The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Hitler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hitler. Show all posts

Monday, March 20, 2023

Putin Must Die! How to make sure that the war will not end soon

As a comment to the recent decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, I propose here an excerpt from the chapter titled "The Evil Side of Collapse" of my book, "Before Collapse," (2019). In the book, I argue that there is a way to reduce the impact of systemic collapse that I call the "Seneca Strategy," which consists in accepting an unavoidable decline in order to soften a later crash. Conversely, there exists also an "anti-Seneca" strategy that consists in forcing the system to resist decline at all costs. The result is that the collapse is postponed but, when it comes, it is rapid and disastrous. It may be applied in a military conflict when the objective is the utter and total destruction of one's enemy. It consists in making it clear to enemy leaders that they will be treated as criminals if they surrender so that they will keep fighting to the bitter end. It was applied by the Allies during WWII, as I briefly discuss here. 

From "Before Collapse,"  di Ugo Bardi, Springer 2019 (*)

In military matters, there exists an “anti-Seneca” strategy that consists in disregarding Sun Tzu’s principle of minimum effort, aiming instead at continuing the war all the way to the complete military defeat, or even the annihilation, of the enemy. Such a plan could be based on ideological, political, or religious considerations leading one or both sides to believe that the very existence of the other is a deadly threat that must be removed using force. In ancient times, religious hatred led to the extermination of entire populations, and there is a rather well-known statement that may have been pronounced after the fall of the Albigensian city of Béziers, in Southern France, in 1209. It is said that the Papal legate who was with the attacking Catholic troops was asked what to do with the citizens, which surely included both Catholics and Albigensian heretics. The answer was, "Kill them all; God will know His own." 

That war, just like most modern wars, was an “identity war” where the enemy is seen as not just an adversary, but an evil entity to be destroyed. These wars tend to be brutal and carried on all the way to the total extermination of the losing side. In some cases, though, wars may be prolonged simply because they are good business for some people and companies on both sides.

A possible case of this kind of “anti-Seneca” strategy may be found in the campaign that was started in the US in 1914 to provide food for Belgium during the First World War. The campaign is normally described as a great humanitarian success, but in the recent book Prolonging the Agony (2018),  the authors, Docherty and Macgregor, suggest that the relief effort was just the facade for the real task of the operation: supplying food to Germany so that the German army could continue fighting until it was completely destroyed. This interpretation appears to be mainly speculation, but we can't ignore that Belgium was occupied by the German army at that time, and so it could be expected that at least part of the food sent there would end up in German hands. 

Something more ominous took place during the Second World War. By September 1943, after the surrender of Italy, it must have been clear to everybody on both sides that the Allies had won the war; it was only a question of time for them to finish the job. So, what could have prevented the German government from following the example of Italy and deciding to surrender, maybe ousting Hitler, as the Italian government had done with Mussolini? We do not know whether some members of the German leadership considered this strategy, but it seems clear that the Allies did not encourage them. One month after Italy surrendered, in October 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, signed a document known as the “Moscow Declaration.” Among other things, it stated that:

At the time of granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for or have taken a consenting part in the above atrocities, massacres and executions will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done … and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.

… most assuredly the three Allied powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them to their accusors in order that justice may be done. … <else> they will be punished by joint decision of the government of the Allies.

What was the purpose of broadcasting this document that threatened the extermination of the German leadership, knowing that it would have been read by the Germans, too? The Allies seemed to want to make sure that the German leaders understood that there was no space to negotiate an armistice. The only way out left to the German military was to take the situation into their own hands to get rid of the leaders that the Allied had vowed to punish. That was probably the reason for the assassination attempt carried out against Adolf Hitler on June 20th, 1944. It failed, and we will never know if it would have shortened the war.

Perhaps as a reaction to the coup against Hitler in Germany, a few months later, on September 21, 1944, the Allies publicly diffused a plan for post-war Germany that had been approved at the Quebec Conference by the British and American governments. The plan, known as the “Morgenthau Plan,” was proposed by Henry Morgenthau Jr. secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Among other things, it called for the complete destruction of Germany’s industrial infrastructure and the transformation of Germany into a purely agricultural society at a nearly Medieval technology level. If carried out as stated, the plan would have killed millions of Germans since German agriculture, alone, would have been unable to sustain the German population. The plan was initially approved by the US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Unlike the Moscow declaration that aimed at punishing German leaders, the Morgenthau plan called for the punishment of the whole German population. Again, the proponents could not have been unaware that their plan was visible to the Germans and that the German government would have used it as a propaganda tool. President Roosevelt's son-in-law, Lt. Colonel John Boettiger, stated that the Morgenthau Plan was "worth thirty divisions to the Germans." The general upheaval against the plan among the US leadership led President Roosevelt to disavow it. But it may have been one of the reasons that led the Germans to fight like cornered rats to the bitter end.

So, what was the idea behind the Morgenthau plan? As you may imagine, the story generated a number of conspiracy theories. One of these theories proposes that the plan was not conceived by Morgenthau himself, but by his assistant secretary, Harry Dexter White⁠. After the war, White was accused of being a Soviet spy by the Venona investigation, a US counterintelligence effort started during WW2 that was the prelude to the well-known “Witch Hunts” carried out by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. According to a later interpretation⁠, White had acted under instructions from Stalin himself, who wanted the Germans to suffer under the Allied occupation so much that they would welcome a Soviet intervention. It goes without saying that this is just speculation, but, since this chapter deals with the evil side of collapse, this story fits very well with it.

There is no evidence that the Morgenthau plan was conceived by evil people gathering in secret in a smoke-filled room. Rather, it has certain logic if examined from the point of view of the people engaged in the war effort against Germany in the 1940s. They had seen Germany rebuilding its army and restarting its war effort to conquer Europe just 20 years after it had been defeated in a way that seemed to be final, in 1918. It is not surprising that they wanted to make sure that it could not happen again. But, according to their experience, it was not sufficient to defeat Germany to obtain that result: no peace treaty, no matter how harsh on the losers, could obtain that. The only way to put to rest the German ambitions of conquest forever was by means of the complete destruction of the German armed forces and the occupation of all of Germany. For this, the German forces had to fight like cornered rats. And it seems reasonable that if you want a rat to fight in that way, you have to corner it first. The Morgenthau plan left no hope for the Germans except in terms of a desperate fight to the last man.

