Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Good Tsar Bias

Ian Kershaw's remarkable book The "Hitler Myth": Image and Reality in the Third Reich is a really clever piece of public opinion archeology. It attempts to reconstruct the rise and fall of Hitler's popularity in Nazi Germany, drawing primarily on secret reports compiled by the Gestapo, the Security Service of the SS, and the clandestine agents of the banned Social Democratic Party -- a task fraught with methodological pitfalls, given the enormous levels of repression the Nazi party was capable of exercising over the German population. (Suffice it to say that preference falsification was rife, compounded by biased reporting by the public opinion researchers of all these organizations, but Kershaw nevertheless manages to extract much useful information from his sources). Among other things, the book makes the case that, at least until the war started turning sour in late 1942, Hitler was far more popular than the Nazi Party, which quickly grew to be disliked, even despised, by the vast majority of Germans,  despite the initial improvement in economic conditions they experienced in the early years of the Third Reich:
At the centre of our enquiry here is the remarkable phenomenon that Hitler’s rising popularity was not only unaccompanied by a growth in the popularity of the Nazi Party, but in fact developed in some ways at the direct expense of his own Movement. (p. 83)
In Kershaw's telling, the contrast arose primarily from the fact that the "little Hitlers" (as Party functionaries were sometimes derogatorily called) were constantly encountered in everyday life, where they were perceived, not without ample justification, as corrupt and overbearing, while Hitler operated on a "higher" plane, concerned with the "big questions" of war and peace:
The ‘little Hitler’ type was ... by no means omnipresent, but was nevertheless sufficiently widely encountered to provoke extensive criticism and to tarnish irreparably he image of the Party. In a sense, the Party functionaries were reaping the harvest of the prejudice which they themselves had helped to sow against local politicians and ‘bigwigs’, and had to face the daily dissatisfaction and discord as the rebound from the utopian hopes in the Third Reich which they had stirred up. The ‘little Hitlers’ in the forefront of the local scene had to bear the brunt of the discontent. In stark contrast, the ‘Hitler myth’ - clearly in part a subconscious mechanism to compensate for the perceived shortcomings of the Third Reich - stood aloof from the dissension on a lofty and untouchable plane (p. 97
The Führer ... appeared to be on an elevated plane far removed from the humdrum problems of everyday life and was presumed to be preoccupied with the 'mighty' issues of the nation, pondering matters of foreign and defence policy, of war and peace, holding the fate of the nation in his hand. It was a domain which, in peacetime at any rate, scarcely affected material interests in any direct or obvious way, but one which could be called upon to engender - even if only temporarily - high emotional involvement and maximum national unity (p. 121)
Hitler's increase in popularity at the expense of the Nazi Party was not just a result of perceptions about their different spheres of responsibility; it was also amplified by the strategic choices people made in order to express dissatisfaction in a highly repressive environment where open criticism of the Führer could carry severe consequences. For example, Church leaders who wished to criticize Nazi anti-Christian policies during the "Church struggles" of the mid-1930s attempted to protect themselves against retaliation by preemptively praising Hitler and declaring themselves loyal supporters of him, but as a result they ended up reinforcing perceptions of a good Hitler vs. the bad party underlings who perverted his intentions: "The professions of loyalty to the Führer were in part a ploy to offset criticism of the Party, the SS, of the Church’s number one Nazi hate-figure, Alfred Rosenberg. ... [but] whatever the motives, the actual effect was the enhancement of the myth of the ‘good’ Führer detached from and set against the evil of the Party radicals" (p. 113). And the tactic was also available to other critics of the regime's policies, such as opponents of the murders committed under the Action T4 euthanasia program.

The divergence between Hitler's popularity and the party's unpopularity was not without important political effects. Time and again, Hitler was able to use his position "above the everyday" to discipline the Nazi party and cement his position at the expense of "radicals" -- for example, during the Röhm purge and the "Night of the Long Knives," as well as during the aforementioned "Church struggles." And it would seem that Hitler's personal popularity prevented widespread dissatisfaction with the Third Reich during peacetime from developing into a more serious challenge to the regime; at the very least, it kept in check the party's many centrifugal tendencies, discouraged potential competitors for Hitler's position, and probably helped him accumulate ever more absolute power.

The point that interests me here, however, is that, according to Kershaw, ordinary Germans rationalized the dissonance involved in both disliking the Party Hitler claimed to represent, even embody (more than once, Hitler claimed that "the Führer is the Party and the Party is the Führer", to cite a 1935 statement - p. 83) and supporting, even adoring, Hitler, by means of a particular kind of exculpatory rationalization: "that Hitler was being kept in the dark about the real state of affairs" (p. 102). Or, more vividly, as a Party member from the Upper Palatinate put it in 1934, "Hitler would be all right, but his underlings are all swindlers" (p. 83).

