The multimillion-lives question is: Why do some people (in case of Nazi Germany – tens of millions) ﬁnd cults appealing? What attracts a person to a group and ideology that for a rational individual, ought to send up red ﬂags and sound a deafening alarm? What is the draw of these groups?
The (relatively) short answer is that the overwhelming majority of individuals who join cults (even of charismatic totalitarian variety) do so in a state of emotional turmoil and/or during a highly transitional phase of their lives.
They are going through a period during which the stability in their lives (often, their whole world) has collapsed. And that’s precisely what happened to Germans (actually, what had been happening for the whopping FIFTEN YEARS) in 1918-32.
Blockade and Great Hunger of 1917-19; defeat in the Great War, demise of the Imperial Germany (and of the monarchy); establishment of a new and totally unfamiliar political system – the Weimar Republic; humiliating robbery by the “Versailles criminals”; a long series of right-wing and Communist coups (and counter-coups); a narrow escape from being occupied by the Red Army in 1920, chronic political instability; and, finally, the murderous Great Depression… no wonder the whole world of just about every German collapsed. It would have been simply incredible if it hadn’t.
In that emotional state, even completely rational individuals are more often than not willing to suspend rational thinking if they believe that doing something such as joining a new group/society/party will put an end the turmoil and bring emotional comfort and stability back into their lives. Ideally even help you make a genuine quantum leap in both professional and personal lives.
And it does! Imagine being part of a group in which you will ﬁnd instant friendship, a caring quasi-family, respect for your contributions, an new attractive identity, safety, security, simplicity (very important), and an well-organized schedule (very important for Germans). You will learn new skills, have a respected position, gain personal insight, improve your personality and intelligence…
When an individual is in an emotional abyss (and keeps falling), the message from a cult leader seems almost as if fate has destined the person to belong to the cult in question. Anytime you have people who feel hopeless and helpless they will almost inevitable follow whoever promises to get them out of the abyss of depression. Especially if that someone delivers and keeps delivering on his promises.
When an individual has suffered personal and/or professional disasters (especially if “and” is the case), he or she feels like they have lost their identity; and to no longer have any direction (let alone purpose) in life.
And if the cult promises to remedy that and begins to deliver on this promise… no power in the world will prevent the individual in question from joining the group.
An investigative journalist who specializes in cults wrote in The Detroit News:
“Cults appeal to those who have no identity: ‘I used to be no one, but now I’m part of a group. I didn’t have any direction, but now I know the real truth!’
Individuals who are in an emotionally vulnerable state become very susceptible to the lure of security, emotional support and achievement (in terms of self-actualization and self-transcendence) offered by the cult. As any competent psychologies will confirm, times of emotional vulnerability tend to neutralize critical thinking.
And that’s precisely what happened in Germany in the 1920s. The majority of Germans were so depressed and so hopeless that they would follow any leader who would offer them at least an emotional relief.
Most individuals who end up joining the cult (even of the totalitarian and destructive nature) are usually looking for purpose, meaning and structure in their lives. And that’s precisely what Adolf Hitler gave them with his national-socialist ideology and Army-style concept of Führerstaat.
Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich, in their book “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds” identified seven predisposing factors that make an individual emotionally vulnerable and the appeal of cults sufficiently powerful to bring the person into the cult. These factors are the following:
- Emotional dependency – the desire to belong, lack of self-conﬁ After a whole series of emotional traumas experienced by Germans in 1918-29, depression (and thus emotional pain) became an almost universal personality trait
- Unassertiveness – inability to say no or express criticism or doubt. Germans are known for their reverence of and deference to the authority – whatever authority it happens to be. Hence it was an almost universal personality trait in the 1920s
- Low tolerance for ambiguity – need for absolute answers, being impatient to obtain answers. This is a common trait of most people and most nations – not just Germans in 1918-32
- Social and cultural disillusionment – alienation, dissatisfaction with the status quo. This was rampant in the Weimar Republic. It was probably not universally hated but definitely almost universally despised. Hence it is no surprise at all that nobody came to its rescue when the Nazis were killing it in the spring of 1933
- Naïve idealism. In a normal (i.e. stable) environment most individuals in a country are realists and behave relatively rationally. At the times of crisis, however, they tend to become idealistic as the reality becomes blurred and confusing.
- Desire for spiritual meaning. Under normal (i.e. stable) circumstances, few individuals are looking for spiritual meaning in their lives – they are comfortable enough in their everyday materialistic lives. In the times of crisis which gets just about everybody way out of one’s comfort zone, search for emotional stability almost inevitably takes any individual on a some form of spiritual journey – as only spiritual life provides some hope for stability
- Ignorance of how groups can manipulate individuals. In 1920s Germany, few individuals were educated even in general psychology, let alone in specific manipulation techniques
Cults can appeal to the best in the society if the person is approached at the right time in his or her life (i.e. in a state of emotional turmoil). That’s precisely what happened in Weimar Republic where even the best and the brightest were emotionally damaged and confused and for all practical purposes experienced the collapse of their whole world
Cults attract individuals experiencing psychological stress, rootlessness, feelings of emptiness and being disenfranchised, and identity diffusion and confusion. Sounds like a psychological profile of the overwhelming majority of Germans in Weimar Republic.