The Moral Obligation to Stop and Convert Petty Tyrants

It is nearly impossible to traipse through life without encountering the petty tyrant, that highly annoying passive-aggressive type who carries on through life at such a childish level of emotional maturity that you often have to do everything you can to deny him the power and the attention he so desperately craves. There may be a part of you that very much wants to throttle the petty tyrant, but this is a negative feeling you rightly come to resent because spite and violent fantasies are usually not effective ways to get along with other people. It is a tribute to the petty tyrant’s toxic hold on our culture and his remarkable inflexibility to change that we come to detest tyrants as much as we do. But it really shouldn’t be this way.

We know very well who they are. Petty tyrants often elbow their way into positions of extremely minor authority — such as organizing a group picnic or collecting donations for a beloved peer’s cancer treatment or otherwise setting the tone for how a particular purlieu is perceived — but they can sometimes be so successful and unchecked in their pettiness that they rise to unfathomable power (see Donald Trump, who is now using petty tyranny to bring us closer to the brink of nuclear war). Rather than using their positions to gracefully include everyone, petty tyrants proceed to snub and undermine and exclude within an environment that is often so small that the hurt is somehow both sizeably felt and inconsequential.

Because one often has to endure a petty tyrant’s needlessly exiguous sullies over the course of a sustained period, the petty tyrant’s sting burrows into one’s soul far deeper than it needs to. The petty tyrant’s concatenation of minor slights is not unlike Chinese water torture, matched only by the relentless pings of push notifications purring from one’s phone and the incessant calls to be constantly connected. Small wonder then that the Internet has increasingly become the petty tyrant’s medium of choice. After enduring a petty tyrant’s latest jab, one often has to look in the mirror, take a few deep breaths, remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s cogent maxim, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,” summon whatever mindfulness there is in the tank, and attempt to assert one’s naturally benign existence as much as possible. Unfortunately, because people tend to believe the word of other people who hold positions of power and we now live in a world in which an altogether different froth rises to the top, the petty tyrant’s influence and sensibilities can swiftly infiltrate a group dynamic, often stubbing out views and opinions that very much need to be considered. (As Margaret Jacobsen observed in Bitch shortly after Trump’s election, “Too often in our society, white women have value while women of color do not.” Let us not forget that white guilt is very much a petty tyranny of its own.)

Petty tyrants are often anti-intellectual. They are almost always convinced that they are infallible and can never be persuaded to change their minds, which is often saturated with a repugnant sense of vague knowingness often misconstrued as expertise. They really believe that their opinion is the only one that matters and are often insufferably absurd figures like the people who host NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, petty tyrants in the midcult mode who truly believe that culture should be made exclusively and only for them. (“I am, by any reasonable measure, a cynical jerk and my taste in pop culture tends to follow that,” revealed Glen Weldon in a recent episode. “But this year, something has changed within me. Something is not the same.” Anyone who has endured Weldon’s narcissistic flippancy for years knows that this is not true. This is a prime example of the petty tyrant who feigns honesty while ultimately practicing an absolutist sensibility that transmutes quite easily into tyranny, a quality not altogether different from a President who will tweet any outlandish and threatening bullshit under the rubric of “blunt honesty” to get people riled up.)

They are usually intolerant of other people for incredibly insignificant reasons and are remarkably petty about it (see, for example, Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s disemvoweling practice from 2008, which has rightly been styled as geek vengeance by Will Shetterly). They can be found on any part of the political spectrum, ranging from the intolerant MAGA booster who will never listen to facts, much less what a progressive has actually said, or the vituperative social justice warrior who would prefer to destroy the life and livelihood of an opponent rather than consider that there may be a peaceful possibility for someone to understand and change. They often have an inflated sense of their own importance, often bolstered through social media, a digital flesh-eating virus that cowardly and unprincipled Quislings like Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone lack the know-how or the gumption to cure. Twitter alone has been responsible for such a colossal wave of petty tyrants that, if one is fortunate enough to not be assailed for one’s vaguely controversial views by a crazed army of trolls, one often has to uninstall Twitter from one’s phone in order to be reminded that face-to-face conversation is not usually like this.

