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, who are organizing mass movements, and who 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, Mahmoud 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 Muhammad 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 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 ten 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, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.