You probably saw the Hitler clip from the 2004 movie “Downfall.” And you may have noticed the detail of Hitler’s left hand trembling out of control. It is based on historical data: Hitler’s hand was really trembling in that way, a typical symptom of Parkinson’s disease. And he was also subjected to fits of rage, just as shown in the movie. Surely, many people must have noted his erratic behavior and thought he had mental problems. Yet, nobody could find a way to remove him from power, ensuring that maximum damage was done to everybody. It was the result of German propaganda: a giant machine that fed on itself and that could not be stopped before it was too late.
From “The Seneca Effect” — by Ugo Bardi
The history of the 20th century includes several “mad dictators” who did great damage to the people they ruled, and not just to them. Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany are the best-known examples. I wrote several posts on Mussolini (here), who clearly suffered of an extreme case of the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. But he was not mentally impaired, just a run of the mill psychopath who cared nothing about the suffering of the people he ruled.
Hitler, like Mussolini, was convinced to be a military genius and he often overrode the suggestions of his competent military staff. And he was a psychopath, too, with all the typical traits of cruelty and indifference that characterize psychopaths. But, unlike Mussolini, there were evident problems with Hitler’s brain, especially during the last years of his rule. He had clear symptoms of Parkinson’s, and he was subjected to fits of rage that rapidly went out of control. He regularly consumed methamphetamine, barbiturates, opiates, and cocaine, as well as potassium bromide and Atropa belladonna. His symptoms worsened after the assassination attempt against him in 1944.
I already wrote about how dictatorships are born. What is surprising in this story is not so much that there exist people who are at the same time stupid and evil, in addition to being mentally unstable. It is not even so surprising that Italy and Germany, two European countries inhabited mostly by normal and decent people, fell into the hands of two of these madmen. In the beginning, they didn’t look like madmen: they looked like the right person at the right moment. What is truly weird is that these countries could not get rid of the madman in charge, not even when it became clear that he was a madman.
You know that Adolf Hitler ruled Germany until he killed himself in 1945. But, already in 1943, it must have been clear to everyone with at least a few neurons in their brain that the war was lost and, worse, there was a madman in charge. But nothing was done. Nothing could be done.
If you want to get some idea of the situation in Germany during the last year of the war, you may read the book by Florian Huber “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself.” It is a book that tells you of something not normally discussed: what did ordinary Germans think of the situation and how it was that they couldn’t free themselves from the evil spell that their own propaganda had generated. To the point that a large, although unknown, number of them committed suicide. Choosing death was the ultimate strategy to avoid facing reality.
In a sense, it was unavoidable: the Germans had chosen a path that led them exactly where they arrived. Propaganda is a wondrous machine that feeds on itself: once you start it, there is no way to stop it. It can make some things unspeakable, and if they are unspeakable they cannot be spoken. The story of the “White Rose” is especially tragic: a group of students of the University of Munich who tried to say the things that could not be said. As a result, they were sentenced to death and executed by beheading in 1943. Surprisingly (but perhaps not so surprisingly) the executions didn’t seem to generate any outrage with the German public. An even starker evidence of how deeply the Germans were beguiled by their propaganda.
So far, we are not (yet) in the hands of an evil psychopath, but many things seem to be moving in that direction. So, the question of how to get rid of a dictatorship seems to be equivalent to asking how to get rid of propaganda. But the Western propaganda machine, today, is enormously more sophisticated, effective, and pervasive than the German propaganda was at the time of the Nazis. Fortunately, if we speak against the government’s truth, we do not face execution by beheading (so far). But we are simply ignored, and if not ignored we are demonized and ridiculed.
Is there any hope to stop the evil machine? It looks difficult, even impossible. So far, propaganda has been stopped only by the complete collapse of the governments that created it, as it happened in Italy and in Germany. Are there better ways? Maybe. Propaganda has been with us for more than a century: it has changed, it has morphed into different forms. But one thing remains central: propaganda exists because there exists a centralized control of the information flow in society (we call it the “media”). As long as this control exists, propaganda will remain with us, all-powerful as it is.
But, right now, the Internet has created a gigantic system of information flow that escapes central control — so far, at least. As long as we can bypass the media we are immune (within limits) from propaganda. Otherwise, the only way to get rid of it is collapse.
So, what we are seeing is a gigantic struggle for the control of the Internet. Will the center win? Or will it be the periphery? Our future hangs on this question.
Sophie Scholl, a member of the “White Rose” group who was sentenced to death and executed in 1943 at 21, for having spoken against the government propaganda of the time. Her story shows how harsh the information war can be. And her example remains a source of inspiration for us.