We do not know whether the people who conceived the plan saw it in these terms. The documents we have seem to indicate that there was a strong feeling among the people of the American government during the war about the need to punish Germany and the Germans, as described, for instance, in Beschloss’s book The Conquerors. Whatever the case, fortunately, the Morgenthau plan was never officially adopted, and, in 1947, the US changed its focus from destroying Germany to rebuilding it by means of the Marshall plan.

There have been other cases of wars where there was no attempt to apply the wise strategy proposed by Sun-Tzu, who suggests always leaving the enemy a way to escape. Nowadays, wars seem to be becoming more and more polarized and destructive, just like the political debate. Once a war has started, the only way to conclude it seems to be the complete collapse of the enemy and the extermination of its leaders. The laughter of the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, at the news of the murder of the leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011 is a case in point of how brutal these confrontations have become. It is hard to see how the trend in this direction could be reversed until the current international system of interaction among states that created it collapses. At least, it should be clear that the anti-Seneca strategy is an especially inefficient way to win wars.

(*) This is a lightly edited text from an early version of the book. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

Is Fascism Returning?A Reflection on the Centennial of the March on Rome


An image of the "March on Rome" of the Fascist blackshirts that took place a hundred years ago, in October 1922, and that brought Benito Mussolini to power in Italy. Look at him at the center of the photo: he already looked like an actor playing a role on stage, the strong man with a square jawline. It was a posture and a mask that he would maintain unaltered for more than 20 years as absolute ruler of Italy. That mask would eventually become him and devour him, taking him to his doom. Today, there doesn't seem to be any more space for such macho dictators, but totalitarianism is not gone, it is taking different forms. 

On July 25, 1943, the leader of the Italian government, Benito Mussolini, was arrested on orders from the King of Italy. That day, my grandfather was on vacation with his family on the hills. Coming back home by train, he walked out of the station without having read the newspapers of the day, so he was still wearing his Fascist party badge. Someone told him that it was not a good idea, but he refused to take it off and, for a few days, he stubbornly insisted on wearing it. It took several days before he was forced to realize that the days of Fascism were over.

I am telling you this story to show you that Fascism in Italy was not something imposed by jack-booted thugs wearing black shirts. My grandfather, surely, was not one: I remember him as a kind man who loved children. But, during its heydays, Fascism was a truly totalitarian phenomenon. It permeated every facet of life: at school, at work, in the family, everything. And it was diffuse in all social classes: from the nobility to the workers. But what was it, exactly? An idea? A political party? A person? A hallucination? Or what? 

Fascists saluted each other by outstretching their right hands in the "Roman Salute," which the Ancient Romans never used. They would recognize the "fascio" as a symbol of unity, a meaning that it probably never had in Roman times. They claimed to have rebuilt the Roman Empire by conquering a country, Ethiopia, that newer was part of the ancient Roman Empire. They shared with each other some typical ideas, such as nationalism, racism, the idea of self-sacrifice ("me ne frego,") and a love for uniforms and military parades. In terms of policies, Fascism was a mix of socialism, nationalism, paternalism, imperialism, and more, often in contradiction with each other. It could be anything, but, in practice, it was mainly one thing: Benito Mussolini himself, the Duce degli Italiani,  the absolute ruler of Italy. 

During the Fascism age, the propaganda machine of the Fascist party ran unopposed and saturated the Italians' worldview. The power of the Duce grew so much that it probably went beyond the expectations of his sponsors, and perhaps of Mussolini himself. It became a common slogan that "Mussolini ha sempre ragione" (Mussolini is always right), and he would bask in public ceremonies where he was revered by "oceanic crowds". The Italian people had completely delegated to him all powers. They had regressed to the role of children obeying the orders of their stern father. Mark Oshinkie correctly described this phenomenon as follows (not referred to Italian Fascism, but valid for it, too),

Overall, per Jean Piaget, they thought like eight-year-olds. And as did Cub Scouts, they exhibited a pack mentality: the dysfunctional kind. 

This image (author unknown) nicely summarizes the essence of Fascism, just as of all forms of totalitarianism:

How could it happen that so much power was bestowed on a single man? In part, Mussolini's success was due to sheer luck, but also to his capability to bluff, and his willingness of catching a good opportunity when it appeared. More than all, he was a master of propaganda, one of the first politicians in history to use the new mass media -- the press, movies, and the radio -- for self-promotion. As a politician, Mussolini knew even too well that all politics is based on finding someone to blame. And he was selling to his sponsor the idea to deflect the rage of the working class to foreign targets, away from the Italian elites. Pivoting on a series of myths that were already diffuse at that time, he blamed the troubles of Italy on the decadent Northern Plutocracies, the evil Soviet Communists, and the inferior African races. In this way, he managed to obtain support from those sectors of Italian society which had been fighting each other before Fascism: the workers, the financial sector, the industrial sector, the military, the intellectuals, and the King of Italy himself. 

But Mussolini was not just a politician. He was a great salesman, too, one of those people who don't just sell things, they sell dreams. He sold to Italians the dream of a new Roman Empire and that they, the descendants of the ancient Romans, would be the new masters of the world. And Italians bought that dream enthusiastically. For 20 years, Italy saw a wave of Roman symbols, banners, fascis, people dressed in togas, and speeches about the new Empire. If you visit Rome today, you can still see four maps of the expansion of the Roman Empire on the wall of the ancient Forum, placed there in 1934. A fifth map, now removed, depicted the modern Italian conquest of Libya and Ethiopia. Was it a political program? If it was, it failed miserably. But at the time, evidently, it looked like a good idea.    

