If you want to witness a trippy illustration of scapegoatism, read chapter two of Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Yes, I just recommended the memoir of history’s most evil figure. It’s only 99 cents on Kindle. The psychological specimen that is chapter two, alone, is worth getting put on a watchlist somewhere.
Hitler recounts moving to Vienna for art school. He was rejected. At first, he comes off as balanced, reasonable, even humble. He states plainly, “the fact was that I had failed.” He moves back home.
Then something strange happens.
After the death of his mother, Hitler moves back to Vienna, this time determined to become an architect. He proclaims his passion for studying architecture, saying it felt like “not work but pleasure.”
Then he never mentions architecture again.
Instead, he gives an account of slowly slipping from being a “soft-hearted cosmopolitan” to an “out-and-out anti-Semite.”
The most astonishing thing is the mental acrobatics Hitler employs to maintain his positive self-perception throughout this journey.
This is a necessary part of the process of finding a scapegoat—someone to blame for your failure—you have to become convinced your accusation is just, that you’re still a reasonable person.
Hitler starts off saying that he thought nothing bad of Jews. Claiming that he “looked upon them as Germans,” and that “hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence.” He resists being prejudiced against Jews, according to him, “on grounds of human tolerance.”
But slowly, he changes his opinion, claiming that it “cost [him] a greater internal conflict with [himself].”
He buys his first anti-Semitic pamphlets, but claims to be turned off by them, calling them “superficial” and “unscientific.”
This is all a convenient set up that reduces Hitler’s cognitive dissonance. He’s still a reasonable person, he thinks.
In fact, one of the most unsettling things about reading chapter two of Mein Kampf is the moments when Hitler makes you, the reader, feel some cognitive dissonance yourself.
Some passages are so lucid and intelligent, they make you wonder for a moment, “oh, no—I didn’t just nod my head at a passage Hitler wrote!”
Don’t believe me? Try disagreeing with this:
The material which one has acquired through reading must not be stored up in the memory on a plan that corresponds to the successive chapters of the book; but each little piece of knowledge thus gained must be treated as if it were a little stone to be inserted into a mosaic, so that it finds its proper place among all the other pieces and particles that help to form a general world-picture.
Unfortunately for the fates of millions of people, Hitler’s mosaic was more twisted than a Francis Bacon painting.
Fortunately for the reader of chapter two of Mein Kampf, Hitler soon after this passage reveals his ironically “superficial” and “unscientific” observations of Jews.
He notices they look different. They bear “no similarity to the Germans.” He begins to think that they are “unclean,” that the way they smell makes him “feel ill.”
“What a relief,” you might say. You can go back to thinking Hitler is a raving lunatic.
Now that Hitler has maintained his own positive self perception, while citing completely idiotic reasons for hating Jews, the way has been cleared for his next conclusion: His view of Jews becomes “grave” the moment he convinces themselves that they control the press, literature, theater, and — whadya know—art.
He couldn’t have gone right out and said it from the beginning. If he had blamed his art school rejection, from the start, on his not being Jewish, how could he have lived with himself?—especially as a “soft-hearted cosmopolitan.”
Instead, he found his scapegoat only after first justifying it in his mind.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield said “it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”
I used to think that was a pithy and memorable exaggeration. Now I’m thinking, Mr. Pressfield might be right.
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