How often have we heard it said that Hitler was insane? The same sort of
evaluation is often applied to other dictators, from Josef Stalin to Saddam
Hussein. When some great figure, adhering to a totalitarian creed, begins to
kill people in large numbers, we “shrink” him down to size by saying he is
“nuts.” And therein lies a flaw — a genuine shallowness — in our own
This flaw is serious because once we label a dictator as “crazy” we
immediately put a halt to any further analysis of his motives. In other
words, we set ourselves up to be perpetually baffled by him. And this is
dangerous because so many of today’s dictators have arsenals of biological,
chemical or nuclear weapons.
Wouldn’t it be better to have a realistic understanding of how they
think, rather than dismissing their thought process as madness?
Perhaps if we had understood Hitler at the outset, World War II would
have been prevented. Perhaps, if we had understood Stalin, Mao and Kim Il
Sung the Korean War would have been forestalled. Given the possibility of
preventing a future calamity, can we afford to dismiss as crazy an admirer of
Hitler, like Saddam Hussein? Or an admirer of Napoleon, like President
Vladimir Putin of Russia? Can we afford to write off the Iranian clergy as
“maniacs” because we do not agree with their thought process?
To say such people are crazy is another way of admitting that we don’t
know what makes them tick. But every human bomb that goes tick, tick, tick
can be disarmed; you have to understand the inner mechanism. You have
to delve into the subject’s philosophy and experiences. You have to put
yourself in their shoes, which isn’t easy to do.
Try to imagine the point of view of three leading figures in 20th century history.
Mao’s political leadership in China killed over 60 million people.
Stalin killed over 30 million and Hitler killed over 13 million.
Wouldn’t you like to know if there was a method in all this madness?
Perhaps we should start by dropping the word madness itself. It is a
psychological term, taken from a very soft and questionable branch of
science. Even if psychology offers deep answers and solutions to human
problems, most of us are not qualified to diagnose people we’ve never met.
What did Hitler’s or Stalin’s colleagues say?
Perhaps one of the most sober of Hitler’s colleagues, Field Marshal Erich
von Manstein, did not refer to Hitler as a madman. Manstein even admits that
Hitler’s military thinking was often correct, while the professionals of the
high command were sometimes wrong. In his memoirs, Manstein writes, “When
considering Hitler in the role of a military leader, one should certainly not
dismiss him with such clich?s as ‘the lance corporal of World War I.’”
Offering a balanced appreciation of Hitler’s strengths and weaknesses,
Manstein does not play psychologist. He does not suggest that Hitler was
crazy. But he does criticize Hitler for “wishful thinking.” Because Hitler
believed in himself and his mission, says Manstein, he minimized reports of
enemy strength. “Hitler,” said Manstein, “turned his back on reality.”
In one of his footnotes, Manstein offers a letter written by a German
officer who was not an admirer of Hitler, but who served with Hitler and
observed the German dictator’s reactions closely. The officer thought that
Hitler was “too soft” when it came to the suffering of soldiers. “Casualties
which he was compelled to deal with personally or of which he was given
realistic descriptions … obviously caused him as much suffering as the
deaths of people he knew,” wrote the officer.
The dictator’s colleagues did not see in him a crazy person. They saw a
man with flaws and weaknesses, who had initiated the greatest military train
wreck in history. They saw someone who was ruthless in the liquidation of
his enemies, but who nonetheless had a tortured conscience. As we get closer
to the man behind the crimes, we see a more complicated picture.
The same is true of other modern dictators. In the case of Josef Stalin
we have the report of his close colleague and critic, Nikita Khrushchev. He
relates how Stalin reacted to the death of Nadezhda Alliluyeva, the
dictator’s second wife. “We buried her,” said Khrushchev, “Stalin seemed to
be suffering at the graveside. I do not know how he felt inside, but
outwardly he mourned.”