What makes petty tyrants so detestable is the way in which they discourage kindness, peace, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness — in short, the possibility for many different types of people to come together. As Rebecca Solnit smartly observed months before Harvey Weinstein’s exposure ushered in the beginnings of a much needed reckoning, petty tyrants live “in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity…buffered from the consequences of their failures.” Thus, the petty tyrant increasingly operates in a filter bubble of his own making, often clueless about the cruelty and abuse he casually metes out. (Witness Robert Scoble’s remarkably obtuse blog post from last October after he was hit with allegations of sexual harassment. He not only refused to acknowledge his potential complicity, but willfully outed the private details of his victims)

There’s really no easy way that you can win against a petty tyrant. You can be obsequious and you will still be subjected to belittlement. You can politely inform the petty tyrant precisely how you feel about her conduct, but your feelings may never be respected or honored. If you’re a passionate (albeit cautious) idealist with a distinct voice who wants to believe in people like me, the petty tyrant can be the biggest pain in the ass imaginable, an affront against amity and communal possibility causing you to give into the worst aspects of your ego as you take understandable offense and sometimes stop believing in people for a while. Because the tyrant’s offense isn’t just leveled at you, but often a whole category of people who live a particular way or practice relatively benign behavior that the petty tyrant takes inexplicable umbrage against, often because the tyrant subconsciously perceives some of these qualities within herself and doesn’t want to be honest about confronting the pain of recognizing something familiar. And that’s one of the tragedies of petty tyrants. If they weren’t so caught up in tyrannizing other people, they could actually find common ground and evolve and invite more people into their lives. That’s why it’s so important to be as understanding as you can, lest you become a petty tyrant yourself (and I regret to report that I have been a petty tyrant in the past and I am still trying to sort out the differences between emotional sensitivity and unknowing tyranny, both twisted together in a taut double helix that one cannot easily unravel; the hope is that more people can call me on my shit).

But the petty tyrant isn’t all bad. The petty tyrant’s gift is to present you with a perspective about how you are detested, thus giving you a view of flaws you can work on and qualities you may be able to repair so that you may be able to communicate better. Petty tyrants challenge you to love and carry on with your lives, even as it seems the world is burning or it feels as if nobody really cares about the heart or the work that you put out into the universe. If your love tendered towards a petty tyrant can never be reciprocated, there may not be a very compelling reason to invite the petty tyrant into your life. Relationships of any sort must be predicated upon mutual respect, humility, and the ability to listen. There must be true wonder for another that supersedes all egocentric concerns. On the other hand, if you can be in the same room with the petty tyrant and not take offense, perhaps there’s a chance to nullify the tyranny in question.

Still, this is not always possible and it often takes time. You may have to wait many years for the petty tyrant to drop in stature, to be humbled enough through failure and setbacks so that the tyranny becomes thoroughly vanquished from her system. That may very well be the moment when you can offer love and forgiveness. But it’s frustrating. Because what empathetic person doesn’t feel the need for the petty tyrant to change now and become a more wondrous and beautiful person? The greatest problem with tyranny is that it is such a seductive quality, something that can settle and stick inside one’s personality to the point where it becomes almost impossible to disinter it.

Groupthink and the allure of collective humiliation are two qualities that have allowed fascism (and thus petty tyrants) to flourish throughout human history. During the rise of Mussolini, Blackshirts would force enemies to imbibe castor oil, sending them home dripping in their own shit, when not forcing them to defecate upon anything (such as speeches and manifestos) that memorialized their beliefs. The victims were stripped naked, pummeled, and handcuffed to public posts so that all would know how to think. We are not there yet, but we are getting distressingly closer. The recent clamor against vlogger Logan Paul’s insensitivity towards a suicide suggests that we have not yet grown heartless and that the righteous horror that accompanied Lynndie England’s callous photographs from Abu Ghraib has not yet been deracinated from our national conscience.

