“Escape From Freedom” is a 1941 book by the psychiatrist Erich Fromm. If I’d read it twenty years ago, I’d have found it an interesting account of authoritarianism and the rise of Fascism in Germany. Having read it recently, I found it pertinent and alarming.
Fromm’s psychological analysis includes a description of what he calls the “authoritarian character,” and provides a glimpse into the workings of that type of mind. Linking it to the common human experience of submission and domination, character traits he says are present in each of us to some degree, he goes on to describe how in some individuals, these traits become primary drivers of thought and behavior.
He also explains how authoritarians gather adherents, and the psychological mechanisms fueling near worship by his followers. Fromm’s primary thesis is that the psychological effects of modern society, the convergence of increased freedom and the loneliness that accompanies it, increases the likelihood of authoritarianism and its acceptance.
By 1941, Hitler and the Nazi Party had taken complete control of Germany and initiated aggression against his European neighbors. Rising from the chaos of the democratic Weimar Republic that formed after WW1, the Nazi Party’s ascendancy played upon nostalgia, blame, and a philosophy of power. Drawing upon Darwin’s principle of natural selection, Hitler advocated that the weak should be dominated by the powerful, even to the point of becoming slaves. This, he believed, fulfilled the promise of survival of the fittest, the natural order of things.
Hitler’s message resonated, particularly with those lower middle- and working-class members who felt powerless and abandoned by the government. For them, democratic freedom had not brought with it either a sense of belonging or purpose, only resentment and anger. Identification with Hitler’s logic of power and blame filled that psychological space and fueled his support. Of this process, Fromm writes that individuals give up the independence of self “to fuse one’s self with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual is lacking.”
The authoritarian character, Fromm explains, emerges from emotional weakness, feelings of inferiority, powerlessness, and individual insignificance, in a process of psychological compensation that attempts to replace fear of freedom with power over others. Authoritarians feel, says Fromm, “I am so wonderful and unique, that I have a right to expect that other people become dependent on me…I have been hurt by others and my wish to hurt them is nothing but retaliation.” Sounds frighteningly familiar, does it not?
“For the authoritarian character there exist, so to speak, two sexes: the powerful ones and the powerless ones,” Fromm notes. “The very sight of a powerless person makes him want to attack, dominate, humiliate him.” Moreover, the authoritarian character “will constantly rebel against any kind of authority….an attempt to assert himself and to overcome his own feeling of powerlessness.”
As to his ardent followers, at work is what Fromm calls “the magic helper.” “When real persons assume the the role of the magic helper, they are endowed with magic qualities….This process of personification of the magic helper is to be observed frequently in what is called ‘falling in love’….a tendency to get rid of one’s individual self through dependency on the magic helper….he makes that person into the being to whom and on whom his whole life becomes related and dependent.”
So it was in 1941, and so it is now.