The craftiness to exploit hatred functions as an effective means used by infamous leaders of mass movements to generate enthusiasm and self-sacrifice among their followers. This article examines how leaders of political and social movements use the power of hatred to excite and motivate their “true believers.”

The True Believer

Eric Hoffer (1898—1983) had no formal schooling but developed a voracious appetite for the printed word. Through ten years as a migratory worker during the great depression, he continued to read and scribble his observations as he wandered from town to town.

During Hoffer’s work as a longshoreman in San Francisco, his writing developed and gained public attention, especially in academic circles. The printing of “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements,” and future publications brought him celebrity as a writer and working-class philosopher. The True Believer analyzes the phenomenon of mass movements. Hoffer identifies hatred as one of the unifying agents used to set a mass movement in motion.


 Noah Webster’s famous 1828 dictionary, which bore the deliberately patriotic title An American Dictionary of the English Language, contains a more comprehensive definition of hatred than modern editions.

Great dislike or aversion; hate; enmity. Hatred is an aversion to evil, and may spring from utter disapprobation, as the hatred of vice or meanness; or it may spring from offenses or injuries done by fellow men, or from envy or jealousy, in which case it is usually accompanied with malevolence or malignity. Extreme hatred is abhorrence or detestation.

The Webster definition identifies four sources from which hatred springs.

  • Strong disapproval of evil such as vice or meanness (righteous hatred).
  • Offenses or injuries inflicted by others.
  • Envy or jealously accompanied by the desire to inflict harm.
  • Inexplicable abhorrence or detestation.

The first type of hatred is what we might describe as a righteous or holy hatred. “It is possible,” Hoffer writes, “to synthesize an enthusiasm, a devotion, and a hope by activating hatred.” He quotes Martin Luther as an example.

When my heart is cold and I cannot pray as I should I scourge myself with the thought of the impiety and ingratitude of my enemies … so that my heart swells with righteous indignation and hatred… And the hotter I grow the more ardent do my prayers become. (Table Talk, Number 2387 a—b)

But those who would exploit hatred as a tool will use any, or an amalgam of the last three to achieve their diabolical end. Such hatred is unjustifiable and born out of misplaced zeal to promote self and/or a nefarious cause at the expense of others.

Vines Expository Dictionary provides the Biblical definition of such hatred as “malicious and unjustifiable feelings toward others, whether towards the innocent or by mutual animosity.”

Jesus referred to this manner of hatred when he told his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18 NIV).

Exploiting Hatred

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.” So wrote Eric Hoffer in The True Believer.

Mass movements can rise and spread in proportion to the perceived odiousness of a real, imagined, or invented foe. Power-hungry individuals and factions become adept at laying the blame for the ills of the masses on a targeted class of people—scapegoating, so to speak.

According to the Roman historian Tacitus, when the Great Fire of Rome, 64 A.D., destroyed portions of the city leaving the population economically devastated, Emperor Nero took advantage of the rising hatred of Christians by using them as scapegoats.

Three centuries later Emperor Diocletian sought to build his image as a restorer of past Roman glory by co-opting and escalating the power of hatred, starting the most extensive persecution of Christians in Roman history.

But the master purveyor of hatred used to start a movement and rise to power burst on the scene sixteen centuries later.

The 3 Steps

Adolf Hitler provides the template for exploiting hatred to excite and motivate the masses. We can reduce an examination of the method used by the little corporal for his ascent to Der Führer to three steps.

Establish an enemy.

Eric Hoffer writes in his sub-topic, Hatred, in the chapter on Unifying Agents: “When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered, ‘No … We should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.’”

The shrewdness of those who know how to ignite a mass movement, or keep one going, manifests itself in knowing how to pick a worthy enemy. “The genius of a great leader consists in concentrating all hatred on a single foe” according to Hoffer. This segues into number two.

Marshal allies.

As quoted earlier from The True Believer, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.” Pascal said it like this: “All men naturally hate one another” (The Pensées, VII, 451). The Apostle Paul described man in his natural state as “hateful, and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Passionate hatred gives meaning and purpose to empty lives, making them easy pickings for molding into true believers.

The key ingredient for igniting a movement is to appeal to others who hate as we do. Hitler used antipathy toward the Jewish people that many inexplicably blamed for the depressed conditions in Germany as a vehicle for the rise of Naziism. Also, disdain toward immigrants and foreign nationals provides fodder for coalescing followers.

Mobilize the movement.

Eric Hoffer suggests, “There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment.”

“In the corporateness of a mass movement,” he writes, “we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”

And so the movement grows. Hatred goes beyond the means of unification and becomes its ever-expanding product. Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), or Night of Broken Glass, November 9—10, 1936, marked the advance of the Nazi movement to a depth of perdition that rivaled all instances of man’s humanity to man.

The Nazis attacked Jewish persons and property, leaving the streets littered with broken glass. In two days and nights, rioters ransacked and looted about, 7,500 Jewish businesses, killed at least 91 Jews and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, cemeteries, and synagogues. The police arrested some 30,000 Jews, many of whom became prisoners in concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen.

The night of broken glass shattered Jewish existence in Germany. The mobilization of the National Socialist movement now made Jewish survival in das Vaterland impossible. The exploitation of hatred had seemingly done its worst. But, as we know now, an unimaginable apocalypse lay ahead.


Eric Hoffer issues a warning to all who would follow leaders and movements that exploit hatred, no matter what the stated justification: “Though hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community… it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend.”