This book, first published in 1956, describes the various tactics used by Totalitarian states, and explores why some people stand up to them better than others. It discusses brainwashing, menticide (a term coined by the author), attaining false confessions, and the gamut of tactics of mental submission — be they active or passive in nature and whether they target individuals or the whole of society. The author, Joost Meerloo, was a Dutch psychiatrist who fled the Nazis, served as a Colonel and psychiatric expert in the Dutch military-in-exile during the Second World War, and then immigrated to the United States where he taught at Columbia University and continued his research on this subject.
The first question a reader might have is whether the book is worth reading, given that it was written so long ago and so many books have come since. In other words, does it hold up? It’s true that it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, there’s occasional referencing of psychoanalytic notions that have fallen out of favor (e.g. Freudian ideas.) On the other hand, I found the section on technology as a means of indoctrination and mass manipulation to be even truer now than it was at the time. Meerloo was only thinking about radio and television, and couldn’t have imagined how technologies are being infused with lessons from neuroscience to make them, quite literally, addictive — or how even mass media is being tailored to appeal to various groups (granted this seems to be more demand driven, but its nefarious potential is apparent.)
I believe this book is a worthwhile read even more than sixty years later. The author had a lot of personal interaction with individuals affected by these tactics, and there is a great deal of insight. The value of the personal insight far outweighs the influence of any outmoded thinking. Further, I would say that the book is an interesting and informative read even if one isn’t interested in North Korea or any of the few other blatantly authoritarian nations still around today. If one is interested in questions such as why so many people can believe incorrect notions in the face of overwhelming evidence, this book provides food-for-thought on the topic. Even if one’s government is not authoritarian, in-groups may use some of these same tactics to influence members’s thinking.
While the book is famous for discussing the cases of the American soldiers brainwashed during the Korean War (i.e. the basis of the “Manchurian Candidate” novel and original movie [1962,]) Joost uses many examples from the Nazis — including a little of his personal experience — as well as Cold War stories (generally focusing on the Soviets, but touching upon the Totalitarian-style tactics of McCarthyism.) There are famous cases like Cardinal Mindszenty, but many lesser known cases with which the reader is unlikely to be familiar.
The book’s eighteen chapters are divided into four parts. Part I (chapters 1 through 4) expounds upon the tactics used to cause individuals to submit. Meerloo discusses how false confessions are elicited using techniques from Pavlov’s classical conditioning to drugs to manipulation by doctors to playing on the subject’s guilt. It should be pointed out that a central idea in this book is that it’s just a matter of time. It’s an idea that’s revisited later in the book when considering the ethics of sentencing for treason and when evaluating how to best train soldiers to hold out as prisoners of war. It’s true that some individuals are much more resistant to these techniques but no one holds out forever. One can become more robust to interrogation, but the idea is to do so in the hope that one can outlast the enemy.
Part II (ch. 5 to 9) discusses techniques for mass submission. This dives into how totalitarian leaders affect thinking by controlling semantics, the information available to the public, and by using fear through various methods including the surveillance state and show trials. One key concept is how having spies everywhere isn’t necessarily about gaining information so much as keeping the populace in fear so as to influence their behavior. It creates a steady state prisoner’s dilemma in which one never knows whether someone is going to roll over on one for his or her own benefit.
Part III (ch. 10 to 14) continues on the theme of mass compliance but with a focus on “unobtrusive coercion.” Running a totalitarian state isn’t all about torture, truth serum, and having spies everywhere. There is a soft power component to totalitarianism. This section explores this side of the coin with special attention to the roles of technology and bureaucracy. These chapters also consider how education and child development can be a tool of the dictator or authoritarian regime, and how indoctrination about concepts of treason and loyalty can be exploited by totalitarian governments.
Part IV (ch. 15 through 18) considers how individuals and societies can make themselves more robust against authoritarian tactics. This section delves into how members of democratic societies might best think about concepts of loyalty and treason in light of the fact that even the most stoic soldiers and spies can be weakened given enough time. There is one chapter that mirrors material in part III, except that instead of discussing how totalitarian systems use education to weaken and manipulate, this one suggests how education might be used to make a society of individuals less vulnerable to authoritarian arguments and tactics. This is also where Meerloo offers analysis of what traits tend to make one more robust to brainwashing and other totalitarian tactics and why.
There is no ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, notes, or bibliography) in the edition that I read. However, I can’t say that it was missed. The author uses many cases and anecdotes to make the book interesting to read, and much of it comes from the author’s personal knowledge.
I found this book intriguing, and would recommend it. As I mentioned earlier, one needn’t be exclusively interested in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Soviet Union, or countries like the DPRK (N. Korea) to find this book interesting. Sadly, the book has a lot to say of relevance to individuals in modern-day democracies.