In Essays, History

Adolf Hitler, pictured delivering a speech circa 1936.

The basis for this essay is that a bomb was recently discovered near my house in Sicily, where I am temporarily staying since my father died a few weeks back. This was a 250kg bomb dropped by the Americans during WW2 that didn’t explode and became buried and was just recently discovered. A whole area had to be cordoned off and then the army sent in to retrieve it and get rid of it safely.

This, along with the fact that many of the ruins in the historical centre of Palermo are from the bombing in WW2, made me think a lot about that period. Then I have also been reading the wonderful biography of Hitler by Ian Kershaw, and so I started thinking about some of the themes that came to my mind as I was reading.

The Casanova Effect, or How the Fuhrer Myth Came to be.

The scary thing about dictators, mass murders, terrorists, is that they are pretty much like you and me, but they think they are not.

True, some may be mentally ill, but as a general rule, they act in the way they act because, like everyone else, they believe they are right.

Hitler was just a man, but during a certain period of his political career, he became elevated to the status of a faultless demigod. This was partially his cultivation of what was called the “Fuhrer Myth” and also his followers gullible fanaticism.

What is interesting, having recently reread Hitler’s biography, is that I can actually understand how this came about.

As a species, we have a tendency to create a narrative around the events that make up our lives, and once we have one, we tend to ignore evidence that contradicts the narrative, and only focus on the evidence that reinforces it.

The other contributing factor is something that I have discussed before, namely “The Casanova Effect”. I’ll copy what I wrote in that essay:

If you don’t know already, Casanova was an 18th Century adventurer (awesome, eh?) and writer. If he seen as one of the most authentic sources of customs and norms during his time, and he is now famous for his sexual exploits, that you can be referred to as a “Casanova”. His life story does indeed read like an adventure, and it almost appears as if he had a magical helping hand, always available to get him out of trouble at the last minute. Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan, would think otherwise. He convincingly argues that there were, in fact, thousands of men during that century that behaved just like Casanova, lying, cheating, having high profiles affairs, but they all ended up either in jail, or shot by jealous husbands. When looked at it from this point of view, it was almost inevitable that one of these men would make it through to old age, and then would be able to write a biography, giving all types of reasons why his life turned out in that way.

If you know anything about the period in which Hitler rose to power, you’ll know that there were hundreds of political groups in Germany in the 1920s trying to gain power, with thousands upon thousands of members. It was likely that one of them would eventually gain power.

If we count all of Hitler’s large successes, or even large strokes of good luck, we can probably find around fifteen to twenty events that allowed him to become head of the German state. I include the fact that he had a lenient judge and didn’t serve the full sentence for his 1923 uprising against the German state, the collapse of the world economy in 1929 which gave the Nazi party the perfect ammunition to finally be able to kill off the Weimar republic, and so on.

If we what amounts to a rather simplistic, but yet I find insightful experiment, we’ll find that perhaps these events don’t seem so amazing after all.

If we make the assumption that each of these events could have had only a binary outcome:

  • An outcome that was good for Hitler and sent him further down his road to power.
  • An outcome that wasn’t good for Hitler, and sent someone else further down toward the road to power.

Let’s also assume that there were around one hundred thousand Germans in the 1920s who perhaps could have ended up taking power. In a country of 80 million people, the number would have been in reality far bigger, but let’s keep things simple.

If you don’t agree, just think of the fact that Hitler was a simple soldier with no prospects as soon as World War 1 ended, and look how far he went.

So each major event in Hitler’s road to power, in our simplistic view, can create two outcomes, and then these probabilities need to be added up together, as it’s a little bit like rolling a dice. Rolling heads once is a 50% chance, but rolling heads twice in a row is a 25% chance, and three times only a 12.5% chance, and so on.

If Hitler had fifteen defining events, we can do some simple maths (2×2^15) to know that this means 1 in every 65,536 who went along the political dictator path would have come to power.

Again, we’re hugely simplifying things here, but this does go some way towards showing how the maths does support that someone, somewhere, would have gained the political upper hand.

And just like Casanova, whoever did gain the upper hand inevitably created a narrative to explain why they were so special – cue in the Fuhrer Myth – that both his followers and himself grabbed onto.

