How authoritarian bullies get away with it

When I was at primary school in Napier, New Zealand, all the kids – including me – were terrified of a particular teacher, the ‘go to’ disciplinarian who was invoked when other teachers wanted a kid especially punished.

Hi. I’m your teacher…

This bellowing drill-sergeant of a teacher demanded total submission to his power, even down to punishing kids for moving after he’d given them an order to move, but before he’d issued the separate ‘go’ command. When he prowled the playground, nobody was safe. Any excuse, it seemed, sufficed for him to hurt the kids; and to be accused by him was to be guilty, no defence – whether you’d done anything or not. He didn’t hesitate to slam 7-10 year olds with his ‘strap’, the leather appliance with which teachers were allowed to bash children at the time. And he habitually touched his own trouser-front, right there in front of everybody. I have a distinct memory of seeing him do it; and his habit was also commemorated on the school’s centenary Facebook page (“always touchin’ his fly”, “the fly watchers lol”). On the same page, former pupils also reported that they still got “scarry dreams” [sic] about him.

I don’t believe the teacher was ever held to account for any of this. My father tried raising the issue with the school at the time, but wasn’t able to get very far. Why? Because some pupils and their parents worshipped this teacher for the very conduct that left so many other kids traumatised by the fear of what the guy might do to them. To his advocates, this teacher had authority, he could control kids – and some parents clearly liked the way he did it. It was an uphill battle to get backing to raise a complaint. There were aspects of this teacher’s character that spoke to some parents – and, based on Facebook feedback, to children – in ways that caused them to leap to his support.

The problem is that this phenomenon, in which people follow and defend an authoritarian figure, exists at all scales. A lot of it is to do with the way that such a figure validates self-worth, which may well be tied to a specific ideology or way of thinking. The behaviours that follow can emerge anywhere there is an institutional structure to give such conduct power, even at the pettiest levels such as a provincial school. But it works at the very largest social scale too. History gives us many examples of governments that have drawn whole societies that way – Elizabethan England and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth among them. Maxmilien Robespierre’s ‘terror’ of the early 1790s was another example.  This last century there have been many more, from grand scale to small, and not just in the western sphere: Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, Stalinist Soviet Union, and – further afield – Idi Amin’s Uganda and Pol Pot’s Cambodia among them.

These dictatorships worked because ordinary people were willing parties. And the dangers of authoritarian followership – which is how authoritarian leaders obtain their power – must be understood, lest it happen again.

Screen shot from Id's classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey...
Screen shot from Id’s classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey…

The ultimate example, of course, is Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler was elected to power in 1933 on promise of making Germany great again. They plumbed depths never seen before – a rational, calculated evil where even genocide was industrialised. But the thing is that polls in 1949, after the depth of the Nazi crimes had been publicised, showed a proportion of West Germans still preferred Hitler to the Adenauer government. It’s been argued that West Germany was not truly de-Nazified until the 1960s, when a generation grew who had not been inculcated with the sense of manifest destiny and national exceptionalism originally nurtured by Otto von Bismarck in the late nineteenth century. This mind-set – as Sir Robert Vansittart pointed out in 1944 – was Germany’s real problem.

The question the horrified Allies asked in 1945 was this: how could ordinary, intelligent people with loving families and a sense of moral compass elect an authoritarian leader and then support that leader through thick and thin? And how did so many become direct parties to the crimes Hitler and his administration nurtured? After all, somebody had to work in the death camps. The issue was examined by Hannah Arendt and others such as Theodor Adorno and Robert Altemeyer. Answers had to be found – for what the Nazis did was so shocking that it seemed scarcely possible for sane individuals to go along with it. But they had. Arendt concluded that evil is banal – ordinary, indulged by everyday people if they get the chance; and Hitler gave Germany that chance in 1933-45.

The execution of Louis VXI in Paris, 1793. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
The execution of Louis VXI in Paris, 1793, during Robespierre’s authoritarian ‘terror’. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

A good deal of work has since been done into the phenomenon – notably Stanley Milgram’s experiments of 1963, in which test subjects obeyed orders to ‘hurt’ and ‘kill’ others, by electric shock. Those results have been debated, in part by criticising the methodology, and have been considered to be due to conditioning rather than the innate flaws in humanity supposed by Milgram. And yet replication of the experiment, after the methodological debate, came up with the same results. In other words, it appears to be something humans do.