As such, it is vital for us to remember that petty tyrants in all forms have almost always begetted more sinister tyrants (including Nazis), shimmering quite dangerously into public life. Our unity, which is pivotal if we hope to restore sanity and stability to this country, has become increasingly fractured, its prospects countered by the latest cartoonish developments. Our possibilities as a nation of amazing individuals is being squandered by our insistence that petty tyrants, wherever they may be found, are not that big of a deal. The time has come for us to start becoming more pro-active about stopping petty tyrants, to rightly recognize their behavior as something that is destroying this country. Or maybe we can do better. Why can’t we start making collective attempts to recognize tyrants within our own folds and help those who tyrannize become more aware of how they harm lives, turning their actions into benevolent gestures in which their identities are still respected but the results are more peacefully inclusive? That’s going to require a great deal of patience and strength and commitment from everyone. But what’s the alternative? Letting our nation be subjected to tyranny? Believing the worst in people? Democratic principles have kept America alive, for better or worse, for more than two centuries. It is both a betrayal of our history and our enduring national character to surrender what remains of our unity. Let us believe in and understand and, above all, listen to each other, especially the voices that make us wary. Hope should not merely be a buzz word manufactured by politicians who wish to win elections. It must become a more practiced and truer quality that is more natural to our lives than the easy immolation that comes with accepting and practicing petty tyranny.

Wendy Lower (The Bat Segundo Show #526)

Wendy Lower is most recently the author of Hitler’s Furies, a nonfiction finalist for this year’s National Book Awards, which will be awarded on Wednesday night.

Author: Wendy Lower

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Subjects Discussed: Marriage and genocide, the hausfrau who shot at Jews from the balcony, Liesel Willhaus, Hitler’s “baby machine” speech in 1934, Nazi ideology and gender roles, Volksgemeinschaft, Erna Petri, societal cues and massacring children, the fluidity of women’s personality in 1930s Germany, women in higher education restricted from participation, women who advanced up the social ladder, the League of German Girls, upward mobility among German women existing before the Nazi regime, Michael Wildt, looking at history through mundane everyday activities, Leni Riefenstahl’s rally footage, organized marches as rituals, looking at the motives for people who participated in these marches, concentrating on the half million women in the Eastern territories where communities of violence flourished, the Red Swastika Sisters, women serving as nurses, Annette Schücking, women listening to men boasting of massacres and being forced to comfort them, Nazis socializing by looking down at the inferior to affirm their superiority, Claudia Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland, women’s complicity in Nazi crimes, secretaries and bosses organizing massacres together, complicity in the workplace, shooting people from balconies, differing ideas about Vera Wohlauf, Christopher Browning’s claim of men feeling uncomfortable by Wohlauf’s presence because it made them feel shameful, Goldhagen’s ideas of men proud of their acts, genocide as men’s work, Browning’s Ordinary Men, German women using their pregnant condition to reduce their perceived culpability, the question of whether being close to the Miedzyrzec Aktion makes you an accomplice to atrocities, terrorizing by attendance, defining women’s culpability in relation to men, Gertrude Segel and Felix Landau, why it’s taken so long to consider women as part of the Nazi regime, how focusing on killing centers shifts the dialogue away from exploring violence within the general population during the Holocaust, how the German and Austrian courts excluded witness testimony after the war, how many women committing atrocities were allowed to return to regular life, cruelty focused on eroticized forms by the courts, the 500 women vs. the 20,00 men who stood trial after the war, low conviction rates, the Lemberg Trial, appearance stereotypes, the curious case of Johanna Altvater Zelle (aka Fräulein Hanna), how masculine appearances of women “explained” barbaric behavior, the natural Germanic ideal and its role in Nazi crimes (and subsequent exoneration), Nazi cowgirl types, Karl May, Nazi ideas of the wild west, German women telling journalists, scholars, and historians exactly what they wanted to hear (and how scholars have sorted out the truth from the hyperbole), the choices that women had under the Nazi regime, euthanasia programs, duty prevailing over morality, executed women, Nazi Empire Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine, resistance figure Maria Kondratenko, women who took advantage of the Nazi idea that women were intellectually inferior, why gender matters in looking at the Holocaust, the Black Misha, how secretaries were responsible for the administrative part of the Holocaust, workplace relationships and Nazi socialization, Nazi consumer culture, German women who were raped, and questioning the narrative of innocence.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s discuss the idea of genocide as men’s work under the Nazi regime. There was this duty to serve the Reich and anyone who was considered work-shy was sent to a concentration camp, of course, to be reeducated. Men were expected to go out and perform an Aktion, which meant of course massacring Jews. You have this idea of marriage, where a woman had to be fulfilled with domestic work while she was simultaneously subordinate to her husband. But then you have people like Liesel Willhaus. She would often shoot at Jewish slaves working on her villa from her second story balcony for the sport of it. So I’m wondering. To what degree were figures like Willhaus responding to Nazi societal cues and to what degree were they reacting to these gender roles that were associated with work?