Regardless of the specifics of the Nazi case, these sorts of rationalizations seem common enough that they deserve a name. We find something like them, for example, in the combination of dissatisfaction with the Venezuelan government and genuine love of Chavez characteristic of many Chavistas even before Chavez' death; or in the contrast between the apparent popularity of Putin and the unpopularity of much of Russia's political class and governing apparatus; and perhaps also in the Franco regime, with the disjunction between Franco's apparent high prestige and the unpopularity of the Falange during the 1940s and 1950s. And they seem rooted, as Kershaw implies, in some kind of general cognitive bias or psychological mechanism that operates in a wide variety of contexts. I don't know if psychologists have already baptized the particular mechanism that produced the contrast between the perception of a "Führer without sin" (as a report Kershaw quotes actually says) and the widely detested "little Hitlers" -- Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases doesn't have quite the thing I'm looking for -- but I propose to call it "the good Tsar bias," for the proverbial attitude of ordinary Russians to the Tsar in contrast to his ministers before the revolution. (Whether ordinary Russians actually held this attitude is a different question -- looking around lazily, I can only find one good reference, in W. Bruce Lincoln's Sunlight at Midnight, p. 188 -- but the belief that they did was already proverbial in the 1930s. Even the Security Service of the SS made reference to the "good tsar" idea to account for the widespread finding of their public opinion researchers that people hated the Nazi party, but did not blame Hitler for their everyday woes; Kershaw quotes a report from them that claims that before WWI in Russia people used to explain their dissatisfaction with the government by saying that "Father Tsar knows nothing of it, he would not wish or tolerate it" before going on to warn that "Russia's fate proves this principle is dangerous" -- p. 102.)

The bias comes from the failure to notice that, as Brad Delong used to say, "the cossacks work for the Tsar"; some cognitive or emotional dissonance management mechanism prevents people from acknowledging connections between the proximate and the more remote causal agents of their dissatisfaction that, in retrospect, seem obvious. After all, why, if the leader is so good, does he surround himself with such poor collaborators? In the Hitler case, Kershaw talks about the "naïvety" of the people expressing belief in the "good Führer", and claims that this seems explainable only due to a "prevailing psychological necessity to have a national leader of stature existing in an elevated sphere outside of and removed from the 'conflict sphere' of the everyday political arena" (p. 119). But the dissonance management mechanism seems a bit more general than this.

Though the "good Tsar bias" seems to be related to what psychologists call the just world bias, insofar as it appears to serve as a compensatory form of system justification, it does not seem to be quite the same thing. The "good Tsar" bias does not incline people to say that the world is just, or to rationalize injustice as somehow deserved, only to deny that those leaders who are closely tied to the symbols of the nation (the Tsar, the Führer, the King, etc.) bear responsibility for bad outcomes in everyday life; that responsibility, instead, is assigned to subordinates. In this respect, the bias appears to be more closely related to what Dan Kahan and others have called "identity-protective cognition": the closer a leader is tied to the symbols of the nation or group with whom they identify, and the closer people's identification with the nation or group is, the more difficult it should be for them to accept that the leader is responsible for bad outcomes, since such acceptance threatens one's identity, and the more likely it will be for them to displace that responsibility onto subordinates as a protective measure. And leaders, like Hitler, who are the focus of high-intensity rituals associated with big national occasions -- plebiscitary elections, victories in war, even set-piece speeches on the occasion of good economic news -- are precisely the sorts of leaders who become associated with important community symbols; indeed, in important ways, they come to symbolize the community, as long as the rituals are successful. For this reason, competitive systems of leadership selection should mitigate the bias, since they prevent leaders from being too closely identified with the symbols of the nation, whereas traditional monarchies should amplify it, given the typical association of the monarch with the symbols of the community as such. And wherever the bias operates, leaders should be able to more easily accumulate power at the expense of subordinates.

But even leaders who are closely tied to the symbols of the community cannot always avoid association with some bad outcome; and in these cases the bias should diminish. Despite the best efforts of Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry (and the total monopoly over the media that the Nazi Party commanded, enforced by draconian measures against listening to foreign broadcasts), the defeat of the German armies at Stalingrad irreparably tarnished Hitler's own image, since he had repeatedly taken responsibility for the conduct of the war and stressed the importance of taking the city. The outcome could simply not be blamed on malicious or incompetent subordinates. Indeed, we may even observe an inversion of the bias, in which the subordinates are generally exculpated, and superiors are generally blamed, for bad outcomes; I suspect something like that went on at the end of the war in Germany. 

Readers, are there any other good examples of this bias? 


  1. Anonymous9:13 AM

    "The good Tsar bias"

    I know what you mean, I call it "Interpretative Iznogoodism" (= an interpretation following the pattern: the Caliph is good, put all the blame on the evil Grand Vizier Iznogood), after the Iznogood comic series by Goscinny & Tabary. It happens all the time.

