Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Are our leaders mad, stupid, or evil? Or all the three things together?

Something made me rethink of some events which took place during the 2nd World War. In October 1940, Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian government, had ordered an attack on Greece. We don't know what went on inside Mussolini's head that made him think that it was a good idea to send the Italian troops to attack Greece in Winter, crossing the Epirus mountains in the snow. As it might have been expected, the Greeks resited and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers.

At this point, Mussolini had a big problem of image: his blunder was evident for everybody. He must have been furious and, among the various manifestations of his rage, one is noteworthy: the order he gave to the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants." (It is reported, among others, by Roatta. This was tantamount to order a genocide of the Greek population, something that, alone, makes Mussolini one of the great war criminals in history. 

Fortunately, the Italian Air Force of the time was far from being able to do what Mussolini wanted it to do. But, still, his behavior shows that some leaders would rather order a genocide than see their personal reputation tarnished. It is also possible that Mussolini acted so recklessly because he knew that, whatever would happen, Greece had no possibility to respond in kind against Italy. Maybe the best (perhaps the only) way to deal with psychopats in power is to threaten them with retaliation.

Below, a more detailed description of these events that I published on Cassandra's legacy last year.

Evil Leaders: what makes their brain work?

by Ugo Bardi - 17 April 2017

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. During the final years of his career, he made a series of truly colossal mistakes that led to disaster for Italy and for him, personally. Was Mussolini mad? An idiot? Or brain damaged? We cannot say for sure, but the problem with the way the minds of leaders function seems to be more and more important in our times.

An evident trend that we observe in history is that, in times of crisis, strong leaders tend to take over and assume all powers. It has happened with the Romans, whose government system moved from democracy to a military dictatorship managed by emperors. It seems to be happening to us, too, with more and more power being concentrated in the hands of the man (rarely the woman) at the top of the government's hierarchy.

There are reasons for this trend. Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward, exploiting what's available. So, in a certain way, it makes sense to put a real brain in charge. The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe and it is not unreasonable to hope that it could manage society better than a mob.

The problem is that, sometimes, the brain at the top is not so good, actually it may be horribly bad. Like in the movie "Frankenstein Junior," even with the best of good will, we may put abnormal brains inside society's head. Dictators, emperors, warlords, big men, generalissimos, strongmen, tycoons, and the like often indulge in killing, torturing, and oppressing their subjects, as well as in engaging in unprovoked and ruinous wars, in addition to being sexual perverts. The final result is that they are often described as the prototypical evil madman character of comics or movies, complete with bloody eyes, wicked smile, and Satanic laughing.

But simply defining leaders as "mad" or "evil" doesn't tell us what makes their minds tick. Could some of them be truly insane? Maybe brain-damaged? Or is it just a kind of personality that propels them to the position they occupy? These are very difficult questions because it is impossible to diagnose mental illness from one person's public behavior and public statements. Doing that is, correctly, even considered unethical for professionals (even though it is done all the time in the political debate).

Here, I am not claiming to be saying anything definitive on this subject, but I think we can learn a lot if we examine the well known case of Benito Mussolini, the Italian "Duce" from 1922 to 1943, as an example of a behavior that can be seen as insane and, also, rather typical for dictators and absolute rulers.

The mistakes that Benito Mussolini made during the last stages of his career of prime minister of Italy were truly colossal, including declaring war on the United States in 1941. Let me give you a less well known but highly significant example. In October 1940, the Italian army attacked Greece from Albania, a story that I discussed in a previous post. That implied having to cross the Epirus mountains in winter and how in the world could anyone think that it was a good idea? Why not waiting for spring, instead? Unsurprisingly, the result was a military disaster with the Italian troops suffering heavy losses while stuck in the mud and the snow of the Epirus mountains during the 1940-41 winter, until the Germans came to the rescue - sensibly- in the following Spring. In a certain sense, the campaign was successful for the Axis because eventually Greece had to surrender. But it was also a tremendous waste of military resources that could have been used by Italy for the war effort against the British in North Africa. The blunder in Greece may have been a major factor in the Italian defeat in WWII.

The interesting point about this campaign is that we have the minutes of the government reunions that led to the ill-fated decision of attacking Greece. These documents don't seem to be available on line, but they are reported by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). It is clear from the minutes that it was Mussolini, and Mussolini alone, who pushed for starting the attack at the beginning of Winter. During a reunion held on Oct 15, 1940, the Duce is reported to have said the date for the attack on Greece had been set by him and that "it cannot be postponed, not even of one hour." No reason was given for having chosen this specific date and none of the various generals and high level officers present at the reunion dared to object and to say that it would have been better to wait for spring to come. The impression is that Italy was led by a bumbling idiot surrounded by yes-men and the results were consistent with this impression.

