The Real World

April 2014  The Psychologist, 27, (4), 217.

The Black Sea, or rather Crimea, Ukraine, and Russia currently dominates the news. I (Steve) am reminded of 1987, my first conference of the European Association of Social Psychology held in the Black Sea city of Varna. I was sitting reading by a swimming pool and wondering why so many people were giving me dirty looks and a very wide berth. Then I realised. The book I was holding was titled Male Fantasies. The front cover sported a lurid picture of a naked man on a stallion with swastikas in the background. I hastily put it away.

But, far from being salacious or disreputable, Male Fantasies actually presents the German sociologist Klaus Theweleit's analysis of the German Freikorps — the ultra-reactionary nationalist paramilitaries who paved the way to the rise of Nazism. It analyses the toxic combination of damaged national pride and wounded masculinity which arose from the post World War I settlement imposed on Germany at Versailles. It shows how these led to dreams of national redemption centred on the expression of masculine power.

What is more, as the paramilitaries asserted their power on the streets, battling their rivals and suppressing their foes, so they benefitted from the inability of a weak state to contain the violence. The Weimar Republic became discredited and many turned to the promise of strong leadership and the restoration of order which they saw in Adolf Hitler.

Speaking to this sense of redemptive salvation, in 1934, an American sociologist, Theodore Abel, ran an essay competition asking Nazi Party members to explain why they had joined. Many themes were expressed: racism, nationalism, economic hopes and more. But one ran throughout and was expressed in the words of a schoolteacher: “I reached the conclusion that no party but a single man alone could save Germany. This opinion was shared by others, for when the cornerstone of a monument was laid in my hometown, the following words were inscribed on it: ‘Descendants who read these words, know ye that we eagerly await the coming of the man whose strong hand may restore order’”.

But of course these dreams and dynamics were not limited to Germany. In his 2013 book, Fascist Voices Christopher Duggan uses diaries and letters to analyse the enduring appeal of Mussolini in Italy.  His book ends with a chilling list of contemporary plaudits written in the register that is placed in front of Mussolini's tomb in San Cassiano. Many Italians, like Germans, felt cheated after 1918. They felt their nation had been humiliated. They felt themselves diminished as a weak people in a weak society and they felt that the liberal state was incapable of overcoming internal turmoil, let alone achieving external gains. Mussolini — literally — embodied their redemption. He was the strong man who would create a stable Italy (even if his fascists had been at the root of the instability), a strong Italy, an imperial Italy, a third Rome. He loved to be pictured, stripped to the waist, performing manual tasks. His torso and his jutting jaw became metonyms for the idealised nation. What is more, drawing on the old Risorgimento slogan “we have made Italy, now we must make Italians”, he saw his task as forging other Italians in his own image. Chillingly, he embraced war as a mean of achieving this goal.

Our own work on the BBC Prison Study also speaks to the psychological processes which underlie the triumph of authoritarian social systems. Unlike traditional explanations, which claim that people naturally conform to authorities, however toxic they might be, we have argued that there is a dynamic interplay between activists, social context, and ordinary people. Thus, an authoritarian leadership is not automatically guaranteed of success. But under conditions where they can either exploit or provoke a failure of democratic governance, ordinary people will both become more sympathetic to the allure of authoritarian solutions (if we cannot rule ourselves, there are attractions to letting someone else take the burden) and less willing to challenge authoritarian threats. Even if they do not actively embrace tyranny, they lose the will to oppose it. Thus what Duggan says of Mussolini's Italy perfectly describes what happened in the BBC Prison Study: "after the turmoil of the previous few years [days in our case], the myth of 'order' was mesmerising".

And all this, indirectly, takes us back to the Black Sea, to Crimea and to Russia — or at least to Vladimir Putin who is central to the drama. What is he up to? What are his motives? What might he do next? And why is he able to get away with it?

Well, to answer these questions it helps to start by examining why Putin is so popular in Russia and why he has the political freedom to act as he does — indeed, with his approval ratings in the mid 60s he is far ahead of those who criticise him: Obama (low 40s) Cameron (low 30s) and Hollande (low 20s).

The answers, in part at least, will now be familiar. After the collapse of Communism in the 1990s the West was seen to impose its interests and its values on Russia. As a result, the country was seen to be humiliated and diminished, losing its stature in the world and losing its identity. At the same time, the chaotic and slapstick administration of Boris Yeltsin was seen more as a contributor than a brake on this decline. This constituted the perfect storm — the combination of conditions which energise potential patriarchs and which render patriarchy more attractive to the population at large.

A telling study of young Russians a few years back by Yulia Lukyanova, now at Edinburgh University, graphically illustrates how deeply these conditions were felt: "Russia is like a small child who lost its way. It doesn't understand where to go... (it) eats what it shouldn't eat, all kinds of trash". More disturbingly, the sense of infantilisation went along with the desire for strong patriarchal authority. The great majority of respondents wanted a strong leader. National regeneration "should be launched from the top, it will never be started from below".

Putin understands all this very well. He knows how to draw on wounded national pride. After the 2012 Presidential election he started his victory speech by saying "Thanks to everyone who said 'yes' for a Great Russia" and he finished by declaring "Glory to Russia". He knows how to pose himself as the embodiment of the revivified, powerful, masculine nation. Moreover, he understands how patriarchy is always Janus faced. On the one hand there is the promise — the warm supportive embrace of the father for those who cede to his authority. Google, for instance 'Putin and children' and then compare the results to 'Stalin and children', or even 'Hitler and children'. The parallels are obvious: the benevolent smiling leader surrounded by, or else embracing, happy infants.

On the other hand, there is the threat — the raw masculine power of the leader ready to be unleashed on anyone who constitutes a challenge. Look, for example, at a gallery of pictures in the Washington Post under the heading "Vladimir Putin: His many feats of strength" (though our advice is, don't look at them on your tablet while at the swimming pool). You will see many images of the President piloting powerful machines: racing yachts, racing cars, fighter planes. You will also see pictures with uncanny historical parallels. Putin, shirtless, with a hunting rifle. Putin, shirtless, astride a horse on the Siberian steppe...

It is clear that Putin knowingly affirms his embrace of the Russian 'family' by challenging his critics (domestic and international), and by doing so through the brute assertion of aggressive, homophobic, patriarchal force. That much, at least, he shares in common with other redemptive ultra-nationalists in history. We have to hope that he hasn't also adopted their belief in war as a redemptive tool to reforge the national character.

But perhaps the most important implication of all this is not for our understanding of the autocrats themselves — whether Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy or Putin in Russia. It is for our understanding of ourselves.

Autocracy, as we have seen, nearly always succeeds on the ruins of democracy, fatally flawed as much by the interventions of outside forces as by deficiencies on the inside. It is hard to see how any democratic government in Germany or Italy could have retained legitimacy in the conditions imposed at Versailles. One hundred years after World War, I when will we ever learn that the fruits of future defeat are most often sown at the moment of victory? When will we understand that a sense of the superiority of our economic, political and moral values, and our imposition of these values on those who have been defeated, will only empower those who negate all that we believe in.

When will we finally realise that the triumphalism of the West presages our profoundest problems?