The Destructive Power of Belief

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana’s creative maxim is overused, but as the 21st century lumbers through avoidable catastrophe after accidental nightmare, it isn’t overstated. The rest of the world watches with alarm as we openly flirt with fascism, fail to protect crumbling institutions, and stumble over the most basic metrics of a functioning society. It appears we’re living in a new terrifying reality in which no playbook applies, but that isn’t true. We live in the opening act of a tragic play with a clear script, and if we want to end the show at intermission we need to read ahead.

To understand why fascism is again waiting in the wings and how we can stop it from invading the stage, we turned to renowned Nazi historian Nathan Stoltzfus. Stoltzfus is a history professor at Florida State University and the author of several books, including Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany.

Listen to Mila’s interview with Nathan Stoltzfus here!

Stoltzfus didn’t waste time in assessing the most potent ingredient of Hitler’s fascism: belief.

“For Hitler, what is important is belief,” he said. “It’s about belief and maintaining belief–how belief becomes important, and people buy into it. It becomes very difficult for them to shake that belief. It can cause a mental crisis.”

He explained how Hitler decoupled Germany’s beliefs from reality, reinforcing the power of believing in Nazism, and most importantly, in Hitler.

“Hitler, as this leader, was protected in people’s minds, just like psychology has shown that people might protect their abusers,” he told Mila. “One of these mechanisms of how Hitler moved forward–a very critical one–was that people believed in Hitler and they refused to blame him for anything that was wrong.”

Psychology supports Stoltzfus’s assertions about the power of belief. Facts are bent, changed, used, or ignored—all based on our ideologies.

According to Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, authors of The Enigma of Reason, reason helps us cooperate in social environments. We use reason to justify our beliefs and convince others to agree. Reason is excellent for community building but terrible for unbiased truth-seeking.

Since reason creates communities of like-minded thinkers such as political parties, finding the truth in politics is extremely difficult. Several studies support the idea that deeply held, shared beliefs are nearly impossible to expel. One study found partisan math whizzes were much better at solving equations if the answer lined up with their political beliefs. Another study discovered politically savvy citizens with high IQs are great at making up arguments justifying a political stance, but only if they believe it.

Psychologists also discovered we like to reinforce our biases. We want consistent beliefs so severely we refuse money if we can avoid opinions we don’t like.  Worse, when we band together our shared ideas become even more extreme.

Hitler understood the power of belief, and endeavored to replace belief in Christianity with belief in national socialism. Hero worship is part and parcel of Nazi ideology, so Hitler carefully and consistently nurtured a mythic image of himself as someone who was always striving for Germans on Germany’s behalf.

The idea of Hitler’s infallibility took hold across the nation and sometimes proved impossible to dispel.

“Once they start believing, the difficulty is pulling that prop out in their mental picture of reality,” Stoltzfus explained. “There were people who committed suicide because Hitler did. I remember hearing one person say when she heard Hitler committed suicide, ‘What do we do now? How can we possibly go forward?'”

This mental destruction speaks to a notion called the “backfire effect,” an instance of mental gymnastics that occurs when someone sees factual evidence contradicting their deeply-held belief. Instead of changing their opinion, many people double down, becoming even more sure about their ideas. Germans deified Hitler, and the facts of a Nazi loss and Hitler’s death went so deeply against their beliefs suicide became an acceptable alternative.

Understanding how a weak, decidedly non-Aryan drug addict entranced so many Germans makes it easier to understand the red-capped crowds clamoring for a lying, cheating, businessman with six bankruptcies under his belt. Once the belief is there, no revelation of malfeasance is enough to shake it.

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Stoltzfus, N. (2016). Hitler’s compromises: Coercion and consensus in Nazi Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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