For some 20 years, the Duce was Italy, and Italy was the Duce. You could say that he was playing the mythical role of the "Sacred King," concentrating on himself the glory and the responsibility for all that was happening, good and bad. And everything that happened was written in the Celestial Gantt Charts, up in the sky. Glory is a harsh mistress, and no man can keep his mind sane for a long time while staying at the top, surrounded only by adulators and sycophants. By the late 1930s, Mussolini had become a caricature of himself: his mask of strong-jawed man had devoured him, turning him into a bumbling fool who had lost contact with reality, and who threw Italy into a series of absurd wars that ended with a humiliating defeat. Mussolini played the role of the sacred king up to the end, when, in 1945, he was ritually sacrificed, atoning with his death the atrocities committed in his name.

And now, about our times: can Fascism return? And if so, in which form? Clearly, humans have a fascination for strong leaders and, today, Western media are quick to label a foreign leader as a "dictator" or a "new Hitler." But few modern leaders seem to be able to approach the level of power that Mussolini had. Our "color revolutions" borrow some elements that Mussolini pioneered with his March on Rome, but they are a different thing, piloted by foreign powers and designed to create chaos. In 2020, Donald Trump may have tried something like a "March on Washington," but his militia, despite including a propitiatory horned shaman, turned out to be pitifully ineffective. 

Should we conclude that the age of Fascism is over? Maybe it is, at least in the aggressive form that it had assumed with Mussolini and his imitators. But totalitarianism, surely, is not over. On the contrary, it is on the increase. We see it very well with the current rise of censorship, groupthink, propaganda, control, encroaching on personal freedom, and more. But all that is arriving without the presence of a "great leader," at the top. What's happening? 

I think that Simon Sheridan has a key observation, here. In examining the Covid story, he interprets it in terms of the "devouring mother" -- an archetype that goes in parallel with that of the sacred king, but that's different in many ways. From Sheridan's site

Drawing on the work of the great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, Sheridan makes the case that the archetype that has been dominant in the west for several decades is The Devouring Mother, a shadow form whose primary qualities include gaslighting, emotional manipulation and guilt tripping all in the name of protecting her children. Sheridan switches between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic to show how The Devouring Mother permeates all levels of society from interpersonal relationships and employment through to large scale political and social movements including corona.

So, the West may have experienced an "archetype switch" during the second half of the 20th century, when propaganda moved from promoting the rule of dominating fathers (or sacred kings) to that of devouring mothers, also known as "castrating mothers." Sheridan's idea makes a lot of sense. When the corona pandemic appeared, no strong leader emerged with the promise of bombing the evil virus to submission. On the contrary, the strong man of 2020, Donald Trump, was positively damaged by his attitude that many perceived as callous and uncaring. At most, we saw the emergence of suave grandfatherly figures, such as Tony Fauci, who adopted gaslighting as his main communication tool. And "Science" took the role of the devouring mother.  

There is a logic in this archetype switch. A sacred king is a real person, while the devouring mother is an abstraction. From the viewpoint of the elites, an abstract archetype is much better. "Science" can be easily controlled by corrupting those who speak for it, the scientists. Instead, a great leader can hardly be corrupted: he has all the power, and so he can have everything he wants. Another advantage of having raised science to a god-like role is that if (when) things start going bad, politicians and officials can reasonably hope to be able to get off the hook (in a literal sense), by blaming the scientists for having misled them. Mussolini was hanged upside down, but you cannot hang science. That does not prevent the possibility that individual scientists will be hanged, just like the Nazis at Nuremberg. But the elites don't care about scientists.  

These phenomena are another step in the evolution of the communication technology we call "propaganda." It had its infancy in the 19th century, matured with the dictatorships of the 20th century, and is still growing and morphing into new forms that, sometimes, we have difficulties recognizing and understanding. In any case, technology is power, and the problem of power is control

The modern forms of propaganda are immensely powerful, even near divine if we see them as ways of "creating reality" -- once a prerogative of God alone. But whereas God is benevolent and merciful, propaganda definitely is not. Its main tool is hate, and it uses it with glee to exterminate huge numbers of people. 

The Covid propaganda campaign had started with a theoretically benevolent purpose: saving grandma from the threat of a deadly virus. And yet, it soon became a hate campaign against the evil "no-vaxxers." It may well be that the people who started the campaign were surprised themselves by how the small creature called "coronavirus" had been turned into a Chthonic deity, just as those who supported Mussolini were surprised to see him turning into a sacred king. Fortunately, the Covid story is clearly losing its grip on people's minds. Perhaps it is being suppressed by the same entities who created it, not wanting to lose control of their creature. For the time being, they have returned to the old and tested methods of hate-mongering, as we see in the current demonization campaign against the Russians. 

So, have we reached "peak propaganda"? Maybe, but it may also be that we'll see it morphing into something new and more sophisticated. The new creature called "Metaverse" may offer new avenues for the powers that be to control their subjects. But history always goes in cycles, old ideas come back and disappear, always the same and always different. In a century or so, we saw dictators take the shape of ancient sacred kings, the evil dragoness Tiamat reappearing as a minuscule peduncled creature, human sacrifices performed on an immense scale, and, recently, nearly all the churches of God worshiping a golden calf called "Science." What else are we going to see? 

In the end, it is the human mind that creates myths, gods, and monsters. It is keeps them alive, and gives them the power to harm people. Propaganda is just an amplifier of these powers -- evil is all in the mind of the believer. You have to resist this evil, and you can if you remember that reality is not what appears in TV or in the media. Reality is what you see and what you touch. It is your friends, your family, your partner, your children. It is the ground you touch, the flowers you see, the singing of birds. Just stay human, and Fascism will never return.  

Monday, October 10, 2022

Mind Control as a Strategic Weapon. How to Destroy Your Enemies from Within


The "Zombie Fungus" Cordyceps kills an ant after having taken control of its neural system. Could something like that happen in human societies? That is, is it possible to destroy a country by taking control of its leader? This idea has obvious implications for the current war in Ukraine. 