The question is why. Research since Milgram has shown that people will obey commands to hurt and kill for a variety of reasons. One explanation is a reduced sense of responsibility for their misdeed – because it was ordered. However, the more compelling (and frightening) answer is that of engaged followership. This emerged in more recent studies and suggests that people also follow instructions out of a sense of collaboration; that those doing it believe what they are doing is for the good. In short, the feel-good reward such people get from hurting someone (perhaps by exploiting institutional structures or through direct order, both of which may be contributing ‘permission’ factors) is greater than the reward they get from altruistic kindness towards strangers. And so moral compass is lost. And that can happen at all levels – from the pettiest scale of a provincial schoolteacher to that of a state whose people are seduced by the validation such conduct offers.

My answer? We define ourselves by our intelligence. Let’s prove it. Kindness is a virtue, and the path to that kindness is through reason, tolerance, acceptance of others, forgiveness and understanding. We must learn to genuinely care for the well-being of all of us, without doubt or hesitation. While it may seem to be the harder road, it is the one we must take.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

9 thoughts on “How authoritarian bullies get away with it

  1. Dear Matthew Thank you indeed for a tremendous and thoughtful article. I had been stimulated by the Guardian’s review of Lara Feigel’s ‘The Bitter Taste of victory’, subtitled ‘Life, love and art in the ruins of the Reich’ to buy and read it (at my slow pace) because I have always had an interest in the German attitudes to their history in the Nazi era (I was a schoolboy then who followed every day of the war avidly) and how much collective responsibility was felt post-war for the Nazi atrocities. A short summary became mostly ‘contemptuous indifference’, echoing your argument about how such things can be mirrored by attitudes from too many towards such monsters as your masochistic teacher. Which all made me reach for my copy of Louis Hagen’s 1951 outstanding post-war book, ‘Follow my Leader’ with his prolonged in-depth interviewing then of 9 souls he knew pre-WW2, for their accounts of being in Germany during those times. I plunged in and started reading (on a plane to Dunedin) his section from Werner Harz (3rd of 9), a youth in the 1930s, always contemptuous of and opposing Nazi contentions and their protagonists. One point that surprised my forgetfulness was his view that the ‘good Germans’ never believed Hitler could continue or succeed, WH believed then that Hitler and his gang could have been overthrown easily by the traditional Prussian staff of the army who hated Hitler and his group – even after France was overrun – which they believed could never succeed. (Ian Kershaw’s splendid ‘The End’ first focussed my reading in this direction). I have been fascinated by the History Channel’s pictures of the 9/11- remnant type pics one so often sees of destroyed German cities just after the war, so often just rubble then, and marvel at the speed with which restoration was made in only 10-20 yrs of rebuilding so many places countrywide even in East German Dresden so faithfully (one compares how long in our country, it takes years it seems, just to put down 1km of widening on the NW motorway). Keep up the great writing, a delight to follow. Kind regards Ron T.

    and was

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  2. Hi Ron, thanks for your thoughts – yes, I agree. To me the disturbing part about the fearsome mix of sadism, brutality and authoritarianism – all with its implicit sexual gratification for him (the public trouser-touching) that this teacher got out of misusing his power was the loyalty he inspired in some by doing so. This lasted a lifetime: they turned up to see him at the school centenary, years later. This, I think, underscores the wider issue of the rewards that some people get from authoritarian followership – which is, I think, part of the reason why it keeps happening. The scariest part of this specific story is that one of his former pupils, by their own admission on Facebook, said that they became a teacher later and now use his methods on their own pupils. Ouch.

    I think the German case is interesting: no question that Hitler was opposed by the Prussian officer class, and more widely by the German military – army and navy particularly. I have Rommel’s autobiography, which he wrote in secret and which makes his own disdain of the Nazis very clear. He wasn’t part of the nobility, but he was a loyal German and a professional military man with a very clear sense of honour, and of right and wrong. By the same token, though, they all obeyed Hitler’s executive orders – the war was begun and then prosecuted. It wasn’t until 1944 that the army began serious efforts to oppose Hitler. I think Germany has expiated since: the lesson of where humanity can go wrong was clear, and they haven’t forgotten – indeed, I think of late they have provided lessons in how to take a moral lead.


  3. You know what frightens me? Donald Trump was elected with the promise of “Making America great again.” Sounds all too familiar to the historian. Unfortunately, most people think history is boring. That’s why we’re often doomed to repeat it.


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