Many of the leaders held up as representing the epitome of evil were extraordinarily and spectacularly untalented, incapable and incompetent. With this mediocrity of evil, it is almost a wonder that they managed to rise to the top at all.
Friday 10 July 2020
After observing the trial of one of the key organisers of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the memorable phrase, “the banality of evil”.
This term captures how otherwise ordinary people can be motivated or driven to commit acts of extreme inhumanity and cruelty; how ordinary people are capable of extraordinary feats of uncritical thought in the service of an ideology or authority figure; and how some people are so able and willing to compartmentalise and rationalise the heinous crimes they have committed.
It strike me that this banal nature of evil lurks mostly among the rank and file. Among the upper echelons, however, it transforms and transcends this mere banality to become the mediocrity of evil. Many of the leaders held up as representing the epitome of evil, especially those who built up massive personality cults, were extraordinarily and spectacularly mediocre and incompetent.
Naturally, I do not mean to suggest by the above that all totalitarian tyrants and demagogic dictators were or are stupid and incompetent. Just as the ‘banality of evil’ does not preclude the existence of evildoers who are entirely committed and believe in the crimes they commit, the mediocrity of evil does not mean that no evildoers exist who are not highly competent and extremely intelligent. Examples of murderous tyrants who were also smart include, according to some historians, Joseph Stalin, though Leon Trotsky would beg to differ, and Mao Zedong.
It just means that a surprisingly large proportion of them are so spectacularly untalented and incapable that it is almost a wonder that they managed to rise to the top at all.
This stands in stark contrast with the popular image of evil, immortalised mythically in the firebrand intelligence of the devil, the cruel and fiery master of the blazing underworld. What he lacks in omnipotence, he makes up for in resourcefulness, drive and brains. In the popular imagination, Satan is a genius of persuasion, a criminal mastermind who can outsmart saints and turn them into sinners, who possesses such a command of the art of the deal that he can forge dastardly pacts with humans.
But real-life people who aspire or make it to the position of “dark lord” often lack Darth Vader’s debased brilliance. They are far less Sauron and far more Gollum, mediocre individuals lured by the ring of power, addicted to it and corrupted by it. They are the real-world personification of the inadequate man pulling the levers controlling the Wizard of Oz.
This mediocrity of evil can be clearly viewed in Donald Trump who, despite his repeated protestations, is anything but a “stable genius”. Before his unlikely rise to power, Trump was dismissed as a clown, an entertaining freak sideshow on the election trail – though it turned out that some segments of the media underestimated him. They were his useful idiots rather than the other way around.
Trump’s mediocrity is not just intellectual, political and cultural, it even stretches into the sphere he most prides himself on, business, where what success he has had was largely built on his father’s money and his first wife’s acumen. The man seems incapable of seeing the world beyond himself or being interested in anyone but himself – hence, his natural affinity to the notion of a personality cult.
Some have attempted to dismiss Trump as an aberration, an unfortunate aligning of the political stars. But this mediocrity of evil is nothing new and, sadly, rather common.
Although Hitler has assumed the mythical proportions of an evil genius, a super-villain, partly thanks to the power of Nazi propaganda and Germany’s lethal, nihilistic performance during World War II, the pre-Führer Adolf was once a young aspiring artist of little talent and even less education, having dropped out of school before even acquiring his secondary certificate.
Nazism was anti-intellectual and its founding father was the antithesis of the intellectual. At the time of its publication, Hitler’s main opus, Mein Kampf, was derided not only by his opponents but was panned even by many fellow fascists. It was mocked as “a boring tome that I have never been able to read… [full of] little more than commonplace clichés,” by Benito Mussolini, hardly a noted original thinker himself, according to the biography of the Italian fascist dictator written by Denis Mack Smith. This must have really stung, as “Il Duce” was a role model and inspiration for Hitler.
