The most important book I read this summer happened by accident, picked off the shelf since I liked the author. It wasn’t a novel — or a biography, my normal summer/beach fare. And it wasn't a business book.
However, one of the greatest business writers and thinkers of all time, Peter Drucker, did write it. It’s a political book written while Drucker was living in Europe as a journalist and student.
The book, “The End of Economic Man: The Origins of Totalitarianism,” chronicles a period of great instability in Europe, centering on the rise of the massive political movement totalitarianism, and two individuals whose marks on history would be profound and horrific. Yes, Peter Drucker was there, watched and wrote as a first-party observer to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. It was published in 1939 and it offers chilling parallels to the U.S. presidential election today.
Like many of you, I suspect, I've been a bit bewildered by the amount of popular support for Donald Trump and his rhetoric. After reading the book, I have a much better understanding of Trump’s rhetoric and the reception he’s been given by portions of the American populace today.
Peter Drucker, Austrian born, started his career as a writer and observer of politics and political movements and spent time in his early 20s covering speeches by Mussolini, Hitler and Goebbels. He wrote the core thesis of the book in 1932 about Mussolini’s rise to power, suggesting that it was a sign of a bigger movement. Hitler’s rise confirmed it, and the complete book was finally published in 1939 after a challenging search to find a publisher courageous enough to release the book and its controversial conclusion: that Hitler and Mussolini were not products of unique, nationalist conditions in Germany and Italy, but were rather the result of a broader set of sociological conditions present across all of Europe, conditions that could surface elsewhere and at other times.
None other than Winston Churchill reviewed the book when it was published, writing that Drucker was “one of those writers to whom almost anything can be forgiven because he not only has a mind of his own, but has the gift of starting other minds along a stimulating line of thought.” Still, Churchill criticized Drucker’s prediction that Hitler and Stalin would form an alliance as naïve. History soon bore out Drucker as prescient.
Drucker wrote that those supporting democratic governments did not understand how to fight fascism. They only saw fascism’s symptoms — its hateful rhetoric, obvious propaganda, self-centered characters and demagoguery — and never understood its causes. In his chapter titled “The Despair of the Masses,” Drucker found contributory factors in the decline of Europe’s spiritual and social order, the widening chasm between factory owners and workers, the failure of political elites and new doctrines like Marxist reforms to fill the void for the working class — and a desire to believe in miracles, no matter how irrational they might be.
In his chapters “The Totalitarian Miracle” and “Miracle or Mirage?” Drucker observed that even the most illogical rhetoric of Hitler and Mussolini and their surrogates was lauded and accepted by many as gospel because of the populace’s base desire to want to believe that anything other than the status quo would be better for them. While it may have been illogical, they had no problem “believing beyond belief.”
Those disaffected by the post-World War I in Germany and Italy wanted someone or something to blame for what they perceived as desperate and worsening conditions. They gave their allegiance to anyone who delivered a claim to make it better, appeared to understand their problems and pain, and to speak their language. As the world soon learned, that blind allegiance didn’t end well.
It may seem strange to turn to a virtually unknown 1930s book to better understand an election in 2016. However, if you read it, I promise you that you will be both surprised by the eerie parallels — and have a better perspective on the drivers in this election.