Lower: You know, in a speech that Hitler gave in 1934 at one of the rallies, he was very explicit. He said that women are supposed to serve their Reich to propagate the race. As baby machines, as it were. He didn’t use that term. But that’s kind of how we’ve come to understand it. But he also mentioned using the term “fellow combatants,” which I refer to in my book. And I do that deliberately to show that there were two strands of thinking in Nazi ideology vis-à–vis women and gender roles. One was obviously predominantly racial: the drive to expand the German race. But that drive to expand the German race was about survival. And survival was about militarized operations and it was expansion of the living space and building of the empire. So you have women in the role of the expansion of the German population to fulfill these megalomaniac global ambitions of Hitler’s and also serving as fellow combatants. There you see this paradox, where you see the kind of femininity of the hausfrau, of the mother, of the wife. But they also are mobilized in these campaigns. And the uniform culture, for instance, that is very a clear theme in my book, when these young women like Liesel Willhaus aspire to seek careers through the party and better themselves. They’re swept up in this fervor when they’re mobilized to go to the Eastern territories. She was sent to the Ukraine in this case. So there’s social mobility that is possible in the Volksgemeinschaft. But it has both this traditional feminine role as well as this very militaristic revolutionary experiment.

Correspondent: I guess what I’m trying to unravel here — I mean, I looked also to Erna Petri. She comes to the East in June 1942, observing her husband Horst beating and sexually assaulting servants shortly after arriving in Thuringia. By the summer of 1943, she’s already not only an accomplished hausfrau hostess, but she invites six starving Jewish children in and she shoots them in the back of the head. She had heard other Nazis saying that this was the best way to dispose of them. And the thing that fascinates me, and I’m hoping to hear you unravel, is how this kind of societal cue of “This is the best way to shoot a child” — how is that tied into what it was to be a hausfrau hostess or be this woman who, as you put it earlier, Hitler called a baby machine?

Lower: Yeah. The Nazi experiment tested all kinds of boundaries of matrimony, femininity, child rearing. These are all coming out, I think, in these individual cases that I delve into in a way, in which I’m putting faces on this lost generation of women and straightening out these different examples of those who went east. And you’ve focused on the worst cases. And the killer Erna Petri is probably the most extreme case in the book that really is the most shocking. But we see even in her case that she starts out as an ordinary farmgirl, a farmer’s daughter from a town near Erfurt, near Weimar, and attaches herself to a rising star in the SS movement, is then sent east with him to one of these plantations. And they’re kind of lording over this estate. So they have a lot of unsupervised power over the laborers on the estate. And you mentioned Jewish boys who fled the boxcar that was headed to Sobibor in ’43. And she slipped in and out of multiple roles at any given moment. She was both self-aware of being part of this revolution and wanting to assert herself, to prove herself. But then she had been socialized in traditional ways of how one should behave as a hausfrau, as a mother. And these are coming together. There’s a perversion that takes place here of these gender roles that are instrumentalized in the genocide. So you have a lot of tension in this history between racial ideals, gendered stereotypes, and this extreme violence that comes together. In the Eastern territories in particular.

Correspondent: But would you say that a particular gender role encouraged, “Hey, since this is the best way to dispose of a Jewish child, I will quite naturally fall into this because of the state.” I’ll later get into the fascinating postwar trials, in which a lot of these women got away. But I am curious, first and foremost, how many of these roles amalgamated into something where — is it even possible to unravel? It is even possible to isolate what could cause someone in one year to go to this state of being a hausfrau hostess who thinks nothing of shooting a child in the back of the head?

