Jackals and Jackasses

The loss of Stalingrad was a disaster that hit the German nation like a thunderclap. A whole army of 300,000 was wiped out ­ most of them killed or wounded, and 90,000 pitiful scarecrows taken prisoner. The entire southern sector of the Eastern Front was unhinged. The ominous rumble of Red Army artillery would creep towards Berlin at an average pace of two miles per day for the next two and one half years.

What was the response of the German leadership ­ to admit the invasion of Russia was a mistake, to retrench, to save what could be saved? As the reader can surely guess, not at all. Redouble the effort. Show fanatical will. Stay the course, if you will. Don’t cut and run. And alter history by defining failure as success.

Rather than as a colossal disaster in its own right, the government painted Stalingrad as a necessary sacrifice to avert a greater catastrophe: “Sie starben, damit Deutschland lebe!” (They died, that Germany might live!”) screamed the headlines. [1] Fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them over here, as one of Rush Limbaugh’s moronic flock might say.

The German administration’s top communications director knew how to set the proper tone. On 18 February 1943, Josef Goebbels addressed a pre-selected audience at Berlin’s Sportpalast. “Wollt Ihr den totalen Krieg?” (“Do you want total war?”), he bellowed. The audience, which included wounded soldiers strategically placed in the front rows, clapped and cheered in the affirmative. As Minister for War Production Albert Speer relates:

“Except for Hitler’s most successful public meetings, I had never seen an audience so effectively roused to fanaticism. Back in his home, Goebbels astonished me by analyzing what had seemed to be a purely emotional outburst in terms of its psychological effect – much as an experienced actor might have done. He was also satisfied with his audience that evening. ‘Did you notice? They reacted to the smallest nuance and applauded at just the right moments. It was the politically best-trained audience you can find in Germany.'” [2]

Whatever their secret, unexpressed doubts, the German people responded. War production shot up. Rubble clearance and restoration of municipal services in the bombed cities were in many cases a marvel of efficiency. [3] Army and people held out with a tenacity that seems astounding in retrospect. A rational soldier might have instantly surrendered to the (Western) allies at the earliest opportunity. Picking tomatoes on an Arkansas farm as POW labor with regular Red Cross inspections ­ and being carefully segregated from blacks by the same U.S. government that affected to abhor Hitler’s racial policies ­ was infinitely preferable to getting ground to mush by Soviet tank treads at Cherkassy or pulverized by time-on-target artillery in the Falaise Pocket. Yet the great majority stayed at their posts, and died.

Such is the mystery of popular faith in political witchdoctors, even as one’s world collapses.

On 6 September of 2005, as the levee breaks in New Orleans became public knowledge, this writer formally predicted to his correspondents that our current Zeus occupying the alabaster throne at Washington City might shed a few points from his all-important poll ratings; but that his popularity would not collapse into the 20-percent territory like Nixon’s or Truman’s.

The rationale was as follows: these are different times. The older generation that had grown up without television, as in the Truman and Nixon years, was gone. In its place is a public increasingly composed of two elements: Abysmally ignorant MTV-bred dolts whose bovine passivity dampens public outrage like a bucket of water on a smoldering match; and pseudo-religious halfwits who believe Stegosaurus trod the earth contemporaneously with homo sapiens sapiens, 6,000 years ago. These are the segments of society that prop up our rulers: one passive, one active.

Similarly, the corporate kleptocracy that created the present administration surely knows on which side its bread is buttered. It will stay loyal ­ at least as long as the marginal utility of continued looting outweighs the risk of sticky-fingered CEOs being strung up by the neck from lamp posts. With an ocean of corporate plunder laundered into campaign contributions, our incumbent rulers can anesthetize the body politic with a Mississippi-like deluge of propaganda that shapes, defines, and changes the subject.

A glance at the opinion polls provides, at least provisionally, some confirmation of this view. The latest polls suggest a seven-point drop from July (July was a popularity blip resulting from the usual Vaudeville hugger-mugger of our Caudillo passing his “agenda” through the rubber-stamp Cortes that Congress has become); but the drop since June is a mere two points. [ 4] Two measly points. There may be some further slippage in the days to come, but we doubt there will be a complete meltdown.

