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Higgs on Göring on War

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This speech by Robert Higgs has a remarkable discussion of Hermann Göring's analysis of war and public opinion:

This account comes to us from Gustave M. Gilbert, the German-speaking prison psychologist who had free access to all of the prisoners during the trials and talked to them frequently in private. On the evening of April 18, 1946, Gilbert visited Göring in his cell, and he later described their conversation as follows:
We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Göring shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare war."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country." (Nuremberg Diary, pp. 278–79)

This reminds me that I've occasionally thought about writing a whole piece on "totalitarian political entrepreneurship." The idea of the piece is to analyze the explicit statements of an array of notorious totalitarians on the subject they know best: gaining and holding power. Is it worth writing?

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Dan Hill writes:

"All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."

If the current president and his neocon cheer squad had any integrity at all they'd be deeply ashamed that this facist thug could predict 60 years ago how they would manipulate this country into war...

You don't need to write about "totalitarian political entrepreneurship" - the term totalitarian is redundant, merely a difference of degree rather than kind.

Blackadder writes:

"Is it worth writing?"

Only if you call it "Leadership Secrets of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao."

Caliban Darklock writes:

Dan, if the people of the United States had any integrity, they'd admit that they wanted to be fooled every bit as much as the leadership wanted to fool them. The difference is, our statements weren't recorded for posterity, so today we can deny them.

If all the people who say they were against the war from the start had VOTED against it, we wouldn't be at war; and if we take them at their word today, they've come straight out and admitted that they don't vote as they believe - they vote as they think people WANT them to believe, which means they say what they think people want to hear, and therefore we can't take them at their word.

This is integrity: I voted for Bush twice (four times if you count his father), I was for the war then, and I remain for it now - even though I don't agree with some of the choices that are being made. You almost certainly disagree with everything I just said, and that's your prerogative, but I refuse to blandly placate my audience at the expense of integrity.

Randy writes:


I suspect that Goring was referring to FDR, and he was absolutely right. Of course, he was just one fascist referring to the methods of another - not a difficult task.


Absolutely it is worth it, and I can't think of anyone better to do it. But if you do it, don't leave out our home grown totalitarians.

"The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out... without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Bryan,

It's absolutely worth writing. You will apply your awesome analytic skills to it and the result will be more understanding.



Mason writes:
Bill Stepp writes:

Only Congress can declare war? Then why did "we" invade Iraq?

FC writes:

As a scholarly book, it would be useful but ignored.

As a rant with "HitlerBurton" in the title, it would be useless but lucrative. (See above comments.)

Unit writes:

Definitely. You should write it and then submit it to the Leadership Quarterly, see here

(or should we call them "fuhrership studies"?)

PurpleSlog writes:
The idea of the piece is to analyze the explicit statements of an array of notorious totalitarians on the subject they know best: gaining and holding power. Is it worth writing?

Yes, please!

dave.s. writes:

My personal favorite Spandau quote: Hess's interrogator asked him how he had known the Reich was losing, and he said, well, the glorious victories of the Fatherland were coming ever closer to Berlin...

fundamentalist writes:

Goring: "All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."

Goring flatters himself and over simplifies the situation. He conveniently forgets that anyone who didn't go to war, in the US and Germany, would be shot. In Germany, his family would be tortured, his wife raped, and then shot. Were the state to use propaganda alone without any force, it would find itself very lonely in a war.

Drew Yallop writes:

"totalitarian political entrepreneurship" - Oh yes write it Bryan. I would think that there will be parallels, too, with leaders of every ilk.

Robert Higgs writes:


Before you go any further, please read, if you haven't done so already, the great book by F. G. Bailey, Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership (Cornell University Press 1988). It is one of the best books I've read on politics, and the very best I've read on political leadership. Yet, strange to say, I rarely encounter anybody who has read it.

Tim Hall writes:

Hi Bryan,

I've only recently seen this very interesting blog. I wish I had found it sooner. I hope you're well.

So, yeah, this Goering interview. I've seen it much quoted in the past few years. As it makes its way around email, the chilling political implication allegedly relevant to the present is meant to be obvious.

However, I've found the quotation more puzzling than chilling, myself. For one thing, to permit myself an ad hominem point, it's noteworthy that Herman Goering is being quoted as a political expert. Indeed, the thought seems to be, who is more expert on cynically manipulating an unwilling populace into a wicked war?

I cannot help but remember, however, that Goering would also have enthusiastically endorsed a range of political opinion for which the word "discredited" seems too weak: the conspiratorial role of the Jewish diaspora in international affairs, the superiority of the Aryan race as the organizing principle of German national affairs, and the proper all-encompassing role of the state in regulating the affairs of the individual (to name but a few). Not to mention that the man was given to much bombast and foolishness. Goering's not exactly the first man I would have thought to consult for a sober, insightful assessment of matters of state.

To turn, though, to the substance of the claim in the interview, I take it the pessimistic point one is meant to take away from Goering's remarks is that there is an irrational pro-war bias in the body politic. At least, the inclinations a people as a whole have to be excessively trusting of their government; to be easily frightened by official pronouncements of national danger, however implausible; or simply to be raised to unthinking bloodlust by the throaty denunciations of their leaders all conspire toward a depressing inevitability of war.

The thing is, I doubt anything like this has ever been true of elecorates in industrialized, liberal societies. It seems, actually, that the electorates of such societies are not warlike enough for their own good. A case can be made, at least, that in liberal societies the electorate as a whole seems incapable of being aroused to defensive effort until it is nearly too late.

For example, despite the dire strategic situation of the United States at the outbreak of WWII in Europe, even Roosevelt (with his considerable capacity for deception and crime) was unable to move the electorate into the conflict until long after the most important crisis had passed. Had Britain fallen in 1940, the United States would have been stripped of all of its powerful Europen allies. It would have had no plausible way of countering German dominance of Europe. It would have been surrounded by powerful enemies all over the globe. And yet, it was simply not politically possible for Roosevelt even as late as the campaign season of 1940 to do anything but falsely promise he would keep America out of the war. Britain, of course, did not fall-- but it certainly might have.

In this case, it would have been much better for the country had Roosevelt only been able to shout the slogans of danger, denounce unpatriotic opponents, and get on with the terrible business of defending Britain and France in early 1940. Or, even better, prepared for war much earlier than that.

Similar lessons might plausibly be drawn from the American experience prior to the War of 1812, the Civil War (at least from the point of view of the North), WWI, and the Korean War. In Europe, the examples of WWI and WWII, at least from the non-German side, seem also clear cases of inadequate attention paid to danger by liberal states until it was nearly too late.

So, one might rightly be very suspicious of the state's power. Very. Nevertheless, I think the lesson we ought to draw about a pro-war bias, in a liberal society, anyway, is the reverse of Goering's.

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