We all know that history never exactly repeats itself, but it rhymes. One of these rhymes has to do with leaders who do enormous damage to the countries they lead. Let me show you a few examples from the past two centuries or so, then we'll discuss the implications for the current situation. 

1. 1859 - Louis Napoleon and the Italian Campaign. In 1852, Louis Napoleon (1808-1873) became the new French emperor. His first major military campaign was the Crimean war: it was a victory, but also a major blunder. France had no reason to help Britain to put down the Russians, but that was the practical result of the war. In 1859, Louis Napoleon made a much worse mistake by joining Piedmont in a war against Austria. The campaign was successful but costly, and it led to the creation of a new state, Italy, that would forever block the French attempts to expand in the Mediterranean Sea, along the African coast. In addition, in 1870, Italy made an about-face and joined Prussia in a war against France. The French were badly defeated, and France ceased forever to be a major world power. Louis Napoleon ended his life in exile in England. 

2. 1935 - Benito Mussolini and the Italian Empire. In the 1930s, Italy was a growing regional power with good chances of becoming a major player in the Mediterranean Region, possibly even replacing the dominance of the British Empire. However, in 1935, the Mussolini government made an incredible strategic mistake by engaging the country in a major campaign in East Africa to conquer Ethiopia. The campaign was successful, but Italy had made a big favor to Britain by having to keep a consistent fraction of its military forces in a region where they could not be resupplied from the mother country. Then, it gave the British an excuse to wreck the Italian economy by imposing sanctions and a ban on coal exports to Italy. The final result was that Italy arrived at the start of WWII weak and unprepared. The British easily destroyed the Italian contingent in Ethiopia and, from then on, Mussolini couldn't have done better if his purpose was to lead Italy to a humiliating defeat, for instance attacking Greece in 1940 without sufficient forces. Italy was defeated, and Mussolini ended his career hanged upside-down in 1945. 

3. 1941, Adolf Hitler and Operation Barbarossa. In 1940, Germany was at the top of its military power. Only Britain had successfully resisted the German attacks, but it was evident that if Germany were to direct the whole industrial and military might of Europe against the British, only a miracle could have saved Britain from being invaded and defeated. Astonishingly, such a miracle occurred in 1941. The Germans nearly completely abandoned their aerial campaign against Britain and attacked the Soviet Union instead, leaving Britain able to recover and regroup. The German decision truly made no sense if we consider that the Germans were risking everything to obtain something they already had: the oil and food resources of the Soviet Union that were abundantly supplied under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. The result of the campaign was the defeat and the eventual destruction of Germany, while Hitler committed suicide in 1945. 

4. 1978 -- Leonid Brezhnev and the Afghan campaignIn the 1970s, the Soviet Union was still a major power in Eurasia, although its growth had been slowing down. Leonid Brezhnev (1906 – 1982) became secretary of the Communist party in 1964 and, in 1978, he ordered a military intervention in Afghanistan to keep the country within the Soviet sphere of influence. The war dragged on for 10 years and it was one of the factors (although not the only one) that led to the collapse and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

5. 1990 - Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Kuwait.  In 1990, Iraq was a growing power in the Middle East region, owing to its abundant oil production. In 1980, the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, engaged in a dangerous gamble by attacking Iran. After 8 years of harsh conflict, the war ended basically in a draw, although the Iraqi claimed victory. In the late 1980s, Iraq entered a dispute in which it accused Kuwait of using horizontal drilling technologies to steal oil from Iraq's fields. The dispute escalated until, in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, conquering it completely in a few days. The reaction of the Western Powers was "Operation Desert Storm." In 1991 the retreating Iraqi forces were incinerated by a bombing campaign while the US continued bombing Iraq up to 2003, when the whole country was invaded. Saddam Hussein was then hanged by the Iraqi themselves.  

So, let's summarize. We have five cases where we see this sequence of events (there are more examples, but not so evident (*)): 

  1. A regional power, led by a strong leader, starts showing ambitions of becoming an important player in the global domination game. 
  2. The leader engages the country in an attack on a neighboring country, smaller and less powerful. 
  3. The attack looked like a cakewalk, but it turns into a quagmire. It may be successful or not, but it considerably weakens the attacker. 
  4. The Great Powers intervene. The regional power is defeated and destroyed, and its disgraced leader is executed or removed in other ways. 

It is impressive how, in this pattern, history doesn't just rhyme. It truly repeats itself, as if the leaders involved were actors following a script. How can that be? I can offer you two explanations

1 -- The pattern is the unavoidable result of the personality of strong leaders. They are, typically, criminal psychopaths with no moral restraints who tend to be reckless in whatever they do. In addition, they tend to be surrounded by sycophants and adulators. At this point, their brain loses contact with reality, and, eventually, they will make a major mistake that leads them to their doom (and, with them, large numbers of innocent people). 

2-- There exists a standard procedure that can be used to take control of leaders' minds. Considering how standard propaganda can take control of ordinary people's minds, it shouldn't be surprising that the same trick can be played with leaders. Actually, leaders' minds could be much easier to sway and influence, since leaders tend to live in isolated bubbles where the information they receive is carefully filtered by their staff. Take control of some influential members of the leader's staff (e.g. by corrupting them) and the job is done. We call this method "psychological operation" or "psyop"

Personally, I tend to favor the first hypothesis. When a single leader dominates a group, internal dynamic factors tend to appear, leading the members of the group to try to gain the attention of the boss by proposing over-optimistic plans. Those who recommend caution risk being silenced or ignored and, in any case, the optimists risk much less than the boss himself. 

We see this groupthink mechanism very well in the minutes of the reunions of the Italian high command when the attack on Greece was decided, in 1941. At that time, Mussolini was already gone on the other side of criticism and was no more in contact with the real world. So, he was easily influenced by his military staff. One of the most vocal proponents of the attack was general Sebastiano Visconti Prasca (1883 -1961), who repeatedly played down the military risks of the attack and managed to be named commander-in-chief of the operation. The only penalty he suffered was to be relieved of his command after the first attacks failed, then he lived to tell the story and died in his bed. 

