To understand what permitted sadistic tyrants like Mao ZeDong and Hitler to assume power, it is important to recognize the political climate on the international stage after The Opium Wars of the 19th century and the early twentieth-century phenomenon of WWI. These events largely paved the road for the rise to power of charismatic but nonetheless corrupt, ruthless leaders.
Having always called itself the “Middle Kingdom” it is evident that throughout history, China has always had a strong sense of nationalism. Through the Western intervention of the Opium Wars, China was forced to concede many of its territorial and sovereignty rights. Dissatisfaction with the wavering Qing dynasty and their inability to preserve China’s long-held sovereignty and power on the world stage accumulated in the Xinhai Rebellion, when the Qing dynasty was overthrown. The Guomindang was founded by Sun Yat Sen in 1912, being elected as the first president of the Republic of China after the collapse of the Qing dynasty. Yat-Sen assumed power as the president of China. In Yat-Sen’s Three Principles of the People, he described his new vision for political and economic reform in China. Yat-Sen was heavily influenced by Western values. His 3 principles were nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood. However, Yat Sen’s rule was brief, quickly replaced by power-hungry Yuan Shikai, who attempted to end the republic and become emperor. After Yuan’s death, the central government dissolved and regional military depots were formed. When successor Chiang Kai-shek assumed power, he launched the Northern Expedition, a military campaign to reunify China and re-align with Sun Yat Sen’s vision. The success of the military campaign was very short lived, however, because modernization and social revision were cast aside as the government focused on fighting communism and imperial aggressor Japan. Soon the regime fell victim to many corrupt government officials culpable for high taxation and extortion. Despite promises of modernization by the government, China largely remained in poverty, plagued by economic backwardness, unequal land distribution, high-interest rates, and excessive military spending. The Organic Law passed in 1928 granted the National Government absolute jurisdiction over the Republic of China. This entailed the commanding of all forces, the right to declare and end war, and being the ultimate arbiter of when rights were infringed upon. Sun Yat Sen’s original vision for democracy had been abandoned and replaced by a brutal, repressive regime. Economic discontent led to numerous labor strikes by students, newspaper editors, and intellectuals. The GMD responded with censorship, mass arrest, and violence. The strong discontent fueled the Chinese Civil War between the Communist Party and Nationalist Party. Mao gained the support of many for his communist cause, propelling his ascension as leader of the new People’s Republic of China (“Mao Zedong”).
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Similarly, Hitler’s rise to power begins with a bleak political and social climate of mass suffering. The Great Depression had left millions within the country jobless. Furthermore, the mass expenditures that Germany’s participation in WWI had required and the harsh reparations asked of Germany within the Treaty of Versailles including territorial losses and reduction in armed forces weakened the nation. Through the loss of territory, Germany’s ability to produce revenue-generating coal and iron ore decreased, and as war debts and reparations piled, The Weimar Republic- the governing body at the time- was unable to cover its debt. The Weimar government’s response was to print more money, but hyperinflation ensued, and many struggled to meet their basic needs. People were angry with the Weimar Republic due to its inability to effectively recover from the devastating economic and political blows. This dissatisfaction with the government, economic misery, and fear for more adversity to come manifested itself in many uprisings. The nationwide sense of hopelessness made Hitler’s ascent to power quick. Many were captivated by his storytelling and construction of a narrative of a brighter future and restoration of Germany as a world power (Lukas).
Do not let your emotions become your political conscious.
Tyrants are able able to evoke emotion within their followers- through appealing to pride from nationalism and fear and hatred from antagonism, leaders blindside followers with their emotions. People remain complicit and unwaveringly invested in the cycle of spoken, empty promises of leaders and come to view their words as truths of a better future to come.
The twentieth century was a century filled with economic downturn and massive, chaotic fights and shifts in power. Through these tumultuous times, hopelessness hung over the heads of nations, and people were desperate for change. It was this desperation that permitted powerful but sadistic leaders like Mao Zedong and Hitler to arise. These leaders were responsible for mass suffering within the nations they ruled. Despite this suffering, people remained complicit, even loyal. Ultimately, it was the ability of Mao and Hitler to appeal to the emotions of individuals that fueled the mass mobilization of support behind their causes and aided them in maintaining legitimacy.