What made Mussolini behave in this way? There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis and that it is an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death, in 1945, and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62 year old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death.

Mussolini is one of the very few cases of high level political leaders for whom we have hard evidence of the presence or absence brain damage. The quintessential evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, is said to have been suffering from Parkinson or other neurological problems, but that cannot be proven since his body was burned to ashes after his suicide, in 1945. After the surrender of Germany, several Nazi leaders were examined in search for neurological problems and, for one of them, Robert Ley, a post-mortem examination revealed a certain degree of physical damage to the frontal lobes. Whether that was the cause of his cruel behavior, however, is debatable.

That's more or less what we have. It doesn't prove that evil leaders never suffer of brain damage but the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane or evil in the way comics or movie characters are described. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). That syndrome describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability of finding followers and becoming popular. So, it may be that the NPD syndrome is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader.

There lies the problem: even in a democracy, a politician's first priority is being elected and that's a very different skill than that needed for leading a country. An NPD affected ruler may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. It happens not just in politics, but also in business. I could also cite the names of some scientists who seem to be affected by NPD. They are often incompetents, but they may achieve a certain degree of success by means of their social skills that allow them to accumulate research grants and attract smart collaborators. (Fortunately, they can't jail and torture their opponents!)

The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD affected individuals aim at obtaining high level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent." The kind of disaster that can result may be illustrated, again, by Mussolini's case. During the Greek campaign the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order. But what would happen if a similar order were given today by a leader who can control atomic weapons?


  1. A close relation of mine is a NPD type: a combination of truly terrible acts(including theft and multiple murder) both within and without the family circle, combined with a certain charm ('what a lovely smile!') and a very plausible imitation of humility and decency - they can cry tears over the suffering of others when it suits them, and they portray themselves as a Radical Left 'freedom fighter'.

    It is fascinating, setting aside one's natural distress at being related to them, to see how someone of this kind can exert influence and win devoted followers, family and non-family alike.

    People of the same political ideology, also, are pre-disposed not to see the very obvious faults and personality disorder.

    These factors clearly applied to Mussolini, and would possibly apply to leaders of political parties in general. Perhaps, above all, 'revolutionary ones', as Fascism was, and also Hitlerism and the Bolsheviks. Political turbulence is ideal for the rise of narcissistic types, with their combination of ruthlessness and charm.

    Even in stable democracies, 'status quo' political parties are the scene of intense internal struggles, and again NPD types would thrive in these petty, but bitter, conflicts for posts and titles.

    I believe, however, it has also been established that Mussolini was in fact gravely ill for many years, and he self-prescribed a ludicrous diet of milk and grapes, and not much else, which left him rather weak. He was clearly incapacitated and unable to direct affairs for long periods. When the Germans rescued him, a German doctor prescribed a new diet, and Mussolini improved noticeably.

    It was also suggested by some at the time that Mussolini seemed to lack a core personality, and gave the impression that he was in some way searching for one.

    And he was, of course, a very little man who loved to talk big about violence and the nobility of war, and who from his earliest years liked to stab people, and later on walked around with a club, which he actually tried to take to Buckingham Place on his London visit.

    It is fashionable these days to condemn Churchilla s a war criminal and racist imperialist: but to read about his life after contemplating Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, is to be grateful that Britain produced so great, so civilised, and so sane a man; and a political system which could adopt him as war leader at a time of great crisis.

    We should never forget that Hitler and Mussolini were partly put into place by those who were playing their own games, and thought they could use the common little psychopaths to their own ends.

    1. I'm guessing by NPD you are referring to 'Narcassistic Personality Disorder'.

      I have a question for everyone: Why are so many people so consistently and easily taken in by these and other assorted characters? Hummm...

    2. Oops, sorry for not catching the whole NPD thing, I had too many tabs open and missed the bulk of Ugos' post where he had already used the acronyme!

  2. first off---Thanks for the link back to Julian Simon---I've read some of his ravings, but not that one. I always use Simon as the prime example of how one can reach an exalted position by telling people (particularly politicians) what they want to hear.

    he was in a class of his own in that respect

    Ive watched people get elected at local government level---the prime reason seems to be that anyone with any sense won't touch the job(s)---so those with a sense of self importance put themselves forward, while everyone else keeps their head down

    Was it Socrates who said (something like) putting oneself forward for public office should be immediate grounds for disqualification.