Another similar case was that of Leonid Brezhnev's decision to invade Afghanistan. It is said that Brezhnev's health had been deteriorating and that, although not very old (he was 70 in 1976) he was not able anymore to take rational decisions. That may have generated a case of groupthink, where the decision may have been the result of the action of a member of the Politburo, the hardline Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov

But there are cases in which we have evidence of the active intervention of a foreign power to influence a country leader. The classic case is that of Louis Napoleon in France: the first documented case of such an intervention. The Piedmontese Government had sent to France the Countess of Castiglione, Virginia Oldoini, with the specific task of seducing Louis Napoleon and convincing him to help Piedmont to fight Austria. We cannot say how important was the action of the Countess, but we can't rule out that she changed the course of history. It would not be the first time: the "honey trap" strategy is very old. Do you remember the Biblical story of Judith and Holophernes? It is that old.

Perhaps the most fascinating case of influencing a foreign leader's mind using the honey trap is that of Adolf Hitler, who threw away a nearly certain victory for an uncertain gamble. It may be related to the story of Unity Mitford (1914-1948), a British woman who traveled to Germany in 1934 with the objective of seducing Hitler. She was, most likely, a British agent, but she was successful, probably the only non-German person who became Hitler's intimate friend. She may have influenced Hitler with the concept that the Britons were, after all, "Aryans," just like the Germans. So, the Führer may have been unsure about the idea of unleashing the full German military might on them, preferring instead to turn Germany on those people he considered an inferior race: the Slavic Untermenschen. Mitford is reported to have shot herself in the head in 1939. She survived, but she was crippled and had to leave Germany, never to return. That was two years before Hitler's fatal decision, but her influence on him may have persisted up to that time. 

Finally, in the case of Saddam Hussein, we have no evidence of a honey trap being used, but it may well be that he was the objective of another one-man psyop. The US had helped Iraq in the war against Iran, and Hussein saw himself as an ally of the United States. So, he may have been led to believe that the US would continue to support him against Kuwait. He may have been deliberately misled by the US ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie.

It may well be that both explanations are valid in various degrees in different cases. Some forms of psychological pressure, psyops, work so well because great leaders are especially sensitive to simple human emotions, including stroking their overinflated ego or showing off their manhood. In any case, one thing is certain: Giving all the power to a single man is the greatest mistake a country can make. 

Of course, these considerations tell us a lot about the current world situation. There are two cases in progress that seem to be rhyming a lot with those discussed so far: Taiwan and Ukraine. About Taiwan, the recent visit to the island by the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, may have been a not-so-subtle ruse to push the Chinese to attack. But the Chinese didn't take the bait, at least so far. 

About Ukraine, we have all the elements of the classic pattern of a strong leader who engages a regional power in the invasion of a neighboring country. Initially, it looked like a cakewalk, but it turned out to be a quagmire. The war in Ukraine is still ongoing, and we cannot know if it was the result of a miscalculation generated by groupthink in the Russian government, or if it originates from a one-man psyop directed at the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Or maybe both factors, or perhaps something else. It will take time before we'll be able to evaluate this burst of madness, but history is never in a hurry. In any case, the damage done is already enormous, and we can only hope that history will not rhyme in the same way as it did in previous cases. Otherwise, we face a terribly dark future. 

(*) Other cases. There are several cases of leaders behaving recklessly or stupidly, although following somewhat different patterns. One is that of the influence of the Crown Princess of Norway, Marta, on President Roosevelt during WWII which may have influenced the US policy (h/t Ollie Hollertz). Then, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was surely reckless, but it is also true that it made some sense in strategic terms since it allowed the Japanese navy to move freely in South-Eastern Asia for a while. The USA, in turn, may have fallen in traps with Vietnam and Afghanistan, but in neither case, the resulting quagmire caused the collapse of the attackers. Then, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, handled the Soviet Union to the Western Powers in 1991 in exchange for empty promises. Consider the case of Slobodan Milosevich, the president of Serbia, who, in 1998, was dumb enough to think that Serbia could stand alone against the combined forces of the Western Powers. It couldn't. 

Note added after publication. One day after I published this post, the Business Insider came out with an article proposing a thesis very similar to mine. -- maybe at the UK secret services, they read my blog!

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Europe: the Empire that wasn't


Napoleon Bonaparte in full imperial regalia. He got close to creating a European Empire, but he failed in the end. He faced the same strategic problem that other would-be European Emperors faced: having to fight on two opposite fronts at the same time, against Russia and against Britain. At present, the European Union (another form of European Empire) is facing the same strategic problems And it is being defeated, although in an economic war rather than in a conventional military one.

One of the fascinating things about history is how people tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over. A couple of generations are more than sufficient for leaders to forget everything their predecessors did, and run straight into a new -- but similar -- catastrophe. It is also called "history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme."

Then, among the fascinating sections of history, there is how people tend to get together to form those entities that we call "states" or, if they are large, "empires." They grow, they decline, they collapse, in a dance that lasts for centuries and that normally implies war, exterminations, and great suffering for large numbers of people. But most people seem to think that these purely virtual entities are important enough that human lives can be sacrificed to them. On this, history has been rhyming for a long time. 

Europe was often on the verge of becoming an empire, a single state with a centralized government. But that never happened. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne was perhaps the first to have a go at a European Empire, during the 8th century AD. His "Holy Roman Empire" survived for nearly a millennium, but never included all of Western Europe. Then it was the turn of Napoleon Bonaparte, then the German Kaiser, then the German Nazis, and, recently, the European Union that, for the first time, didn't rely on military might. They were all failures, including the European Union -- an entity that nobody seems to want any longer. 

How should we see these events? A failure or a blessing? Of course, empires are not benevolent entities, and sometimes they do great damage. But a central European government might have avoided at least some of the bloodiest episodes of internecine European wars. It might also have injected some rules into the otherwise lawless worldwide expansion of the European states. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) enacted laws designed to stop the enslavement and the extermination of the Native Americans by the European colonists. Charles V ruled only part of Europe and these laws were ineffective. But we may imagine that, if they had been backed by a strong central authority, they could have helped the Native Americans to survive the European onslaught. 

So, why couldn't Western European states create a central government? After all, when it was a question of making some money by military conquest, they didn't find that it was so difficult to fight together. It happened during the crusades (12th-4th century), the attack on Russia by Napoleon in 1812, the Crimean war (1853-1856), the attack on China during the Boxer rebellion (1899 -1901), and a few more cases. But, normally, the European states preferred to carve their own empires and destroy each other in internecine wars. 

One major problem for a European government is simply geographical. Europe is a peninsula of Eurasia that ends with the Urals, but that's just a convention. Are the Russians Europeans? In many ways, yes, except when their Western neighbors decide that they are barbarians to be exterminated (as during WW2) or, at least, people whose culture is to be rejected or annihilated (as it is happening nowadays). So, where is the Eastern border of Europe? Nobody knows, and that's a sure recipe for war. 

Then, on the Western side, is Britain part of Europe? Geography says that it is, but do the British consider themselves Europeans? The best that can be said is that they normally do, but only when it is convenient for them. During WW2, there was a common saying in Italy that went as "che Dio stramaledica gli inglesi" (may God heavily curse the British). A bit nasty, sure, but it highlights a certain feeling that continental Europeans have for Britain.

Geography dominates politics, and the result is that all the attempts to create a stable coalition of European states faced, and still faces, an unsolvable strategic problem. At Europe's borders, on the East and the West, there are two powerful states, Great Britain (now largely replaced by the US Empire) and Russia (for a period, in the form of the Soviet Union). Neither has an interest in seeing a strong Europe arising, and they normally consider avoiding that as one of their strategic priorities. Neither Russia nor Britain ever were interested in invading Europe. The case is slightly different for the US Empire, which does keep its military stationed in Europe. But, even so, the US occupation is more a question of political, rather than military, control. In any case, during the past few centuries, emergent European Empires usually found themselves fighting on two opposite fronts, on the East, and on the West. An impossible strategic situation that always ended with not just defeat, but catastrophe. 

It was Napoleon who inaugurated the challenge of fighting Britain and Russia at the same time. The resulting disaster led to the disappearance of France from the list of the world's "great powers." Then, it was the turn of the German government to do the same mistake. As a remarkable example of the stupidity of government leaders, they managed to do it twice, in 1914, and in 1939. Note, incidentally, that Adolf Hitler himself, wrote in his Mein Kampf (1933) that Germany should never find itself fighting on two fronts. And then, he led Germany exactly into that! The mind of the "great leaders" is often imperscrutable, but you may be justified in thinking that they are not as smart as their followers think they are. 

After the catastrophe of World War 2, Europeans seemed to realize that the attempt to unify Europe by military means was hopeless. So, they tried a combination of diplomatic and economic actions. It was not a bad idea in itself, but it failed utterly as the result of several factors. Mainly, it was because the leaders never really believed in the idea of a United Europe and consistently tried to manage the European Union in such a way as to gather the most they could for their countries, without much regard for the collective good. In time, the higher layers of the EU fell into the hands of traitors bought by foreign powers. As a result, the attempts to create a European military force were sabotaged. During the past few decades, Europe was effectively defanged and declawed, and, to use an appropriate euphemism, "neutered" in military terms. (image below from "The Economist"). 

In the end, the EU went through the same sequence of failures that had doomed the previous attempts at unification. The "Brexit," the exit of the UK from the Union in 2020, was the economic equivalent of the military defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar (1805), and of Hitler at the battle of Britain (1940). But the true disaster came with the current attempt of bankrupting Russia with economic sanctions. That was the equivalent of the disastrous dash to Moscow of Napoleon's army (1812) and of Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa" (1941). History does rhyme!

The economic war is still ongoing, but we can already say that Russia is surviving the sanctions while Europe has been badly damaging itself. No matter what the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be, Europeans now face a cold winter without a sufficient supply of fuel, and a probable economic disaster. The same outcome of Napoleon's and Hitler's campaigns -- even though not in military terms.  

And now? Disasters beget disasters, it is one more rule of history. The European relentless rejection of everything that has to do with Russian culture and traditions is a human disaster that cannot be measured in economic terms. The last thing Europeans needed was an enemy on their Eastern border. Now they have created it, and they will have to live with it, just as they will have to live with the climate disaster that they lost the capability to fight. And, most likely, the idea of a United Europe is now buried forever. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Saddam Trap: Winning by Checkmate


The game of chess is not supposed to be a realistic simulation of a battle. But, on one point, it may provide a fundamental hint: wars are mostly a question of command and control. Killing or neutralizing the leader (the king) may cause the collapse of the country's military forces. But, in modern times, country leaders are rarely killed by their enemies, rather, they are controlled, sometimes in subtle ways that involve them engaging in foolish or counterproductive actions. 


If the world is a giant chessboard, then the leaders of the major powers are equivalent to the "king" in chess. It is a common perception that whatever is being done in the giant struggle, is done by specific orders from the great leader, be him Putin, Biden, Xi Jinping, or whoever controls -- or is said to control -- a country.  

This perception opens up a chess-like strategy that consists in eliminating the enemy leader. But that is rarely a good idea. Unlike what happens in chess, a dead leader may be turned into a heroic figure by propaganda, and then replaced by another one who may be even more warlike. So, a better strategy could consist in controlling the enemy leader(s), something that you cannot do in Chess. If you can convince your enemy to make poor strategic choices, you are halfway to victory (Sun Tzu never said that in his "The Art of War", but he could have). 

So, let's see if we can find historical examples of this strategy having been successfully applied in the recent past. I can propose at least three. 

1. Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), 1808 – 1873. The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, turned Emperor of the French, is such a fascinating figure that I dedicated at least four posts to him (see below). The fascination about him derives from the fact that he was thoroughly, completely, and hopelessly incompetent. All his major decisions seemed to be aimed at ruining the remaining chances for France to become a world power, as it had been during the reign of his uncle, Napoleon 1st. One of these decisions was especially disastrous: when Louis Napoleon helped the Piedmont King, Vittorio Emanuele II, to defeat the Austrians and then unify Italy into a single kingdom. The result was the creation of a state that forever blocked all the attempts of France to expand in North Africa. Was Luis Napoleon controlled by the Piedmontese? It seems that he was: the control took the form of the work of the Countess of Castiglione, aka Virginia Oldoini, one of the most beautiful women of the time. She was sent to France by her cousin, the Prime Minister of the Piedmontese government, with the explicit purpose of becoming Louis Napoleon's lover and influencing his decisions. It is hard to say how effective Ms. Oldoini was, considering that Luis Napoleon took plenty of bad decisions even before knowing her. But we may at least suspect that she had a role in shaping the world as it is today. 

2. Benito Mussolini, 1883 – 1945. You could say that his first years of leadership went reasonably well. The turning point for him seems to have been the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Still today, we may wonder how it was possible that the Italian government engaged the country in the conquest of a territory that held nothing of interest for the Italian economy and that, much worse, was a gigantic burden for the state's coffers. It should have been obvious that the military forces stationed there could not be resupplied in case of a major conflict and were destined to be defeated. Which was precisely what happened. Was the idea of invading Ethiopia "planted" in Mussolini's mind by the British secret services? If that was the case, it was a remarkably successful trick that considerably weakened Italy's military power at the start of World War II. How could that have been obtained? It is hard to think that Mussolini could be controlled using women: he was a renowned womanizer and had plenty of them. But we know that the British secret services had paid him to push the Italian government to join the Allies during WWI. Then, in 1925, Britain had agreed to sign a treaty known as the "Anglo-Italian Agreement" that said, essentially, "if you want to invade Ethiopia, go ahead, we won't move a finger to stop you." That opened up for Mussolini the road to put into practice a mad idea of his: that of rebuilding the ancient Roman Empire, maybe with him becoming emperor. Instead, he ended up hanged by the feet, but that's the way history works. Incidentally, Mussolini's removal from power in 1943 is a remarkable example of a Chess-like decapitation strategy in modern times. Without a leader, the Italian armed forces disbanded and ceased to fight in days. 

3. Saddam Hussein, 1937 – 2006. Hussein was another remarkably incompetent leader who engaged his country in a disastrous war against neighboring Iran, probably thinking of himself as the heir of the Arab leaders who had conquered Iran during the 7th century AD. His doom came when he took another disastrous decision, that of invading Kuwait in 1990. It is well known that, before invading, Hussein met the US ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, and discussed with her his grievances with the Kuwait government. We have the transcripts of their discussion: while she never explicitly encouraged Hussein to invade Kuwait, she also didn't mention that the US would have been strongly displeased. Then, surely, not everything that was said was also transcribed, and we may imagine that Hussein would not have invaded Kuwait if he had imagined the US reaction. On the contrary, he may have taken what the ambassador said as a green light. After all, the US had supported Iraq in the war against Iran, so Hussein could easily imagine that the US would continue to support him. We will never know, but we may at least suspect that Hussein was framed and pushed into making the mistake that would eventually lead to his death and the destruction of Iraq. 

There are surely more examples of absurd decisions taken by country leaders. That may be the case with Stalin's decision to invade Finland in 1939. It looked like an easy task, but it cost more than 300,000 casualties to the Soviet Union. Then, some people argue that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was, at least in part, a trap created by the American diplomacy to put them in a position from which they could not back down anymore. But the three examples I listed, I think, are enough to indicate that a strong leader can be pushed to take bad decisions by foreign forces, although the methods for doing so are not straightforward. 

Neither money nor intimidation can do much to control top-level leaders: they are riding the tiger, so, they afford to appear weak, or -- worse -- as traitors to their countries.  Sex may be a more effective tool, and the recent story of Jeffrey Epstein tells us that many politicians may have sex-related skeletons in their closets. But truly powerful leaders can intimidate their critics and afford to be womanizers or sexual perverts. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is a case in point. 

So, stroking an overinflated ego may be the best strategy to influence a leader. All country leaders are normally lone men (very rarely women) surrounded by people who have no interest and no convenience in contradicting them. Older leaders may be especially sensitive to this approach and, surely, in getting older, their mental capabilities do not improve. Lev Tolstoy gave us a remarkable description of how Napoleon (the first) made incredible mistakes simply by doing the things that had been doing before and then discovering in horror that these things didn't work anymore (see below). 

In this light, the best controlling technique to defeat a foreign leader can be called "The Saddam Trap" (we may also call it "Saddamization." It does sound bad but, just for this reason, it may be a suitable definition). The Saddam Trap consists in enticing the leader to engage the country in a military adventure that, in the beginning, looks like a cakewalk (what could go wrong with invading Kuwait?) Then, it turns out to have been a trap from which the great leader cannot extricate himself without losing face-- which for him is equivalent to admitting defeat. Leaders cannot admit defeat, they can only double down and hope that making a mistake bigger will turn it into a success. Except that it doesn't always work. And then history moves forward, unforgiving as usual. 

The study of history may tell us much about our present, but we have to be cautious in interpreting current events according to similarities with previous ones. And don't forget that the "great leaders" are few: most of our politicians can be bought on the cheap, we don't need to look for sophisticated strategies. So, we cannot say with certainty how exactly some recent events can be interpreted in terms of one or more leaders being trapped Saddam-style or, simply, paid to sell their country to a foreign power. With time, though, we will know. 


Lev Tolstoy: War and Peace.

Napoleon was experiencing a feeling of depression like that of an ever-lucky gambler who, after recklessly flinging money about and always winning, suddenly just when he has calculated all the chances of the game, finds that the more he considers his play the more surely he loses.

His troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy’s line, and a cavalry attack by ‘the men of iron,’ all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Despite news of the capture of the fleches, Napoleon saw that this was not the same, not at all the same, as what had happened in his former battles. He saw that what he was feeling was felt by all the men about him experienced in the art of war. All their faces looked dejected, and they all shunned one another’s eyes only a de Beausset could fail to grasp the meaning of what was happening.

But Napoleon with his long experience of war well knew the meaning of a battle not gained by the attacking side in eight hours, after all efforts had been expended. He knew that it was a lost battle and that the least accident might now with the fight balanced on such a strained center destroy him and his army.

When he ran his mind over the whole of this strange Russian campaign in which not one battle had been won, and in which not a flag, or cannon, or army corps had been captured in two months, when he looked at the concealed depression on the faces around him and heard reports of the Russians still holding their ground a terrible feeling like a nightmare took possession of him, and all the unlucky accidents that might destroy him occurred to his mind. The Russians might fall on his left wing, might break through his center, he himself might be killed by a stray cannon ball. All this was possible. In former battles he had only considered the possibilities of success, but now innumerable unlucky chances presented themselves, and he expected them all. Yes, it was like a dream in which a man fancies that a ruffian is coming to attack him, and raises his arm to strike that ruffian a terrible blow which he knows should annihilate him, but then feels that his arm drops powerless and limp like a rag, and the horror of unavoidable destruction seizes him in his helplessness.

The news that the Russians were attacking the left flank of the French army aroused that horror in Napoleon. He sat silently on a camp stool below the knoll, with head bowed and elbows on his knees.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Collapse by Doubling Down: How Leaders Create Their Own Ruin


Napoleon won all the battles he engaged in, up to Borodino (1812), which was a non-victory, equivalent to a loss. From then, on it was all downhill from him. Napoleon had engaged in a task too big even for him: invading Russia. It is typical of successful leaders to use the doubling down strategy that leads them to a rapid collapse in their career -- another manifestation of the Seneca Cliff. 

Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) was a very successful leader during the final years of the ancient Roman republic. Isaac Asimov told his story in 1971, noting a curious detail. Pompey was successful in everything he did up to a fateful day, in 61 BCE. From then on, everything he did was a failure until he was assassinated in Egypt, in 48 B.C. Half-jokingly, Asimov suggested that Pompey's reversal of fortunes coincided with having desecrated the temple of Jerusalem, that he had just conquered. 

Even without desecrating anything, it is a constant of history that "invincible" leaders tend to end their days in the dust after a stellar career. Another case, centuries after Pompey, is that of Napoleon Bonaparte. He won every battle he was involved in until, in 1812, his army faced the Russians at Borodino. Maybe it was a victory, but it weakened Napoleon so much that he didn't win any more battles again. 

There are many more examples. Think of Adolf Hitler: successful in everything he did, but he failed to bomb Britain to submission. Then, he doubled down by attacking the Soviet Union in 1941 (same mistake as Napoleon). Disaster ensued. Or of Benito Mussolini. Everything he did was a success until he decided to join Germany in WWII. Some of the early Italian moves in the war, as the attack on France in 1940, could be defined as successes. But they were just a prelude to disaster. Later on, a completely clueless Mussolini bungled from a defeat to another, so much that one wonders how was it possible for a single man to do so much damage. And let's finish with an honorable mention for Saddam Hussein, who must have believed he was the reincarnation of the ancient Islamic warriors when he ordered the Iraqi army to attack Iran in 1980. It was a victory for Iraq, but at an enormous human and economic cost. Then, Hussein doubled down by invading Kuwait, and you know what happened. 

I think there is a certain logic in these stories. It is a basic rule that goes as "success doesn't teach you anything." The human mind is easily deceived by overinterpreting favorable events and successful people become convinced that what was just a stroke of luck was instead due to their superior intuition or intelligence. The result is that they kept doing whatever they found that was successful in the past. And not just that. If they found something that worked, then people tend to repeat it on a larger scale. It is the "doubling down strategy."

In the roulette game, the doubling down strategy is known as the "martingale." You choose a color, red or black, and you double your bet on it until you win. The idea is that you may suffer a series of losses but, eventually, you'll recoup them and make a profit when your color comes out.

It is unbelievable how many people think that the martingale is a good idea. The problem is that it looks easy and it seems to work. Unfortunately, as I discuss in my book "The Seneca Effect," it is a fast lane toward collapse. Eventually, you'll face a string of losses long enough to ruin you and, at that point, you'll be torn to pieces by the claws of the black swan. 

Pompey in Jerusalem, Napoleon at Borodino, Hitler and Mussolini in Russia, Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, they suddenly found themselves facing something that was much larger than they had expected and that led to their rapid ruin: the Seneca Cliff:

Above: the Seneca Curve. For Napoleon, the peak was at Borodino in 1812. 

Now, I think you understand the point I wanted to make, even though I will not explicitly say what I mean (I have already lost a blog to censorship). During the past two years, we have seen our leaders doubling down several times and, so far, they have been successful. So much that they keep doing that, raising the stakes and the threats at every step. 

Will they overextend themselves and create their own ruin? It may well be. If this is the case, we can detect the transition moment when they arrive to a doubling that they can barely afford. Like Napoleon at Borodino, they suddenly see the cost of one more of those victories that, earlier on had seemed to them cheap and easy. 

Are we starting to see that? Maybe not yet, but some signs of fatigue are starting to appear. If we are approaching the peak of the Seneca Curve, their downfall could be rapid. And also very noisy. 


(*) Tolstoy describes the battle of Borodino in his "War and Peace" novel. It does not pretend to be a historical study, but it does make the point that, once the battle was started, Napoleon had no more control over it. He gave orders that were not executed on the basis of information that was already obsolete when he received it. 

[Napoleon's] troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland- yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.  

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy's line, and a cavalry attack by "the men of iron," all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Propaganda Trap: How to get out of it?

 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.


The story 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 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.