Some people are said to be born leaders. But we don’t hear so much about born followers. However, born or not, the followers are the vast majority of any population, and they need good leaders – although, in a time of crisis, a leader may emerge who will lead everybody in the wrong direction. The classic example, in modern times, is Adolf Hitler, who, in a few short years, took Germany from just recovering from defeat in World War I (in which he’d been a soldier) to a much more devastating defeat in the Second World War.
How did he do it? What made even otherwise sensible people want to follow him? The answer seems largely to lie in the hypnotic power of his speeches, which in turn were made more powerful by modern microphones and other technical developments. In particular, radio brought those speeches into people’s homes. And speaking in sharp, often angry, tones, he said what people wanted to hear – how Germany had been unfairly treated when forced to accept a surrender agreement, agreeing to pay a huge indemnity to the victorious Allies – even required to surrender her colonies.
And Hitler gave his listeners someone to blame – that eternal scapegoat, the Jews.
Another key to his success was a willingness to resort to violence, under the guise of a political party, whose members called themselves National Socialists, a title familiarly known as “NAZIs.” Its platform particularly appealed to certain sectors of German youth, who were organized into armed gangs, ruthlessly engaged in stifling opposition.
Every movement seems to need some form of holy writ, and in this case, it was a book written by Hitler himself, called Mein Kampf (“My Struggle.”)
But any successful establishment also needs something Hitler did not leave – a clear line of succession. That is, who will take the place of the leader when the leader goes, and who will take that successor’s place, and so on. Historically, it has been monarchies with definite rules about these matters which have survived longest. The British monarchy can trace itself back at least as far as 1066, when William the Conqueror came over the Channel from France, won the Battle of Hastings, and set up a new line of succession. There have, since then, been numerous disruptions, rebellions, and even a Civil War, but each new claimant of the Throne could assert his kingship by some rule or “right,” including various Acts of Parliament. The Royal Family, of course, had its own family tree, defining relationships. These often crossed national boundaries, so that, for example, when Queen Anne died in 1707, her successor – and nearest relative, who became George I – was a German, from Hanover, who couldn’t even speak English. But this began the “House of Hanover,” which, although it changed its name to Windsor, when Britain was fighting Germany in World War I, is still the reigning British Royal Family.
That family, however, has had its own succession problems, one of which involved a crisis precipitated by a scandal. When George V died on Jan. 20, 1936, his son Edward, the Prince of Wales, automatically became the King, and took the title of Edward VIII. But he was known to be involved with a woman named Wallis Simpson, who had divorced one husband and was in the process of divorcing a second. For several reasons, this was unacceptable to the British government, and Edward was forced to abdicate. In a famous radio speech of his own, he announced his abdication, and said he could no longer be the King “without the help and support of the woman I love.” He was on the throne for less than a year.
A very different kind of succession crisis occurred much earlier, in the Islamic faith. In fact, it involved the founder of that faith, and those who followed him. Muhammad died in what Christians call the year 632 A.D. He was the acknowledged leader of Islam. But a dispute arose among his followers as to who would be their next leader. This led to a split, which has lasted to this day, between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Of course, I need hardly to tell you about the followers of Jesus, and along how many different religious paths the last two millennia have taken them.
But I hope you’ll allow me to have the last word on this subject, with one of my relevant epigrams:
“Follow me – It’s better for us to be lost together.”