    It seems inevitable that NPD types get themselves elected one way or is also inevitable that one in every few thousand (maybe a million) will have a real gift for politicking and posturing and exploit that gift ruthlessly.

    (most end anonymously)

    Those who bring success (however temporary) are cheered by the masses so long asthat success lasts.

    ww 2 was unique---in that the victors did not loot the vanquished and leave nations a barren wasteland, as was the case in all previous wars in history.
    Instead they poured (cheap) resources INTO defeated nations, which were then able to rebuild themselves.--Thus WW2 seems now little more than a hiccup in a progress of the 20th c

    This cannot happen now, because resources on that scale are no longer available

    Whatever was or wasnt wrong with Mussolini---the ''head posturing'' similarity between him and Trump is both comical and terrifying---they seem to be cast in the same mould, completely at odds with reality on any level

  3. >Are our leaders mad, stupid, or evil? Or all the three things together?

    They are a reflection of the voters. If we have ignorant, self absorbed, greedy voters, we'll get ignorant, self absorbed greedy politicans.

    As Dennis Meadows also points out, voters lead, politicans follow.

    1. Our leaders take the power we give them...

  4. Perfectly summarized by D. Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

    "To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
    To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."

    1. Douglas Adams attended my College at Cambridge: the chapel has niches for statues of famous graduates;some are empty, and I always maintain that he should be there as one of the most distinguished. Everyone thinks I'm joking..... :)

  5. I think that in the case of recent USA, UK and France attack on Syria we face a whole new development, unknown in history. Trump may suffer NPD but it is obvious that he was forced to do that. The pressure on him by deep state is such that in order to survive he needed this distraction, which in itself is initiated by the deep state. I am sure that he would not do this unless there was pressure from deep state.

    So this is new development. We have a group of NPD deep state individuals who never appear as candidates in the elections but who run the show from behind the curtain. The leader that seems like a culprit is in fact an actor in positive role but who in not allowed to act according his will. I would say that this is much more dangerous situation than any before because these deep state criminals are not known to general public or available for mental health scrutiny and the weapons they control are very destructive.

  6. Neither bad nor evil, but 'possessed' by or of 'something': I refer to the case of one Karl Rove, a kind-of 'spokesperson', as cited and quoted verbatim by David Stockman. Perhaps as Stockman suggests a "swamp creature"? I cannot vouchsafe for all Stockman's interpretations, but his historical summary has considerable factual merit.

    Personally I think we need look more closely at the way military spending in the USA has been and still is part of the essential fiscal re-distribution (Stockman calls it "pork barrel politics") between the constituent States in order to maintain a single monetary union (fiscal integration). This latter issue is discussed more generally here
    And on top of that, USA imbalances with the World, especially the net flows of material and money, to my mind resemble those of an Imperial Metropole's relations with peripheral resources and populations.


  7. I tend to agree, Phil Harris: much of the behaviour of the US and its satellites can be explained as arising from an imperial structure, as well as from the growing energy crisis.

    To that extent, personalities are somewhat irrelevant.

    Ancient Rome at the peak of power interfered constantly beyond the official imperial border: encouraging, subsidising, deposing, etc.

    The internal aspect of US military spending -which of course encourages use of those weapons and certain other bahaviours - is an interesting suggestion.

  8. It is pretty much required that anyone who willingly takes on a leadership position in a time of collapse be insane, ignorant, or ill-willed, because anyone with good intentions with an accurate assessment of the enormity of the challenge and an honest evaluation of his or her own abilities would conclude he or she is not equal to the task.

    1. How true: if they think they are the 'Man of the Hour' -run!

  9. I'd also consider the possibility that a position of power generally produces systemic feedbacks which destabilize those who may have started with (at least) a clear purpose and reasonable competence. This would not exclude other factors, and certainly exacerbates any predispositions.

    Elevated and chronic stress, a sense of isolation and embattlement, suppression of alternative perspectives. Serial and unresolved crises, a sense of being overwhelmed or of futility. Erosion of ethical 'redlines', temptations, excess and guilt. All these and more tend to wreak havoc even on 'stable' personalities.

    Just the conflict between a sense of omnipotence and frustration seem likely to set up oscillations between ever more extreme behaviors.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)