Washington terrorists?

My American history has lots of gaps because I didn’t grow up in this country. I am not sure what tarring and feathering entailed as regards pain or bodily damage, or how widely it was used, or how durable the injuries. Hanging a loyalist leader was targeted political murder whereas terrorists cast their nets wider, they kill groups of totally innocent people. I am disinclined to call the above-mentioned terrorists on the basis of your characterization and what I know.