“The masses are never bellicose, as long as they are not poisoned by propaganda.”1
The history of humanity is permeated by war and violence. The list of wars since antiquity is endless, and the extent of destruction and human suffering already caused and continuing to be caused by war is unimaginable. The two world wars in the last century alone claimed around 150 million dead and wounded, including many civilian victims: women, children and the elderly. And the number of people who have lost their lives through war and other man-made excesses since World War II might well reach the number of 100 million. – Switzerland has no more than 8 million inhabitants. – We cannot close our eyes to this record of horror.
Why war?” The search for the cause of war and violence may be as old as war itself; it is an expression of the human yearning for peace. It is a recurring theme in the cultural history of humanity and opens up to the question of the moral nature of man, wherever people are in search of the cause of war: is the state of war really the “natural state” of man? Or do not “mutual help” and a sense of “justice and morality” form the basis of our coexistence – and even that of our early ancestors?
In the last century, the discussion of the question “Why war?” was strongly influenced by the assumption of an aggression drive, that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) invented in 1920 under the impact of mass slaughter in the First World War.
When, at the suggestion of the League of Nations, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) asked Siegmund Freud 1932 in a letter whether there was a way to liberate people from the doom of war, Freud, who was convinced that an “active instinct for hatred and destruction” was anchored in man as a constant libidinous factor, answered that the effort to abolish “the aggressive inclinations of man” was “doomed to fail”. “Conflicts of interest between man and man were resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence.” Moreover, “the slaughter of a foe gratifies an instinctive craving”. Towards the end of his answer we read the memorable phrase: “Why do we, you and I and many another, protest so vehemently against war, instead of just accepting it as another of life’s odious importunities? For it seems a natural thing enough, biologically rooted and practically unavoidable.”
Although Freud’s construction of the aggressive drive was controversial from the beginning and has long since been disproven, it has an effect on our present day. It is reflected in thought and word and sets the urgently needed dispute over the question of war and violence on the wrong track.
Freud’s assumption of a biological foundation of war was a fatal error. Neither war nor domestic forms of violence meet any biological necessity. They are not anchored in the genes. Human life is not determined by aggression. The struggle for existence takes place in the form of mutual help. It has ensured the survival of man, for only in social companionship was man able to withstand the rigours of nature and to protect himself against his natural enemies.
Looking at the coexistence of people without bias, we may see that it is determined by the pursuit of solidarity and belonging. Man wants to do his job well and trusts that others want the same and will be honest. Even today, when the most blatant individualism – “think of yourself first” – is propagandised, mankind could not exist even for only a dozen years without mutual help and selfless activity for the sake of the common good.
In general, human beings live together peacefully, in spite of all the difficulties of coexistence, and here I am thinking of differences of opinion, misunderstandings, or quarrels, which sometimes degenerate into violence. People go about their work, care for the welfare of their children, for their homes and gardens, they enjoy socialising, they are sometimes happy and sometimes sad; but despite all the differences between people, it does not occur to anyone to pack their musette bag and go to a foreign country to kill the people there, who have done him no violence and of whom he does not even understand the language. Einstein is right when he writes: “The masses are never bellicose as long as they are poisoned by propaganda.”
Even in the exceptional situation of war, besides sadistic cruelty – which would have to be addressed elsewhere – there is also mutual help and compassion, not only towards one’s own comrades but also for the “enemy”. There are countless examples in which soldiers spared the enemy or deliberately missed the set target, even at the risk of their own lives. For this reason, the war industry has developed killer games to reduce the soldiers’ killing resistance and increase their murder rate.
There are also reports of soldiers returning from war, who describe how, in the firing breaks, soldiers came out of the trenches and smoked with their “enemy” and exchanged pictures of their families.
Apart from the tribal feuds of our early ancestors, where rivals for hunting grounds and food personally faced each other, war does not arise from quarrels between people or because some impulse urges them. War – and here of course I am speaking of wars of aggression – and terror, too, is a kind of institutionally required exercise of force. Both are planned in cold blood for strategic considerations: weapons are provided, and ammunition supplies are secured. In war, cooks are needed to prepare rations, and paramedics and doctors are needed for the wounded. And in war as well as for terror there is a need for enemy images that have to be created artificially. Preparation often takes years. The task of war propaganda is to create hatred against the enemy and to portray a politically desired war as necessary and good.
It is now well known that governments hire large international PR companies to promote their war plans and to provide for the support of their own populations and associates.