In the early 1930s, before he’d managed to fully construct his totalitarian personality cult that did away with anyone who publicly derided him, Hitler was mocked as a buffoon by German cabaret artists.
That said, Hitler’s lightweight intellect and intelligence does not mean that he lacked personality or charisma. “Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality,” acknowledged George Orwell, no doubt unconsciously influenced by the mythmaking might of the Nazi propaganda machine, in a 1940 essay about Hitler’s Orwellian machinations.
“In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself,” the not-yet author of 1984 wrote of a photo of the Führer. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.”
“Hitler’s strength consists solely in the clever use of already existing trends, ideas and situations,” wrote Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. “The mass leader is necessarily a virtuoso of commonplaces which he may or may not repeat in the guise of a ‘new discovery’. The modern dictator is not out to contradict but to confirm already existing views (and prejudices).”
Moreover, contrary to popular perceptions, Hitler was lazy, by the account of those closest to him. “He stayed up all hours during the night talking and playing music and watching films. He got up very, very late. It was unusual for him to have stirred before 12 o’clock midday,” noted Andrew Wilson, the author of a brief biography of Hitler.
Beyond the person of Hitler, the whole Nazi apparatus, far from being a well-oiled and efficient machine, was riddled with incompetence and inefficiency, centred as it was around the ego, whims and foibles of its unreliable and temperamental leaders. “Hitler produced the biggest confusion in government that has ever existed in a civilised state,” the German tyrant’s own press secretary Otto Dietrich once opined.
In short, rather than make Germany great again, Hitler took the most intellectually and technologically advanced society of the time and threw it off a very high cliff.
However, the image of Hitler and the Nazis as larger-than-life monoliths suited their supporters and opponents alike. For supporters, it helped validate their trust in such a monstrosity of cruelty and inhumanity. For opponents, it helped make Hitler and the Nazis appear to be completely alien to civilisation, masking just how common and popular his racial ideas were in the Europe of the time, even amongst those engaged in toppling his tyranny.
Beyond Europe, the modern Arab world has been cursed with a depressingly high share of mediocre despots, with the most spectacularly incompetent probably being Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
In the case of Gaddafi, who seized power when he was a young lieutenant in the army, his mediocrity when combined with his extraordinary vanity led him to aspire to and claim greatness for himself in the most ludicrous ways, from financing intrigues abroad to remaking Libya in his own image, despite the fact that he officially held no position of authority and was simply the Orwellian-sounding “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution“.
Not only did the Libyan dictator seek and fail to be anointed Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s successor as populist leader of the Arab world, when he turned his unrequited attentions to Africa only to be cold-shouldered as an eccentricity by his fellow African leaders, he had himself unofficially crowned the “king of kings” by 200 traditional leaders. Gaddafi was infamous for backroom slagging matches with fellow Arab leaders which sometimes erupted front of stage, such as occurred during a 2009 spat at the Arab League with Saudi Arabia’s then king, Abdullah. “I am the leader of the Arab leaders, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of the Muslims,” the Libyan despot said before departing the conference.
Then there was Gaddafi’s little Green Book. Published in a colour more commonly associated with the Quran but weighing in at only around 21,000 words, or about 100 pages, the Libyan dictator’s slim volume became the second most sacred book in Libya and compulsory reading for pupils and students across the country.
Despite its muddled logic, poor argumentation and intellectual shallowness, the Green Book was promoted outside Libya too. The World Centre for the Study and Research of the Green Book, which translated the book into 30 languages, had branches around the world. When I lived in Brussels, I recall, there was a branch just down the road from my flat which only stocked the Green Book and commentaries on it. It was always empty.
Although the Green Book was Gaddafi’s best-known work, his oeuvre extended to fiction. One non-Libyan reviewer memorably described the dictator’s short story collection, which contained “no characters, no twists, no subtle illuminations”, as “a truly unhinged free-form eruption of useless words” that reflected “a mind that cannot follow a coherent thought for very long”.