Lower: I think that these transformations were not — it’s a very fluid situation. They’re kind of moving back and forth. And this is after some intense socialization in the ’30s. So Erna Petri is born in 1920. In the 1920s, she was very young. But this was kind of the heyday of the explosion of women’s activity in politics. They gained the vote. So you have the politicization of women. And then boom. She’s coming of age in the ’30s in that kind of atmosphere. But it’s being shaped by this genocidal Nazi regime, which is highly ideological. And she said even in her testimony that the indoctrination of the ’30s was her motive, that she had been taught to hate Jews. And so she’s learning things along the way as well. And there’s a lot of leeway. There’s a lot of room for maneuvering too that we see in her behavior and many women like her, which was exciting for them and empowering. They were acting out. They didn’t assume that this regime was going to come to a screeching halt and be defeated. They just saw career tracks opening up. Bright futures in front of them. And especially someone like Petri and some of the wives of these SS men. They had entered into this new nobility under Himmler. And that was another level of being part of a community. And their actions, of course, because of the emphasis on this racial community. Volksgemeinschaft is a German term. People’s community. One could act out individually, but also understand one’s actions within this society. So later on for instance, not to jump too far ahead, someone like Erna Petri and many male perpetrators who find in their testimony these kinds of defense rationales in the courtroom, I don’t know how deep they went in terms of their own psychology, in which they literally state, “I feel myself.” They use the reflexive case in German. “I don’t feel myself to be guilty.” They don’t appreciate the individual responsibility and culpability because of the pervasiveness of this social experiment, being part of a national revolution and how unity and duty were so heavily stressed more than, say, morality.

Correspondent: Hitler, as you say — this whole “baby machine.” I want to go with this further. Basically, he said that a mother of multiple children was more beneficial to the Nazi regime than a woman lawyer. There were quotas in place preventing women from obtaining these degrees in higher education and political office. You point to upward mobility in this book as one of the big reasons why these women left villages and they saw jobs. Vera Wohlauf, she advanced up the social ladder through this office encounter and by marrying this wealthy merchant. So you didn’t have a lot of choices. But there were ways around this. How much of these ambitions emerged from, say, the League of German Girls, which was the girl answer to the Hitler Youth, and how did disregarding and humiliating Jews in the pre-Kristallnacht period lead to this alternative empowerment for women? It’s extraordinarily strange and I’m just trying to isolate certain aspects of this.

Lower: When I talk about the socialization during the Nazi regime, let me break that down. So, for instance, the League of German Girls was compulsory after the mid-’30s. So anyone — and with the boys as well obviously — after the age of ten, they had to be part of these youth movements. And they predominated and swallowed up all the other activities. I mean, the Nazi Party was really clever, insidiously so, in mobilizing the youth. They didn’t need to shut down the churches as such. They would just hold a lot of party meetings in these youth programs on Sunday morning. So people couldn’t go to church. Or they, of course, infiltrated the entire education system. The textbooks were completely rewritten. So each of these professional groups were somehow restructured along party lines as a one party system. Now in the beginning, thousands of German women — ordinary German women; Jewish women among them — who had been very active politically in the 1920s in the Communist movement, in the Social Democratic Party, the Catholic Center Party, other parties that the Nazis were destroying basically in ’33 as they consolidated their dictatorship — these women, especially the Communists, were sought out, arrested, and many were killed. And German women were also victims of sterilization policies. About 200,000. So within the German female population, already an early part of the ’30s, those who might be resistant to these policies are being weeded out, terrorized, incarcerated, and so forth. And so some like the individuals in my book — Erna Petri, Vera — they’re not part of that. They’ve survived that and they’ve triumphed. And now they’ve got this bright future ahead of them. And they can get out of there. Liesel Willhaus was the daughter of a foreman in a czar land. Worked on a chicken farm. And those who were not the killers in my book — the witnesses and bystanders — were similar demographics. They didn’t have educations beyond grammar school. They had secretarial training or nursing. Obviously nursing training was essential for the war effort. That particular career path was opened up. So this is how the socialization happens and what it means in terms of how women’s lives and their futures shift into these different directions under the regime.

The Bat Segundo Show #526: Wendy Lower (Download MP3)

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Paris Occupied, Color Photos Taken

New Yorker: “In France, the wounds of war are only thinly healed, as proven by the pained response to a recent exhibit of 270 color photographs by André Zucca, called ‘Les Parisiens sous l’Occupation’ (‘Parisians Under the Occupation’). The photographs are of street life in Paris during wartime, and they’re said to be the only known color photographs from then.” (Some photos here and a Flickr set.) (via MeFi)