Here we arrive at the nub of our argument: cabals dressed up as governments do not require majorities to continue their misrule, merely pluralities. So long as its popularity stays above approximately 35 percent of the population as committed supporters (the remaining 65 percent being split between impotent opponents and brain-dead indifferents), a determined and ruthless ruling clique can hold on to power indefinitely.

But why does the faithful 35 percent not melt away like a snow cone in a blast furnace in the face of evident disaster and incompetence? The answer lies in the murky depths of primate psychology.

What we are describing is similar, but not identical to, the Stockholm Syndrome (the tendency of some hostages to identify with their captors), and the Battered Wife Syndrome (“never mind he broke my nose: he really loves me.”) Perhaps there is an aspect of the Sunk Cost Fallacy as well (“I’ll keep putting my chips on lucky seven and get my ‘investment’ back”).

Certainly, after 9/11, Iraq, and now Katrina, die-hard supporters of the incumbent administration have an enormous sunk cost of emotional investment. Their minds, if we are to describe the dead matter in their crania in such terms, plainly operate along the lines of a Winnebago shaman or Congolese witch doctor rather than as a child of Renaissance and Enlightenment.

We herewith christen this pathology the Stalingrad Effect: the tendency of disastrous events and failed policies to bind faithful followers to their leaders.

This syndrome exacerbates whatever toxic effects result from the calamitous policies in the first place. As cogitation slides ineluctably from the empirical to the magical (read, “faith based”), so the policies become ever more irrational in a downward spiral.

All else is mere detail, or should we say, public relations. Just as Goebbels was summoned to rationalize Stalingrad, so is Karen Hughes recalled to carry the crushing hod of explaining to the heathen why the occupation of Iraq at more than $5 billion per month is a Good Thing.

But in the interest of historical accuracy, we are constrained to point out that these analogies have their limits. The German chancellor who presided over the late unpleasantness, for all his demonic misanthropy, was a genuine Man of the People, however grotesquely distorted.

As an alumnus of the Viennese flophouses, he knew the lash of poverty. As a veteran of Flanders between 1914 and 1918, he knew what combat was like. He used these experiences, and his aberrant genius, to bond with the German people.

He was no Louis XVI, no Nicholas II, no overprivileged frat boy who, whenever he fell in a dung heap, was hauled out by Poppy’s fixers, hosed off, sprinkled with rose water, his pockets stuffed with cash by the law firm of Baker-Bott. His failings, and evils, were of a different order of magnitude, not bound up exclusively with petty graft writ large. But we are left with the conundrum: What can explain the attachment of the people to such feckless and utterly unrepresentative leaders as we have other than the Stalingrad Effect?

There are some things even a totalitarian country in wartime would hesitate to try. Were the bombed-out evacuees of Hamburg reviled as shiftless scoundrels by a whispering campaign initiated by the Party apparatus? Was the municipal government of Hamburg scapegoated for the firestorm? We are skeptical.

It is doubtful that if a 2,000-lb. bomb took out, say, Karinhall, the chancellor would say on a national radio hookup, “out of the rubble of Hermann Göring’s estate there’s going to be a fantastic estate. And I’m looking forward to sitting in the garden.” Such an offhand musing would not play well among the working class toiling in the arms factories as their sons froze to death east of the Vistula.

Nor would he have commended Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus thus: “Pauli, you’re doin’ a heckuva job.”

H.L. Mencken described democracy [5] as follows: it is a form of religion. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.

* WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] A photograph of a representative newspaper:http://www.privates-antiquariat.de/st_ende037.jpg

[2] German Propaganda Archive:http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/goeb36.htm

[3] Bomber Command, by Max Hastings, 1979

[4] Bush Approval Hits 40 % in US:<> http://www.angus-reid.com/

[5] We can broaden the definition of democracy to any form of government in which so-called mass opinion ­ manipulated by the levers of modern communications ­ dominates.