A prominent 20th-century leader and master of provoking emotion in followers is Mao Zedong. Mao used three key tactics when disseminating and instilling emotions within his people: personalization, magnification, and moralization. Personalization was the practice of translating a national narrative into a personal story of loss and the hardships faced by peasants in “old society”. Magnification tied all aspects of life to political discourse. For instance, miswriting one of Mao’s quotes was considered a crime. This intense level of political awareness fueled a sense of dedication and strict adherence to Mao’s goals. The moralization of revolutionary discourse painted a picture of class enemies are morally inferior, as opposed to a social institution with deviating ideologies and values. Those tactics were used for the mass propagation of 3 emotions: victimization, redemption, and emancipation to gain and maintain legitimacy.
Mao appealed to victimization through the construction of a narrative of political repression; a China ridden with poverty, violence, and inequality, in which peasants and workers were victims of class exploitation. Mao asked all to tell their personal stories in the form of small group meetings and confession writing where peasants recounted instances of victimhood. This heightened individuals’ indignation with the status quo. The suffering and poverty these individuals had experienced rendered them susceptible to the appealing rhetoric of Mao, who acknowledged their struggle. This social climate fueled their support of Mao’s cause. Mao also appealed to magnification through the tying of the victimization narrative to mundane actions. This account, written by the Red Guards, reflects the blowing of daily life out of proportion, into a life vs. death class struggle. It is important to hear from the perspective of the Red Guards, as they possessed an undying sense of loyalty to the Chairman. Exploration of the brainwashing of these individuals and their way of thought provides key insight into Mao’s mobilization tactics. They are a very reliable source on the basis of understanding how Mao’s gained such widespread and intense support. “One evening, a group of students went into town to see a visiting song-and-dance ensemble from Tianjin. The next day, posters appeared around campus accusing the performers of attacking socialism and spreading bourgeois ideology. The critics were outraged by a dance that depicted peasant girls plucking cucumbers; they said the ugly hip twisting motions made a mockery of poor and lower-middle peasants” (Gao 41). The amplification of daily life into political struggle immersed people in Mao’s vision and strengthened their sense of urgency and belief in the success of Mao’s reform. The creation of class enemies on the basis of innocuous actions became common to fuel the fire of class struggle. People who questioned Mao became “devils” and “demons” on moral grounds. It was convenient for Mao to justify their conflicting perspective on the basis of personal morals as opposed to a deviating ideology, as it resonated deeper with followers. People strictly adhered to Mao’s ideology in fear of being labeled a “class enemy” or “monster”.
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Redemption was Mao’s justification of the emergence of The Communist Party to purify individuals and avoid being poisoned by capitalist or feudal thought. Mao aspired to construct a new “socialist man” who prioritized collective interests and loyalty to the Communist Party (Liu 17). This forced people to develop unrealistically high senses of political and moral consciousnesses, in fear of falling short of the idealized socialist man. People became highly conscious of their faults and were scrutinized and criticized for any deviation from the communist vision- an instance of Mao’s magnification tactics. A former student of revolutionary university details the inundation of political labels on students for their sins. This source does not seem questionable, as this is a firsthand account and reflection of past events, written solely for the purpose of informing the public of one’s personal experiences within the revolutionary university. “The student at the revolutionary university was mainly under fire for his “individualism.” . . . And so were the other faults for which the students were repeatedly criticized and for they criticized others: “subjectivism” applying to a problem a personal viewpoint rather than a “scientific” Marxist approach … as well as “deviationism,” “opportunism,” “dogmatism,” “reflecting exploiting class ideology,” “overly technical viewpoints,” “bureaucratism,” “individual heroism,” “revisionism,” “departmentalism,” “sectarianism,” and… “pro-American outlook.” (Lifton 260). The party pressured people to admit and reflect on their sins, to track and trace every misstep. This form of self-persecution forced individuals to develop a form of self-censorship where they condemned themselves for any forms of disloyalty to the Party. This further elevated the sanctity of Mao’s ideology, as it seemed the only tool to rid oneself of faults and better one’s character. Moralization also played a significant role in unwavering loyalty and adherence to the socialist man as many traits of the ideal man, like complete unselfishness, overlapped with the values of traditional Confucian culture. For many people, Maoism was just traditional values recast in socialist terms and simply reflected aspirations for moral perfection, which strengthened support for Mao’s movement on “morally correct” grounds (Liu 22).
