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A break from traditional programming

Nothing to do with technology/knowledge/learning…so if that’s why you’re here, move along. As a parent, one of my most satisfying experiences is having my children ask good questions. Today, my daughter, Alysha, emailed me the following question:

I’m in Social watching a documentary on Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.I I was just curious as to what made the 1920s a dictatorship in three different countries? Was is just the depression, and aftermath of WWI? And I know we looked at this earlier, but what makes a dictator? How do they come into power, and what makes a dictatorship so attractive to people? I realize the propaganda played a major role; can all humans so easily fall propaganda? I was reflecting back on 1984, and the novel shows propaganda to the extreme.
Sorry for all the questions, you don’t have to answer them all…and I guess I can’t force you to answer any.
Have a good day at work. Chat to you soon.

I have a million things to do (after my trip to Oslo next week and getting ready for my trip to New Zealand tomorrow), but it’s such a treat (yes, glowing father with puffed out chest) to have a question like this plop into my email, I replied with:

Hey you,

All very good questions.

In late 1790s, as both the industrial and the French (as well as American and other European) revolutions started, society was thrown into disarray. In particular, regions of Europe were shifting from Monarchical control to varying blends of democracy. In the process, people were transferred from farms/agricultural lifestyles into cities and factories. Over the next century, tremendous technological innovations occurred, but this produced significant challenges to the social fabric of society – i.e. child labour, work as the defining attribute of success (rather than, say, a contemplative lifestyle). Progress was the theme. Europe, in this transition, experienced significant power shifts – both in terms of country-wide governance, but also in terms of people entering factory work.

As any period of transition, this produced suffering for many people. Philosophers – notably Marx – began to evaluate the impact of technology and capitalism on people and society. Capitalism (or perhaps more accurately, dramatic changes in society) produced inequality – some were very rich, others very poor. Alternative government models such as communism and fascism drew the attention of leaders. In fairness, people have always suffered under idiot rulers, see for example the history of Rome :) .

Dictatorship worked because many people will accept a wrong, but confident answer instead of a tentative but right answer. When people suffer, they grasp for sources of help, regardless of possible long term impact. Consider the concerns in Pakistan now with the floods – there are fears that al queda (sp?) will gain stronger threshold because people feel that their existing government is not taking care of them.

A similar situation – exacerbated by WWI and the financial collapse of late 1920s meant that people turned to people who had (or appeared to have) answers to the problem of their suffering.

Obviously, the whole process is more complex than I outline above, but essentially, it was a toxic mix of inequality produced by industrialism, governance shifts (tracing back over a century, but still not having fully worked through society), post-WWI suffering, alternative philosophies of political organization (based on Marx, but Neitsche can’t escape blame either as he advocated for an un-mooring of traditional structures of organization – i.e. religion – and the pursuit of Ubermensch (superman) as a means of altering power relationships in society…and, even Kant contributions can’t (hehe) be ignored as he set in motion the view of enlightenment as that of individuals doing for themselves what others had done for them in the past. Voltaire, Rousseau and others fleshed out this concept of power/control. Thinkers in Britain (which, as a society, was more accommodating to differentiating philosophies – for example, Marx spent a good portion of his life there) also contributed to advancing many of the ideas of democracy and governance. Unlike countries like France that eventually did away with the monarchy, UK chose a more accommodating model by creating monarchy-within-constraint model), and the significant shifts in economic value and production. Wow. that is one of the longer sentences I have written.