  2. Anonymous9:22 AM

    Perhaps I should choose something more fancy, "Hermeneutic Iznogoudism"

  3. Anonymous10:11 AM

    U.S. President Reagan comes to mind, who remains a powerful image for conservative American voters; although his reckless spending increased the national debt fantastically, he is revered as an advocate of 'small government.'

    1. Anonymous4:54 PM

      I believe Reagan's spending was primarily the result of two factors. 1) Reagan (and many others) overestimated the threat posed by the Soviet Union in the context of Carter's reductions in defense spending and other military commitments, and therefore the need for increased military spending. 2) Speaker O'Neill demanded corresponding increases in social spending as the political cost of his support for more defense spending. Reagan was wrong about the Soviet threat, but this is more apparent in hindsight than it was at the time. I think we would all accept increased debt to deal with a real existential threat, so it doesn't seem reasonable to say Reagan was "reckless."

    2. Everything I ever heard around the Sacramento State Capital is that Reagan is basically innocent of being some kind of policy wonk. He's pretty innocent from what I hear, I don't know how political careers work, I assume its kind of like the music business, there's all kinds of artists. Reagan didn't come up with his own material.

  4. Anonymous11:03 AM

    This effect is one of the typical arguments in favour of a constitutional monarchy ("a crowned republic") where the King/Queen as head of state is meant to be apolitical and nationally symbolic but with no real power while the Prime Minister has power and responsibility but is not symbolic or sacred. When the US President enters the room, everyone else is expected to stand up. Not so for the British PM.

  5. There is a whole string of examples from peasant uprisings in the 14th and 15th century England and France. The rebels repeatedly completely challenged the authority and legitimacy of the local gentry (or even gentry in general) but never actually challenged that of the king. They submitted to his judgment only to be betrayed in their trust. Again and again and again. I think there were still echos of this in France during the 18th century right up to the revolution.

    And of course, the English reinstating a king after trying a republic on, is another good example.

    There's also the 'good founder/previous leader' myth variation. Very common in the Soviet bloc (I know this from first hand experiences growing up in communist Czechoslovakia) to say things like 'Lenin would be turning in his grave'. But even praising previous leaders - like Brezhnev during Gorbachev etc.

    But I think it's also important to be aware of the victor's myths, such as 'Uniquely evil Hitler' which helps absolve the general population and even underlings from blame even if it was they who actually carried out atrocities. Kershaw called it 'working towards Hitler' and again it's very common phenomenon in totalitarian regimes where even opponents often enforce non-existent policies only because they think, that's what the leadership would want.

    1. Dominik, excellent examples - and I agree that it is important to be aware of the reverse pattern, like the myth of the uniquely evil Hitler. They actually seem to spring from a similar source: if Hitler suddenly becomes the symbol of everything that is bad, then he can be blamed and we can be exculpated in order to protect our identity.

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  7. Its really very common in the former Soviet republics. While the ministers and MPs are distrusted and even despised the president is often hailed as the "national leader" who saved his country from certain "catastrophes" such as civil war, poverty and etc. Even though many will admit that the president is probably corrupted, they'll still justify him on the ground that all presidents are crooks to some degree (even in US). The opposition leaders are often considered to be "hungry" loosers, which means they'll steal even more if allowed to come to power - the belief which seems to justify the legitimacy of the existing regimes (even among the educated classes)

  8. Cheney for George W Bush?

  9. one candidate to watch would be narendra modi, the current India PM who's party got elected a couple months ago in no small measure owing to the force of his personality. its early days, and to be fair his party the BJP only got 31% of the overall national vote, but that's still around 200 million voters and if there are any stumbles, it might be interesting to watch how the country reacts to it.

  10. Anonymous12:42 AM

    The same is said of the run-up to the English Civil War - the King's great but his ministers are deceiving him / corrupt / &c; let's insist that he replace his ministers - obviously in the end this position became unstable. Or of present-day China; that the centre works very hard to ensure / enforce that any criticism remains local / specific rather than general.

    One could also argue that people will often blame the leader rather than deeper elements of the system - despite e.g. the continuities between czarist / communist / post-communist Russia?

  11. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Saudi clerics are quite fond of ending their Friday sermons with: "Oh lord grant him (the king) a righteous court". Saudis in general associate lagging development and widespread official corruption and nepotism to individuals and families close to the royals, and not the royal family itself.

  12. The pattern is (at least) in part a countersignalling ( ) phenomenon. Lower-status sub-despots have to be arrogant to signal power; head despots countersignal that they are so obviously powerful that they can afford to be magnanimous.

    This isn't to exclude the role of ideology, but it would arise on a preceding countersignalling foundation.

  13. Interesting post! Linked at Bleeding Heartland in the context of top Iowa Republicans blaming the EPA while absolving Donald Trump for broken promises.