It’s a controversial question.
Who was worse?
Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin?
No doubt, this subject is enough to stir up anguished emotions.
On the surface of it, making a choice is not so clear-cut:
- Both men killed millions.
- Both men rose to power through an extreme cult of personality.
- Both men nurtured totalitarian dogma, radicalising their societies for destructive ends.
Source: The Future of Freedom Foundation
Decades later, we can’t help but use emotive words like ‘evil’, ‘cruel’, ‘fanatical’ when we consider the legacy of these dictators. Their influence on our cultural landscape remains pervasive.
Historians, writers, and film-makers have all tried to analyse and interpret the tragic events of the past. Sometimes, the results can be mind-bending.
In 1996, there was a video game released called Command & Conquer: Red Alert. It had a plot built around the question of, ‘What if?’
In 1946, famous scientist Albert Einstein creates a device known as a Chronosphere. He uses it to time-travel back to 1924.
Einstein assassinates a young Hitler before the despot ever rises to power. He hopes to spare humanity the horrors to come. His intentions are good, yes, but his plan doesn’t quite work out as expected.
In the absence of Hitler, it’s Stalin instead who indulges in megalomania. He invades Western Europe. An alternate version of the Second World War erupts, pitting the Allies (led by a more democratic, heroic Germany) against the Soviet Red Army.
Certainly, this story is speculative sci-fi. But it makes a good point. With all things being held equal, Stalin is at least as bad as Hitler. Mass murder is still mass murder, regardless of political persuasion.
The definition of extremism
We often use historical villains as a baseline for what we fear. And, naturally enough, this creeps its way into our daily conversation.
In fact, an entire phenomenon of behaviour has emerged that goes like this…
It’s strange but true. So many heated political discussions appear to summon Hitler and Nazism. But, lately, I have noticed that a lot of arguments go in the other direction as well. They appear to invoke Stalin and communism.
How and why depends on your own individual background.
For example, I spent my childhood in Malaysia. I grew up under a government that ruled under the banner of right-wing ultranationalism. So, for me, that’s the personification of evil.
However, if you grew up in another country, you may be more concerned about left-wing communism. Because, culturally, that’s the object of evil that resonates for you.
Still, it’s important to define what the difference is between the far right and the far left:
- The far right practises exclusion to the extreme. The idea behind this is that some people — by virtue of their race, religion, or social background — are considered legitimate and even superior. But the rest of population? Well, quite simply, they’re treated as life unworthy of life. The chilling term the Nazis used was ‘Lebensunwertes Leben’. Through this lens, Jews, Slavs, and Romani were targeted, as well as the sick and disabled. This gave rise to the Holocaust — and this ideology still provides plenty of fuel for fascist movements today.
- The far left practises inclusion to the extreme. Individual liberty is erased. A common cultural identity is indoctrinated by force. In the Soviet Union, the overriding logic was that it was better for the state to punish 100 innocent people than to allow the possibility of even one guilty person to escape judgement. This gave rise to the gulag — where harsh labour under barbaric conditions was the tool of choice, targeting class enemies.
The dogma of the far right can be summed up like this: ‘Some of us are superior and pure. Everyone else is dirty and can go to hell. We’ll make sure of it.’
The dogma of the far left can be summed up like this: ‘All of us are going to hell together. Jump on board the express train to damnation at 3 o’clock. Be there or be square.’
Democracy is only as good as the people wielding it
President Franklin Roosevelt, who guided America through the Great Depression and the Second World War, once proclaimed: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’
And it’s true. Extremists on both the left and the right play on fear. Their dog-whistle message to the public: ‘You need ME to protect YOU against THEM.’
Since time immemorial, the ‘them’ has always been nebulous and shifting. It can be anyone or anything that you have a deep-seated fear about. And in the name of addressing that threat, pretty much anything can be justified.
Today, as we continue to struggle with the Covid pandemic, we’re seeing a rise in hyper-partisanship. The instinct now is to wave a big stick and yell with a big voice. No compromise. No middle ground.
If the evidence is to be believed, most Americans today are no longer comfortable connecting with people with different beliefs. In fact, data from Pew Research suggests that only 1 in 10 Americans have a lot of friends from the opposing political party.
Daniel A Cox from the American Enterprise Institute says: ‘People who are strong partisans tend to be more segregated socially […] It becomes a lot more difficult to bear and take criticism.’
It’s sobering and grim. But, despite this, having a democratic conversation can still be our shield against extremist dogma — but only if we use it correctly.
It’s about being pragmatic. Relying on common sense. Looking beyond bias.
The great religions of the world have a lot to teach us about this.
In the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3 talks about being mindful of the seasons:
‘A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up.’
In Buddhism, there’s a focus on the Middle Way. It’s about rejecting absolutes and extremes, in favour of the Noble Eightfold Path:
- Right view.
- Right intention.
- Right speech.
- Right action.
- Right livelihood.
- Right effort.
- Right mindfulness.
- Right concentration.
Personally, I’m a political centrist, and I believe that societies are best governed from the middle. I’m especially cautious of anyone who says, ‘If you follow this single solution, all your problems will miraculously go away.’
Sure, that’s tempting to believe. But let’s face it. Life seldom works out that way. Swinging too far left or too far right is almost always a recipe for disaster. Tyranny comes from absolutes imposed through fear and desperation.
It’s healthier to strive for balance and equilibrium instead.
Sustainability comes from mindfulness.
In the eternal words of George Santayana: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
Here in New Zealand, we have had stable centrist governments throughout much of our history. But nothing can be taken for granted. The future is always up for grabs.
As investors, stable governments and jurisdictions are key frameworks we look for before investing. Perhaps this is why we see such high asset values now in New Zealand and much of the Western world.
Value — and your wealth — relies on stability. And a degree of certainty in the future. Though the future is never certain.
Analyst, Wealth Morning