This November it will be exactly 80 years ago that a wave of anti-Jewish savagery and destruction broke out across Nazi occupied Europe on November 9 and 10 in 1938. Known as the Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, after the shards of shattered glass that lined German streets in the wake of the pogrom – broken glass from the windows of synagogues, Jewish-owned homes and businesses were ransacked, plundered or destroyed during the violence, often by neighbors and acquaintances of the victims. These November pogroms marked the start of the Holocaust.
Hateful, riotous and violent events such as these raise the chilling question how people can be made to turn on their fellow citizens en masse, to the point of destroying their properties and livelihoods, or even by killing them.
Such events do not occur in isolation, of course, and are often years in the making, and typically the outcome of a climate of division, misinformation, mistrust, intimidation, hate-mongering and fear. At bottom lies the vulnerability of the human race to being manipulated by folks who claim that they have the answers to all their problems, and who are able to convince others of their creed by appealing to the most basic instincts of our species, amongst which greed and fear are the more susceptible ones.
In addition, their appeal feeds on another intrinsic feature of the human race, namely the need to belong to the herd. Described by Nietzsche as the obedience of the individual to the mass, blindly and without reflection, and perhaps best characterized by his near-contemporary existentialist writer Kierkegaard, when he said that … we men are constantly in need of “the others,” the herd; we die, or despair, if we are not reassured by being in the herd, of the same opinion as the herd. And, as Simone Weil once remarked, people find comfort in the absence of the necessity to think.
Clearly, such basic human tendencies work directly against the willingness and ability to think about the morality of our actions for ourselves – as individuals – as well as the courage to act accordingly, regardless of diverging mass opinions. This as opposed to being purely driven by instinct, something that would have urged our animal ancestors to prefer the safety of numbers by remaining within the herd, for no other reason than being a member of the same species with the need to conform.
That the latter can be a contributing factor in the occurrence of mass violence – including state sponsored genocide, as in the case of Nazi Germany – can be seen in the context of the herd instinct being alive and well and continuing to thrive amongst the more vulnerable-minded of our species, particularly in the religious and political spheres. And if our history has shown us anything it is the fact that such outbreaks of mass violence can be initiated by those who have a purpose for it, or, if they are afflicted with a pathological need to dominate others and the obsession with the exercise of power.
Not easily understood if you are not affected by it – and essentially a delusion about one’s own power or importance – Adolf Hitler rise to power resulting in WWII is perhaps history’s most deadly example of how millions of people can be murdered for no reason other than that someone believing in their own divine purpose and invincibility is able to motivate others to blindly act out their deadly manic or paranoid disorder for them.
This couldn’t happen in our day and age you say? But you only have to watch the large adoring crowds at various Trump rallies and their absolute delight in chanting “Lock Her Up” to understand how the masses can be manipulated and potentially motivated to commit a heinous act.
With the oratory skills of a pulpit bully and employing a 5th-grade vocabulary largely limited to hollow phraseology such as “it’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fantastic!”, a large and primarily anti-intellectual crowd for whom truth is a function of what they want to believe as opposed to what is actually the case – after being told what they want to hear, e.g., how deserving they are, or how wonderful they are – can be made to focus on an illusionary enemy who is made out to be standing in the way of their entitlements, a promised utopia, and conceivably set afoot from there, and never mind the consequences.