Power + paranoia: a lethal combination

While recently watching the critically-acclaimed and much parodied German film Downfall, which chronicles the final few months of Hitler’s regime in Berlin, I found the portrayal of Hitler both surprisingly mundane and disturbingly familiar. As he raged about the cowardice of his generals or the weakness of the German people, it became clear that this was not some comic-book villain cackling madly in his tower while he killed people for his own personal amusement, but a paranoid and delusional man who seemed to genuinely believe he was fighting a necessary war against some insidious evil.

Looking at other dictators throughout history we see similar patterns of behaviour. Josef Stalin executed over half a million people whom he suspected were a threat to his authority, while Mao Zedong’s oppressive and reality-denying policies claimed the lives of tens of millions through execution and mass starvation. Like Hitler, both men were unshakeable in their convictions that the only thing standing in the way of their grand schemes was deliberate sabotage by bourgeois counter-revolutionaries. With an outlook that is more psychotic than psychopathic, such tyrants have more in common with cranks than with the gratuitously sadistic monsters they are often painted as.

The crank (or crackpot, or kook) is a creature for whom the free-for-all nature of the Internet offers a fertile breeding ground, and its characteristics are instantly recognisable: a pathological disconnection from reality (although they may have advanced knowledge in a specific domain), an often grandiose and exaggerated sense of self-importance, and an obsession with the threat posed by some nebulous, conspiratorial enemy — be it the Jews, the bourgeoisie, academia, hackers, Big Pharma, paedophiles, Satanists, The Patriarchy, pornographers, the Far Right, the liberal media or (of course) “terrorists”. The crank, in his own eyes, is the last sane man trying to promote a supreme Truth against the malevolent machinations of a powerful establishment.

Fortunately, most cranks are harmless. It is easy to laugh at the incomprehensible ravings of Time Cube, or the bizarre and logic-defying conspiracy theories about the Moon landings or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But you don’t have to look far beyond the surface to see the same desired for scorched-earth, no-disagreement-allowed eradication of the crank’s opponents that were put into terrifying practice by the likes of Stalin and Mao: “SUPPORT TIMECUBE OR BE CURSED. CUBELESS AMERICANS DESERVE – AND SHALL BE EXTERMINATED”. There is little doubt that if such people were to gain political or military power, the consequences would be disastrous.

But that’s fine, because nobody would ever put a deranged lunatic in a position of responsibility, right? A somewhat less optimistic view might be taken by the victims of the “Satanic panic” of the eighties and nineties, during which dozens of families were torn apart on the basis of ludicrous and totally fabricated allegations by crusading cranks. A more recent example occurred in Libya when six foreign aid workers were convicted — via evidence-free speculation and “confessions” extracted under torture — of conspiring to infect children with HIV as part of a plot to overthrow the state. Such events don’t approach the horrors of the Third Reich, but the underlying mentality is the same: They are out there, They are working against us, They must be exposed and eliminated, and anyone who disputes this is most likely one of Them.

Hitler and Stalin are dead, but the force that drove them is alive and well. If there is ever another Holocaust, it will not be announced with swastikas and Nazi salutes, but with something far more subtle: the language of conspiracy and paranoia, invoked by those with sufficient power to turn their delusional world-view into a catastrophic political reality.