However evil a man’s deeds, he is still a man. He is still vulnerable in
his complexity. Knowing Stalin first hand, Khrushchev did not presume to
understand the Soviet dictator. He merely commented on what he saw — the
Khrushchev did talk about Stalin’s “paranoia.” But this was not a
clinical analysis. Stalin had good reasons to fear his colleagues. He
committed so many crimes and he killed so many innocent people, that any
reaction other than paranoia would have been madness of a higher order.
Khrushchev asks an interesting question about Stalin: “What was it about
Stalin? How could an intelligent man like him do all those terrible things?”
The answer, noted Khrushchev, was to be found in Stalin’s brutal nature,
in his tendency to abuse power. “There was unquestionably something sick
about Stalin,” wrote Khrushchev. This sickness had to do with Stalin’s
desire for glorification. “I used to think that this urge to glorify himself
was a weakness unique to Stalin,” Khrushchev noted, “but apparently men like
Stalin and Mao are very similar in this respect: to stay in power, they
consider it indispensable for their authority. …”
In truth, Stalin’s sickness was based on a political error regarding the
necessities of holding power. Stalin believed his power was secure as long
as people worshipped and feared him. This is sick not because it evidences
clinical mental illness, but because it produces (in practice) sickening
effects in government and society. It was not healthy. “I stress the
negative side of the Stalin years,” wrote Khrushchev, “to show that if Stalin
hadn’t committed such terrible abuses, we would have achieved even more than
The danger in a dictator is not that he is mentally unbalanced. The
danger is found in his intelligence, in his unusual cunning and prudence.
Such a person solves problems in criminal ways. He finds shortcuts via
murder and plunder. His logic is not the logic of a morally good person. It
is the logic of power at any price. And because the great dictator is highly
intelligent, his dreams translate into a living nightmare for millions of
innocent human beings.
Beneath the dictator are thousands of bureaucrats. These people
transform the dictator’s criminal shortcuts into daily routine. We must not
forget the “little people” who make the dictators of the world possible.
Hannah Arendt, in her famous book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann,
marveled at how ordinary this Nazi functionary was. She called this “the
banality of evil.” She noted that Eichmann had been a vacuum cleaner
salesman before joining the Nazis. His mentality was without intellectual
seriousness or integrity. In all innocence, he believed his own lies and
excuses. His soul was shallow and plastic, extremely flexible and changeable.
Eichmann often mimicked or reflected the attitudes of those around him. In
other words, he was the perfect follower — the ideal cog in a vast machine
Eichmann wasn’t insane. He was Hitler’s mediocre shadow.
Brilliant people and dull people get drawn into violence and destruction
because they are led to it by a desire to “make history” or “advance their
career.” They want to solve great problems, but they have lost patience with
nonviolent ways of solving problems. They want instant results. So they
take a bloody shortcut.
Political convictions combined with mistaken notions on how to overcome
resistance are sufficient to produce mass death and destruction. Now that we
have entered the 21st century, political convictions and mistaken
notions are still with us. Look at the Middle East today and you will see
the same old fallacies at work. There is a desire for war on one side, and
the desperation of a cornered animal on the other.
When we look at the leaders in Russia, China, North Korea and the Middle
East, we need to ask ourselves about their political convictions. We also
need to watch what they are preparing to do. Another world war might seem
like insanity to mainstream America, but there might be a way to use weapons
of mass destruction as a shortcut to something that “normal people” have not
seriously considered. Perhaps there are military tricks that will secure the
glory and the power of one country above others. These tricks, of course,
could lead to miscalculations that could claim hundreds of millions of lives.
We need to watch the leaders of Russia, China and other countries with
great care. We need to understand their dreams as we anticipate their
methods. For example, if you see today’s dictatorships digging underground
nuclear-proof cities, building newer and better weapons of mass destruction,
fielding improved ships, tanks and aircraft, do not imagine they are doing so
out of fear of our shopping mall society.
And do not dismiss these preparations as mere lunacy.