Emancipation was Mao’s end state of eternal harmony, where through the changing of the relations of production, enormous productivity was achieved. Mobilization meetings were held in which everyone was expected to express his or her personal excitement. During the Great Leap Forward “poem-writing campaigns” were held of which the theme was happiness and excitement for the Great Leap Forward (Liu 28). This evoked euphoria within Mao’s followers, magnifying their faith in the success of his reforms and blindsiding them from the failures of Mao.
Similarly, Hitler’s rise and maintenance of power was riddled with tactics that mobilized individuals emotionally into support and loyalty. Expressions like “lives unworthy of life,” “useless eaters,” “unjust burdens,” “misfits,” “freaks,” and “monsters”, labels Hitler created, all fueled contempt for the disabled and other marginalized groups (Brogaard). The mass repetition and proliferation of this eugenic rhetoric instilled these beliefs as “truths” within the German population and construction of a highly immoral hierarchy. Furthermore, Nazi portrayed Jews as disease-spreading rats infesting the host nation of Germany, tainting the superior, pure Aryan blood and poisoning its culture. Jews were considered aliens with the evil intent to ruin Germany with a communist takeover. Hitler effectively evoked fear and vengeance within the German population. The emotions that Hitler played to rendered people complicit, even in support of, making mass deportation and genocide of Jews. One of the most important mediums through which ultra-nationalist emotions were propagated was films. One of these films, Triumph of the Wills, opens with the statement: “On 5 September 1934, 20 years after the outbreak of the World War, 16 years after the beginning of German suffering, 19 months after the beginning of the German rebirth, Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremberg to review the columns of faithful followers” (Universum Film AG). The film paints a picture of Hitler as a savior who saved the German nation from suffering. It is important to recognize the political and social climate when the film was released in 1935. The suffering and economic downturn from loss in WWI, the Great Depression, and Treaty of Versailles were all still fresh in the minds of German citizens, and Hitler had just assumed power in 1933. The desperation and hopeless people felt elevated Hitler’s status on a pedestal as a figure of reverence for the hope he gave German citizens.
The most powerful leaders are powerful storytellers. They have the ability to craft narratives of suffering and empowerment to garner the support of millions through their ability to appeal to one inevitable, all-consuming weakness: emotion. This plays a role in any human’s decision-making process, which renders appealing to emotion a power powerful tool. Today, when our president labels an entire race “terrorists” or incoming immigrants as “animals, drug dealers, criminals, rapists” and crafts the mass proliferation and repetition of phrases like “Make America Great Again” and “Build a wall” he constructs a narrative of America being under attack, and our national security threatened. This fear and threat-construction cause individuals to rally behind him in, entranced by his narratives, provoked by fear and nationalism. So do not succumb to your emotions. Charismatic tyrants know how to manipulate your fears and desires, and inject their political agenda into your perception of the world and sense of loyalty. Do not let leaders manipulate you into believing you are in a perpetual state of suffering and exploitation, and that their solution is the viable one. Authority is no savior. Learn to question whether the figures they claim are the “enemy” are really immoral. A leader’s promises of a better future are fabricated and tailored to what you want to hear. Be wary of how your emotions deceive you and can render you oblivious.
- Liu, Yu. “Maoist Discourse and the Mobilization of Emotions in Revolutionary China.” Modern China, vol. 36, no. 3, 2010, pp. 329–362. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20721316.
- LIFTON, ROBERT ( 1989) Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press.
- GAO YUAN (1987) Bom Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.
- Brogaard, Berit. “Propaganda and Hoaxes in Nazi Germany: 80 Years Later.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 8 Nov. 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201811/propaganda-and-hoaxes-in-nazi-germany-80-years-late
- Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, YouTube, Germany: (Universum Film AG, 1935)
- Lukacs, John, et al. “Adolf Hitler.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 May 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Adolf-Hitler/Rise-to-power.
- “Mao Zedong.” Chinese Revolution, 4 Jan. 2019, alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/rise-of-mao-zedong/
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