However, the Casanova effect is not limited to just people who have had wonderful strokes of luck. We can all fall into this trap, because of our tendency to remember things in the way we wished they had happened, instead of the way the truly did. This is because we already have some type of narrative for our lives inside our heads, and we twist many things to try and conform as closely as possible to our narrative.

The real truth is that life, whether it’s a political career or a simple existence in the countryside, is completed governed by chance. Far too many events happen over which we have no control for us to be able to claim to be “masters of our fate.”

The only thing we can be masters of is how we react to these events, but what we most certainly cannot do, is to guarantee a certain outcome despite the events around us.

A Missed Opportunity

One the things that really gets me about the whole historical era of World War Two is that it clearly highlights that if the human race is willing to take one radical enough solutions, we can accomplish a huge amount in a short period of time.

If we think of every bomb dropped, every tank built, every soldier trained, every ship that set sail, there was an incredible amount of effort, and if this effort had just been diverted to something constructive instead of war, I often wonder how the world would look like today.

Hitler, as complete dictator of Germany, perhaps had the best possible chance to bring good to the world had he wanted to. He could have channelled all the effort that went into rearmament towards improving the standard of living, medical research, technology, education, and so on.

Of course, the same could be said about our current state of affairs, and we don’t even have a world war on our hands.

In fact, if we take the United States of America’s Defence Spending over the last seventy or so years in the inflation-adjusted dollars, we see that right now we are actually spending around 20% to 40% more on defence – war – than we were back during the height of World War 2.

That’s absolutely crazy

I think one day, we’ll look back at all these wars and this ridiculous amount of spending on something that is destructive by its very nature, and be shocked at the wasted opportunity to better our world.

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. James Madison, Political Observations, 1795

Continuing with America, the military budget is far in excess of the truly important things such as education. Check these shocking numbers out:

We don’t need to wait for a more advanced society to appear to be appalled that 20% of the federal budget is spent on war mongering when education – which is perhaps the most important responsibility that any government has ever taken on – is given a paltry 3%. Or even the fact the scientific and medical research only receives one-tenth of what the military receives.

So perhaps it is slightly arrogant to look at the World War Two period as a complete waste of human life and opportunity when we are still making the same basic mistakes more than seventy years later.

With almost near-certainty I can say this: military spending and war will one day be seen by a more advanced society in the same light as we now see slavery, cannibalism, and genocide. I just hope that not everyone who was alive during this period is painted with the same brush, as I know many alive today are completely against this insanity.

Winners Are Never Criminals

While the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War were merited, it is strange that only the losing parties were put on trials.

I’ve just looked up the definition of war crime:

An act carried out during the conduct of a war that violates accepted international rules of war.

So obviously the gassing of millions of civilians falls into the category of a war crime, and in fact, a lot of effort was made to bring those responsible to justice, at least, the ones who had not yet committed suicide.

So what about the Allied bombings of German cities during World War Two? In many of the German cities targeted, there were very few, if any, military targets, and the idea was to bring the war to the heart of Germany and inflict civilian casualties. Hundreds of thousands of German civilians died during World War Two due to bombs dropped by Allied bombers.

That’s also a violation of the accepted international rules of war, but nobody was ever sent to trial for that.

Also, and this is not to try and make the Holocaust seem less important or terrible than it is, we tend to only focus on the most shocking examples of genocide or mass killings while completely ignoring other more mundane examples.

For instance, we spend more time focussed on Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, which was shocking because of it’s industrial and planned nature. But in the end, they were “only” six million. Another 44 million people died in the Second World War, around half of those in Russia due to the planned nature of the German approach to war there which include starvation and mass shootings. We don’t often commemorate those.

Or what about the millions of Indians who starved to death in 1943 because Winston Churchill decided not to release food stocks for India?

If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?Winston Churchill’s response to an urgent request to release food stocks for India.

We don’t hear anywhere near as much regarding them as we do about the Nazi atrocities in Europe.

This link to my earlier point regarding narrative. There is this nice narrative we have set up that goes along these lines:

Nazis were the bad guys, the Allies were the good guys.

Which is completed and utter rubbish. Of course, the Nazi were evil, and their leader Adolf Hitler will probably personify evil for centuries to come, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else should have been let off the hook.

The real issue here is that justice is something that is applied by those who have power, against those who don’t. That hardly leads to ideal circumstances to eradicate injustice.

That hardly leads to ideal circumstances to eradicate injustice.