Public relations professionals, endowed with all the insights of psychology, communications research, and other social sciences, write the script that aims to lure a people into a war, and the media – radio, television, newspapers and magazine publishers, the internet and the film industry – ensure that the “advertising for war and death”2 reaches the population. They dictate what people should attend to and what they should think about; this is called “enlightenment” or “information.” Unwanted information is concealed or declared hostile propaganda or “fake news” by the “Ministry of Truth”.
Media coverage is largely dominated by only a few major agencies. “80% of all news in the media,” Becker and Beham write, “is based on just one single source, and on closer research, this source turns out to be precisely that press office that started the circulation of the message.” They speak of a “colonisation of the media by the PR industry”. In the early nineties, there were more “PR practitioners” than journalists in the US.
Edward Bernays (1891-1995), a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is considered the father of public relations. He not only ensured that Freud’s theories were widely used in the USA, but also laid the foundation for modern communication management with his 1928 book “Propaganda”.3 This is still used today as a guide for the manipulation of public opinion by advertisers and governments.
Bernays developed his opinion-influencing campaigns from his uncle’s theories. He was convinced that it was possible to “control and steer the masses without their knowledge,” if only “the mechanism and motives of group thinking” were understood.
For Bernays, “the conscious and purposeful manipulation of the behaviour and attitudes of the masses” was “an integral part of democratic societies”. “Organisations that work in the dark,” he writes, “direct the social processes. They are the real government in our country [meaning the US].
We are governed by people whose names we have never heard of. They influence our opinions, our tastes, and our thoughts.” But that is not surprising, he continues: “If many people are to live together as smoothly as possible in a society, control processes of this kind are inevitable.”(p. 19)
For Bernays, it goes without saying that “an elite born for that purpose directs society”. He boldly praises the “terrific successes of propaganda in the war” [meaning the First World War], which opened the eyes of the “farsighted” to the possibilities of manipulating mass opinion in all areas of life. In the war, according to Bernays, the American government and various patriotic associations used “a completely new method” for gaining public acceptance by securing the support of “the key people of all social groups, that is of people whose word “counts seriously for hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people,” he says. Thus, they had automatically gained “the support of entire fraternities, religious communities, trade associations, patriotic societies, as well as social and regional groups”, the members of which automatically adopted their leaders’ and speakers’ opinions.
Moreover, the manipulators of public opinion had provoked “mass reactions to the alleged atrocities, terror and tyranny of the enemy”. (p. 33) That is how wars are made!
War propaganda builds on the fact that man is a creature of community and that living together is based on good faith. It abuses the human sense of responsibility and justice in order to make the war against the “barbarians” not only fair, but a sacred duty. And it builds on its belief that the honest citizen cannot even imagine that he is being manipulated and cheated to such an extent.
The reason for war is not embedded in the nature of man. Humans do not want war. When we search for the causes of war, it is necessary to increasingly focus on the uncontrolled power relations and power structures that make decisions possible for individuals who do not act in the public interest. To this day, it has not been possible to limit the power of those in control, those who pull the strings in the background. The big political issues are often decided by bodies that are not subject to any political control and thus undermine democracy.
Many of those in power are driven by greed and pursue their own power political interests, without concern for the law and the welfare of the people. They do not respect international law or the Charter of the United Nations, which, with its general prohibition of violence, prohibits any war of aggression.
Our future will largely depend on whether and to what extent we succeed in changing the “regulatory structures” (Arthur Rich)4 so that the abuse of power can be prevented or at least curtailed, and so that even those who are in power can be required to comply with law and order. This should be the foundation of all our efforts. •
1 Einstein, Albert; Freud, Sigmund. Warum Krieg? Ein Briefwechsel, (Why war? An exchange of letters) Zürich 1972 (and in English: http://www.public.asu.edu/~jmlynch/273/documents/FreudEinstein.pdf )
2 Becker, Jörg and Beham, Mira. Operation Balkan: Werbung für Krieg und Tod (Operation Balkan: Advertising for War and Death), Baden-Baden 2006
3 Bernays, Edward. Public Relations, University of Oklahoma Press 1952
cf. also: Barben, Judith. Spin doctors im Bundes-haus. Gefährdung der direkten Demokratie durch Manipulation und Propaganda (Spin doctors in the federal parliament building. Endangering direct democracy by manipulation and propaganda), Baden 2009
4 cf. “Über Arbeit, Wirtschaft, Macht und Wirtschaftsethik”, in Zeit-Fragen No 29/30 of 21 November 2017 (“On work, economy, power and business ethics”, in Current Concerns No 29/30 of 1 December 2017) (https://www.zeit-fragen.ch/en/numbers/2017/no-2930-1-december-2017/about-work-economics-power-and-economic-ethics.html )
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