Final point: the value of studying history is found in exactly the topic you raise: how do different patterns evolve in different eras and do they share an underlying DNA? For example, and ask your teacher this if you have time – does the context that gave rise to the dictatorships of the early 20th century have any parallels in the world today? Do the dramatic changes in society – from industrial to knowledge work, physical to digital, as well as growing inequality from the wealthy to the poor – present a similar context for change and upheaval? After all, times of change are when society, especially its weakest members, are most susceptible to douche bags and idiot philosophers who promise short-term solutions, but deliver long term suffering. Of course, when I am a bit less negative, I would also say that the same context of upheaval can lead to a better, more equal society. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions in Greece and Rome (I’m not that well acquainted with changes in middle east or asian regions to draw examples from there), people generally fall to hype and sure answers, instead of uncertain but thoughtful approaches to complex problems. Hmm…any parallels to political activities to our southern neighbours? :)

Love you – have a great day

Do you have any additional advice to give Alysha? I completely missed her point about propaganda – I did send her a link to CBC’s Spin Cycles report.


  1. Jason Green wrote:

    I think propaganda has two key pieces, one of which applies today as much as it ever did and one which perhaps doesn’t. There seems to be a common thread of identifying an enemy (Jews, the West, bankers, etc.) against which everyone is rallying by rallying around the dictatorship. Once the dictatorship gains some traction, media centralization and control comes into play. The second bit is getting harder (the Great Firewall of China notwithstanding) thanks to the Internet, twitter, blogs, etc.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  2. Hi George, interesting question, indeed. Hope this helps more than it may confuse…

    Dear Alysha: I believe people never actually recognize they are falling under the influence of a dictatorship. People voted for Hitler to get to power and they did so for Mussolini too. This means that events are perceived as micro-events which occur often along the lines of an imperfect democracy. I mean, “dictators-to-be” follow apparently all the rules but use and abuse the spaces not so well defined between them. I call these abuses, “micro-coups”, real tiny coup d’etat’s which nobody at the time (except the usual few Cassandras) recognizes as such. A couple of Justices here, a de-evaluation of the currency there, some very justified anti-immigration laws, etc, which a big part of the population feels like they need. Of course, “dictators-to-be” use all manipulation media they have available to claim ownership of all sectors of the state, thus subverting the constitutional order in microdoses… until it’s too late. The people usually stare and admire the persuasiveness, charisma and other rhetoric trait of the personality du jour. And the propaganda misuses the crisis the people is living at the time (there’s always one lurking). It happened with Mussolini and Hitler. It’s all the same now with Berlusconi in Italy, for instance. Except now the democracy is much stronger and robust; and the fact that international organizations such as the EU limit much the space of a “dictatorship”. Of course, Berlusconi, just like Goebbels is a master of deception: they use propaganda (but also Coca Cola does it) freely because they **own** the distribution channels. People thus manipulated do not recognize such state of affairs as a dictatorship, and herein lies the problem! Only later it is possible to see the trees without missing the forest. Unfortunately, we have a very short memory (which gets shorter and shorter), which means that next generations do not have any whatsoever idea of what happened in the past.
    I guess you belong to the minority who tries and understand that!

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  3. Simon Fowler wrote:

    As a father of young girls I totally feel the burst of pride it must be to receive a question like that! Wonderful!

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, George, “people generally fall to hype and sure answers, instead of uncertain but thoughtful approaches to complex problems.”

    [This turned into a longer response than I intended, sorry.]

    I also think people fall for answers that are personified. What they want is not an ‘answer’, but a person who has the answer. That’s where the assurance, the “sure answer”, comes from: a person of incredible convidence who can wrap the trajectory of our narrative around their victorious narrative. That’s where the propoganda comes in. They tell a story that we’re desperate to hear and believe. That’s especially powerful when times are uncertain or people are downtrodden. If the person convinces us they have the answer, it almost doesn’t matter if we understand what they’re saying or how they’re going to do it.

    That was particularly the case in Nazi Germany, feeling so beaten up as result of the Treaty of Versailles that laid the blame and entire cost of WWI on their shoulders. Hitler restored a sense of national pride to the German people. Hitler, and his propoganda machine, painted a picture of a glorious German future under his rule, and identified the ‘enemies’ that stood in their way, a solution (eventually a Final Solution) to Germany’s problems.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war, was prescient when he broadcast a message on the radio in 1933, the day after Hitler became Chancellor, identifying the “Fuhrer Principle” as the crucial element behind Hitler’s leadership. Basically he showed how the ‘office’ of the leader, the Fuhrer, had been subsumed into Adolf Hitler himself. So rather than being held accountable to the office (as is U.S. President, for example) Hitler WAS the office. He WAS the rule, the Dictator. The broadcast was cut off because they knew exactly what Bonhoeffer was exposing.

    I do think there are parallels to today in that personalities and a politician’s “believability” seems more important and powerful than any clear expression of how they’re going to achieve their goal. I said in a recent tweet that the US electorate expects too little AND too much from it’s elected representatives (I’m English & live in the US – pay taxes & can’t vote!). They expect too little in terms of representative’s accountability to elected office, and they expect too much in terms of expectations that representatives can/should fix everything. That to me is a dangerous, dangerous path. We may be a long way from dictatorships but we have exactly the mentality to let it happen.

    We do want a hopeful narrative though, an optimistic story that we can be part of, and we want solutions to our problems. How we work towards that and avoid utopianism that requires dictatorship or totalitarianism is a vexing challenge. I happen to think there is also a theological and existential angle to this question, which I won’t bore you with but you can here: and in 1 Samuel 8 in the Old Testament.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  4. Deanna Douglas wrote:

    George, I thought since your kid asked the question I’d ask my kid what he thought.
    In addition to what you said, he thought the main missing elements are:
    1) Another force that the people both wielded and wanted in those situations – that of nationalism. All three of dictators appealed to the base nationalist instincts of their people (Third Reich, New Roman Empire, and Socialism in One Country – Mother Russia).
    2) He thinks the next thing they did in common was intentionally and quickly use fear among their own people as a tool to get ahead (a la Machiavelli, but he doesn’t know who that is).
    3) Finally, he thinks they all used simple, direct appeals to security (I would point to Maslow) as the basis for their success; their basic message was that I will meet your basic need.
    These three things work, he figures, to support dictatorships when people a) value nationalism, which is very illogical; b) don’t stand up to the loss of their rights (for reasons of too much or too little comfort); and c) are physically desperate and/or vulnerable.

    That’s his two cents’ worth!

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink
  5. gsiemens wrote:

    @Deanna – pass my thanks along to your son for his thoughtful comments! I’d be interested to know if he thinks nationalism is always negative…his point about people not standing up to loss of rights – reminds me of the Franklin quote “he who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither”

    @Jason – yes, the “target enemy” seems to be a reasonably constant thread in dictatorships. Fear, even when manufactured, is powerful in individuals giving up their rights.

    @Antonio – I appreciate your thoughts on propaganda, especially about the power of leaders owning those channels. State-owned media is always a dangerous proposition. The internet somewhat changes this power structure, however…

    @Simon – agreed – the personal connectedness, the message of personification of our fears/thoughts in a hopeful person or narrative is powerful and deceptive. Sometimes, we only see the effect in reverse. On a small scale, I think we all experience this deception in our personal lives at various times…

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  6. Vaughan Waller wrote:

    Alysha asked how dictators get into power and what makes them so attractive. Without wishing to trivialise this discussion I would highly recommend the German film called Die Welle (The Wave) which was released 2 years ago. Not wanting to give anything away I am certain your daughter’s questions would be answered by this film which explains the process all too effectively.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 3:22 am | Permalink
  7. Andi wrote:

    People tend to believe what they want to believe, and what they want to believe is usually what makes them feel secure. Dictators build on insecurity and seldom offer support for views.

    As a teacher of argumentative writing, I teach my students to “peel back the layers” of what they hear, to determine the truth. This also applies to the beliefs on which they were reared. How did they arrive at their views on politics and religion? Have they incorporated family beliefs without examining what they, themselves, think about issues? Once we are comfortable questioning and challenging opinions, we diminish the power of those who strive to dictate.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink