On the Origins of Political Extremism and Mass Violence


Adolf Hitler with Nazi Party members, Munich, 1930 (CC)

by Manus I. Midlarsky

Political extremism is one of the most pernicious, destructive, and nihilistic forms of human expression. During the twentieth century, in excess of 100 million people had their lives taken from them as the result of extremist violence. My recent book, Origins of Political Extremism  is a wide-ranging work that employs the theory of the ephemeral gain, together with mortality salience, to form a basic explanation for the origins of political extremism and constitutes a theoretical framework that also explains later mass violence.

An ephemeral gain occurs under the following conditions: After an earlier period of subordination, an identifiable social group, typically a nation-state, experiences a major societal gain (e.g., territory), which is then followed by a critical loss. Mortality salience refers to the experience of mortality, mostly found in interstate war or other war-like settings. I apply this framework to multiple forms of political extremism, including the rise of Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian fascism, Nazism, radical Islamism, and Soviet, Chinese, and Cambodian communism. Other applications include a rampaging military (Japan, Pakistan, Indonesia) and extreme nationalism in Serbia, Croatia, the Ottoman Empire, and Rwanda. I also examine Polish anti-Semitism after World War II and the rise of separatist violence in Sri Lanka.

Germany is an emblematic case; after a long period of subordination to unified Western powers like France, a united Germany emerged victorious from the Franco-Prussian War. This newly formed great power was to be the continental hegemon for much of the period leading up to World War I. However, upon Germany’s defeat in that war and loss of territory, some of which had been under German (or Austrian) domination for centuries, the Nazi Party began to emerge. And after intimations of loss became palpable during the early stages of World War II on the Eastern front where difficulties in overcoming Soviet opposition were encountered, and the near certainty that the US would soon enter the war, the Holocaust was launched as the most blatant expression of Nazi extremism.

Stalinist policies also arose from a similar, albeit more complex, dynamic. From its position as one of the European great powers and hegemony over the Ottoman Empire, exemplified by its victory over Ottoman forces in 1878, Russia was then subject to a humiliating defeat by Japan in 1905. This was the first defeat of a European power by one from Asia in modern memory. Stalin actually found himself in close proximity geographically to this locus of Russian defeat in the Far East. But in the later Bolshevik victory over its tsarist and Western opponents, Stalin found himself among the winners in this contest. Yet, once again, he would be on the losing side in the Russo-Polish War of 1920, in which he was a co-commander of one of the two defeated Soviet armies. Stalin experienced intense humiliation amidst the criticism of his handling of this war. Certainly, this experience, among other more personal sources, led to his sanguinary policies. Interestingly, this is a case of successive reinforced ephemera that can have considerable emotional resonance.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its early politically violent activities in Egypt and Palestine conform to the theory’s expectations. The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna and six workers in the Suez Canal zone separating Egypt and Sinai. Governed by Great Britain, the Suez Canal zone was a prime locus for demonstrating the Western subordination of Muslims. Here, the Western presence was exemplified by the British military bases, the foreign officials of the Suez Canal Company and other businesses, even street signs in English, all of which were blatant reminders of Muslim subordination to the West.

But the early subordination prior to 1928 was overcome by the newly constituted Egyptian independence from British control in 1936 that the Islamist Muslim Brothers celebrated. Yet the wartime return of the British occupation, followed by the difficulties of the Egyptian army in Israel including Muslim Brotherhood battlefield support, and ultimate defeat by the nascent Israeli forces, reversed this trajectory. Instead of a continued independent and successful Egyptian polity, renewed British occupation and humiliating defeat by another newly created power, perceived to be Western in origin, led to a widespread perception of Arab subordination. Violence against Western and especially Jewish targets in Egypt continued unabated until the Brotherhood was outlawed by the Egyptian government. This was an early prototype of the etiology that would lead to 9/11 and other attacks by radical Islamists. Since the 1970s, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has disavowed violence as a means of attaining political power. More recently, a new generation within the Brotherhood appears to be even more violence averse.

The specific findings of this study yield moral considerations. Given the evolution of morality in primates that give rise to altruistic behavior, how do we understand the willingness to obviate this heritage? Similarly, why are the frequently time-honored secular and sacred restraints on wanton violence ignored? In the Nazi case, a new morality was constructed, effectively an inversion of the old, in which “thou shall not murder” became “thou shall murder” in the case of so-called subhuman non-Aryans. Origins of Political Extremism demonstrates that the ephemeral gain and mortality salience together work toward the disinhibition of traditional moral norms. The great German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote that: “Individual man sees in his country the realisation of his earthly immortality.” Here, political and corporeal mortality fuse. The individual now primarily identifies with the nation-state, over and above other more traditional foci like family, town, or region; the continuity of the individual and that of the state are as one. An ephemeral gain that has a major loss at its end can suggest the possible future dissolution of the state, especially if it was only recently formed as in the German case, and an end to “earthly immortality.”

Without the firm identification between the individual and state, the probability of political extremism diminishes. Instead of a dishonorable shamed existence as a defeated German soldier in 1919 like Hitler who identified thoroughly with the imperial German state, one can have individuals who internalize a code of honor independent of any political structure. In the sense of self-worth generated by an interiority of moral codes independent of any political entity, we see the ability to resist the blandishments of those who seek to murder in the name of nationality or religion. The integrity of self is not measured by external validation, but by the individual’s own standards of conduct. Here we see the massive disjunction between extremists who murder at will, and those who obey internalized moral codes.

Beyond the direct applicability of the theory itself to a wide variety of cases, the ephemeral gain in attenuated form can be used to understand the utterly remarkable polarization and current extreme positions taken by members of US political parties. The rise of China and the vulnerability of the US to external attack demonstrated by the events of 9/11 followed a euphoric period of the 1990s attendant upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. That the earlier Cold War period was rife with uncertainty did not amount to subordination, but at times, as in the first foray of human ingenuity into space (the launching of the USSR’s Sputnik in 1957), appeared to verge on that condition. The US defeat in Vietnam followed by the Iran hostage imbroglio also appeared to suggest American decline.

A particularly egregious example of polarization in recent American politics is found in the hope for the death, or at least incapacitation, of a Democratic proponent of health care reform by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) prior to a critical vote. The ephemeral gain and mortality salience together predict this type of polarized politics and extreme, apparently irrational political positions. The so-called “Birther” movement that only recently appeared to be appeased by President Obama’s release of his full birth certificate from Hawaii is another example. Hopefully American democracy is resilient enough to overcome these debilities that undoubtedly have some of their roots in the machinations of party politics but also stem from salient international events. Much will depend on US diplomatic skill in response to the Chinese challenge and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. That President Obama appears to be acutely aware of this necessity does suggest hope for the future.

An important lesson is the necessity for calm in the face of intense provocations that can take the form of loss, territorial or otherwise. Virtually all of the cases of political extremism analyzed in the book stem from the perceived need for an urgent response to the nation’s challenges. This was certainly a basis for the rise of fascism, especially in its virulent Nazi form. In contrast to autocracies that can arise from the activities of extremist movements, democracies, with their checks and balances involving legislative and judicial limitations on executive power may be more able to avoid the urgent response. It takes time to enact legislation; herein can be found the cognitive reflection necessary for the avoidance of an urgent, often violent, response to territorial loss or other perceived provocations. For this reason among others, democracies are less prone to engage in acts of mass violence. These political structures certainly are not foolproof as demonstrated by the recent contours of American politics; nevertheless, they can yield considered responses that avoid the enormities frequently committed by extremist movements.

About the Author

Manus I. Midlarsky is the Moses and Annuta Back Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He has recently published the Origins of Political Extremism: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, March 2011). This work is an amplification and extension of The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2005).  He also published the edited volume Handbook of War Studies III: The Intrastate Dimension (University of Michigan Press, 2009), the third in the Handbooks series in addition to many articles and chapters in edited volumes. He has served as a consultant to the governments of the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands.