History repeats itself, it’s nothing new. Are we able though to recognize the eternal return of the same? Have we become capable to realize when something terrible or awesome is outlining in front of us? Finally, are we able to learn from our mistakes in order to avoid making them again?
The Brexit, President Trump, the success of Marine Le Pen in France, the appeal that the Islamic terrorism has on the young generations in Europe, all this seems to contradict our understanding capacities. Yet, as pointed out by Giovanni De Mauro on the magazine Internazionale, “with few exceptions, nearly all US journalists at the end of the thirties had realized their error of judgment [meaning: underestimating Hitler]. Dorothy Thompson, who in 1928 had called Hitler a man of “bewildering insignificance”, in 1935 admitted that “no people recognize a dictator in advance” because it “does not show up in the elections with a dictatorial program” and because “he defines himself as an instrument of the national will”. And popular will too, I add.
The crucial element is the need to consider the human nature, something that is conditioned by social development, and that re-emerges during hardships adjusting to the logic of large groups. Most people, in fact, pursue their own self-interest rather the collective one and are inclined to follow those who seem able to guarantee it. Every situation of difficulty or discomfort, poverty, social injustice, economic crisis, leads to a discontent that is the sum of the requests of individual interests. To take control of the masses it is therefore necessary to identify the needs and provide solutions. But the crucial clue is “that something extra”, which is generally constituted by improbable news causing fear or humiliation, or else religious and spiritual implications whose “dogma” gives way to unverifiable hopes. The difference is made then by those individuals capable of aggregating single people exploiting and amplifying their sufferings whilst fueling their fears and needs in order to have the consent for obtaining personal power that nothing has to do with the welfare of the population.
If we think of the French Revolution, we observe that the ideals and the reasons that have stimulated it were absolutely noble; however, to reach the heart of the people it was necessary to speak to their bellies. It had been “necessary” that people suffered singly, perceiving the mockery of an authoritarian and opulent power. Starvation was part of daily life, but already at the time, the spreading of false news was meant to hit straight to the belly. Remember the famous sentence of Marie Antoinette “Let them eat brioche“? It is a proven case of fake news in eighteenth century style which had a terribly strong impact on the people who did not have the tools to check if it was true or not.
It is not, unfortunately, the only example of how the use of false information influenced the masses to the point where only an authoritarian could then restore order and security. It did not go too differently with Nazism that, in fact, was based on various “fake news” like the one about the superiority of the Aryan race over the others. Or with the Soviet and Russian governments that fed the myths of their dictators from Stalin to Putin. Same thing happens today with the religious extremism with its promises of havens full of overflowing material opulence.
Unfortunately these revolutionary movements, based on sufferings and falsehoods, they become disruptive in the medium term for the people. Again the example of the 1789 Revolution provides us with useful tools to understand more deeply what we think. After a first revolutionary phase, the Terror of the guillotine followed: mass exterminations of aristocrats and common citizens, death and destruction everywhere, the beheading of the deposed leader, Robespierre, and finally, the emerging of a charismatic and power-hungry leader that solves the situation. What do the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon teach us?
These mechanisms they do indeed facilitate the reaction of the masses and they depose from power the élite of the moment, but they also lead to worse dictatorships and tragedies. A revolution cannot work without a thought process, without a medium- and long-term strategy, and without a perspective that balances the ‘pars destruens’ (destructive part) with something constructive, future-oriented. History teaches us that in order to manipulate and engage the broad masses there is need of motivations that touch them deeply, something that disrupts their lives or that creates urgent problems even if these do not exist. What we can count on is a large number of books that tell us what happened in the past and the use of our critical capacity when we learn about things so that we can make sure that certain atrocities will never happen again.