The New Dark Age of Demagogues

Keiner Soll Hungern! Keiner Soll Frieren! Nazi propaganda poster, promising and end to cold and hunger.

“Keiner Soll Hungern! Keiner Soll Frieren!” Nazi propaganda poster, promising and end to cold and hunger.

Future dystopian story world: beginning in the year 2026, emergency elections in Greece and Spain become dominated by demagogues promising to “make their countries great again”. Their platform slogans promise ironfisted national security and mythically boundless personal prosperity. Anti-refugee propaganda is bolstered by struggling European Union economies and terrorist incidents, creating flashpoints of unrest amid widespread financial hardship and discontent. Italy is soon drawn in, as is the U.K. All of Europe is eventually consumed by nationalist whirlwinds that spread to allies and enemies alike as all are forced to take sides.

Violence intensifies due to terrorist attacks by both foreign opportunists and domestic reactionaries. Mass expulsions begin. Borders close. Discrimination becomes an acceptable aspect of political narrative, actively promulgated by extremists and tacitly accepted by mass media channels.

Polarisation of opinion hardens into the willingness to take up arms. Scapegoats are fashioned from popular demonologies that rely on skin tone, ethnicity and concomitant jingoistic marketing demographics. Stones thrown become bullets fired. Bullets become bombs. Bombs become guided missiles fired across continents as allies take sides and offer arms to their strategic partners.

Humanity seems once again to have undone its hard-won learning: lessons written in blood flowing in rivers, bone meal sewn into the soil of Europe after two World Wars. The last great war ended as nuclear blast waves incinerating cities full of human beings, leaving shadows of dreams, shattering families and emasculating once-proud nations.

The time has come for the blood tide to rise once again, for a fresh coat of ashen snow to fall on already-weary shoulders. Nuclear technology has become the rule rather than the exception for both rogue agents and first-world states. Rhetorical dehumanization has left a hollowness in the eyes that now stare emptily to an oblivion that seems inevitable. We make a game of anticipating the second hand of our antique analog watchfaces, creeping closer to atomic zero hour. This is a game of the gallows in a worldwide party of the damned, shadows lengthening as the clock counts down. The Reaper’s accelerating drumbeat echoes in the footsteps of soldiers on the march across the globe. Beautiful flowering mushroom clouds may now grow to encompass us all. The end will begin in a blinding flash of light.

. . .

The Witches’ Sabbath

If vast portions of the United States’ population are swayed in 2016 by media-fueled rhetorical frenzy, imagine a time when deeper financial hardship grips the world. If a new Great Recession were to occur within the next decade, the appeal of demagoguery may be too strong to resist. This is why the prevalent mood in post-Word War I Germany bears revisiting.

After four disastrous years Germany had lost the war… prices doubled between 1914 and 1919. Why did the German government not act to halt the inflation? More than inflation, the Germans feared unemployment.

So the printing presses ran, and once they began to run, they were hard to stop. Price increases began to be dizzying.

Berlin had a “witches’ Sabbath” atmosphere. Prostitutes of both sexes roamed the streets. Cocaine was the fashionable drug. In the cabarets the newly rich and their foreign friends could dance and spend money. Other reports noted that not all the young people had a bad time. Their parents had taught them to work and save, and that was clearly wrong, so they could spend money, enjoy themselves, and flout the old.

All money is a matter of belief. Credit derives from Latin, credere, “to believe.” Belief was there, the factories functioned, the farmers delivered their produce. The Central Bank kept the belief alive when it would not let even the government borrow further.

But although the country functioned again, the savings were never restored, nor were the values of hard work and decency that had accompanied the savings. There was a different temper in the country, a temper that Hitler would later exploit with diabolical talent. Thomas Mann wrote: “The market woman who without batting an eyelash demanded 100 million for an egg lost the capacity for surprise. And nothing that has happened since has been insane or cruel enough to surprise her.” [1]

Keep It Simple, Even When It’s Not: High-Concept Dehumanization

Realistic dystopian plotlines merely need to chart the confluence between factual history, present rhetoric and plausible future outcomes.

Believable fictional villains aren’t “high concept” monstrous caricatures or cartoonish exaggerations. Dehumanization allows a group to delegitimize the existence of a person, and thereby destroy the lessons to be learned from that person’s example. Adolf Hitler wasn’t a monster. Neither were the German people bloodthirsty zombies after World War I. Hitler was a shrewd-yet-deluded megalomaniac, and the people were badly downtrodden, partly resulting from enthusiastic French enforcement of reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles.

Even today, generations later, much of it sounds pretty incredible.

Few could laugh at “the macabre joke of inflation,” as writer Klaus Mann termed it. “What breathtaking fun it is to watch the world coming off the rails,” he wrote in undisguised fascination. Germany was now witnessing “the complete depreciation of the only truly credible value in this godforsaken era: that of money.”

People lived in a strange kind of tension. On the one hand there was the daily fight for survival, for food, and for heating fuel.

On the other hand it was also a time of phenomenal wastefulness. The people were gripped by the urge to panic-buy. They squandered their money, and lived from one day to the next. “We’re drinking away Grandma’s house” proclaimed one popular tune of the day.

Never before had Germany witnessed such a fundamental redistribution of wealth, and many of the winners were those who had previously been wealthy. [2]

Mass discontent and the tendency toward dehumanization of the “other” becomes the urge to find a simple enemy and a simple solution. A final solution. Salvation for the true believer, extracted from the DNA of the dead.

“The enemy is among us,” wrote the Hildesheimer Allgemeine newspaper… “He has crept into the heart of the German economy to suck out our life-blood and destroy our very existence as a nation.” A 10,000-mark note issued the year before was nicknamed the “vampire bill” because it depicted a man who appeared to have a bite-mark on his neck.

It’s no coincidence that Adolf Hitler’s inexorable rise to power began in November 1923, the highpoint of Germany’s inflation, when he organized the abortive Beer Hall Putsch in Munich.

Catalan Germany correspondent Eugeni Xammar witnessed the spectacle at close quarters, having recently conducted an interview with “the future ex-dictator of Germany.” In this interview Hitler claimed the high cost of living was Germany’s biggest problem, promising “We intend to make life cheaper.” To this end he demanded that shops — many of which were in Jewish hands — be brought under state control. And he stressed, “We expect all kinds of miracles of these national stores.”

The journalist from Barcelona wasn’t shy about stating what he thought of his interviewee. Hitler was, Xammar wrote, “the stupidest person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.”

Tragically, most Germans were soon to have a very different opinion of him. [2]

Notice how patterns of historical precedence tend to repeat themselves. Future scenarios can serve as timely, entertaining signposts, even if only a few take heed before it’s too late. The rest can laugh, be amused and continue forward on the ceaseless march of progress to the end of human history.

We will make our nation great again, and we will gleefully watch the world burn. Has there ever been any other way?

Take the opportunity to write your own ending to the story, before the second hand reaches midnight. The next bright flash of light we see may not be the sun.

Read More

1. Goodman, George J.W. (1981). Paper Money, pp. 57-62. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/shared/minitext/ess_germanhyperinflation.html.

2. Jung, Alexander (2009, August 14). Millions, Billions, Trillions: Germany in the Era of Hyperinflation. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/millions-billions-trillions-germany-in-the-era-of-hyperinflation-a-641758.html.

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