Eric Hoffer on the ideal devil

Probably the wisest and most heart-melting stevedore to work a dock, I’m attempting Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) as part of a trio of books on fanaticism. The other two are Hannah Arendt‘s The Origins of Totalitarianism (also 1951) and Roger Griffin’s Modernism and Fascism (2007). I heard Griffin speak recently and was utterly captivated.

Below are some excerpts from The True Believer which consider the function of demonisation and the psychological effects on demonisers of confronting them with their own injustice. What he describes is distinctly familiar and relevant to the campaign to boycott Israel. There aren’t 23 editions of The True Believer for nothing.

Chapter IV: Unifying agents – Hatred

Section 66

Common hatred unites the most heterogeneous elements. To share a common hatred, with an enemy even, is to infect him with a feeling of kinship, and thus sap his powers of resistance. Hitler used anti-Semitism not only to unify his Germans but also to sap the resoluteness of Jew-hating Poland, Rumania, Hungary, and finally even France. He made a similar use of anti-communism.

Section 67

It seems, that like the ideal deity, the ideal devil is one. We have it from Hitler – the foremost authority on devils – that the genius of a great leader consists of concentrating all hatred on a single foe, making “even adversaries far removed from one another seem to belong to a single category”. When Hitler picked the Jew as his devil, he peopled practically the whole world outside Germany with Jews or those who worked for them. “Behind England stands Israel, and behind France, and behind the United States.” … Again, like the ideal deity, the ideal devil is omnipotent and omnipresent. When Hitler was asked whether he was not attributing rather too much importance to the Jews he exclaimed “No, no, no! … it is impossible to exaggerate the formidable quality of the Jew as an enemy.” Every difficulty and failure within the movement is the work of the devil, and every success is a triumph over his evil plotting.

Finally, it seems, the ideal devil is a foreigner. To qualify as a devil, a domestic enemy must be given a foreign ancestry.

Section 69

That hatred springs more from self-contempt than from a legitimate grievance is seen in the intimate connection between hatred and a guilty conscience.

There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice. That others have a just grievance against us is a more potent reason for hating them than that we have a just grievance against them. We do not make people humble and meek when we show them their guilt and cause them to be ashamed of themselves. We are more likely to stir their arrogance and rouse them in a reckless aggressiveness. Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of the guilt within us.

Section 70

There is a guilty conscience behind every brazen word and act and behind every manifestation of self-righteousness.

To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred. Conversely, to treat an enemy with magnanimity is to blunt our hatred for him.

Section 71

The most effective way to silence a guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate and persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.

Section 72

A sublime religion inevitably creates a strong feeling of guilt. There is an unavoidable contrast between loftiness of profession and imperfection of practice. And, as one would expect, the feeling of guilt promotes hate and brazenness. Thus it seems that the more sublime the faith the more virulent the hatred it breeds.

Section 75

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.


Hoffer, E. (1951). The True Believer. Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper & Row. pp95-97


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