On the Devil and Politics

by Dennis de Rougemont

Denis de Rougement, a well-known Swiss writer, is the author of Love in the Western World and The Devil’s Share. He is President of the Congress of Cultural Freedom.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, June 2, 1941. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The sentimental hatred of the evil that is in others may blind one to the evil that one bears in himself and to the gravity of evil in general. The overly facile condemnation of the wicked man on the opposite side may conceal and favor much inward complaisance toward that very wickedness.

At dessert, we were in agreement: what is most lacking in America is belief in the Devil. The table dispersed. It was at the club. While waiting for the elevator, I said to the Philosopher:

"That’s the trouble: if I talked about the Devil, here, I’m the one that would be considered diabolical or, who knows, the Devil himself."

"Oughtn’t you perhaps accept the risk ?" he asked seriously.

The elevator door opened; we entered.

"That at last would be a new tragic situation: becoming the Devil himself in order to prove he exists! . . . After all, it may be that Nietzsche or Luther sometimes thought of it. ‘I could wish that myself were accursed,’ wrote St. Paul."

"I know a good story," replied the Philosopher. "One of the early Irish apostles who evangelized Switzerland explained to his peasant audience that the martyrs are our best interceders with God. The listeners believed him so sincerely that they killed him. And the best part of it is, it worked: they became Christians."

"We need these parables to remind us how dangerous it is to speak the truth generally, and the Christian truth in particular: I mean dangerous for the one who speaks it. Kierkegaard never stopped repeating this in all his works: if you want to be Christians, well and good, but know the price. For nineteen centuries that price has been fixed."

Drawing room. Coffee. There was fresh discussion of world events, as though the Devil did not exist. I told myself that I should write a book about him. Here are a few notes towards it.

The Devil’s first trick, remarks Andre Gide, is to make us believe that he does not exist. This trick has never better succeeded than in the modern epoch. All America has fallen into the snare.

God says: "I am that I am." But the Devil, like Ulysses to the Cyclops, says: "I am Nobody. What should you be afraid of ?"

Nevertheless, the Bible gives notice of the Devil’s existence on every page. In the original text, it speaks much less of "evil" than of the "Evil One." It assigns the Devil a number of revealing names which ought help us to recognize him: the Accuser, the fallen Angel, the Prince of this world, the Father of lies, and finally—Legion. The latter furnishes one of the most valuable clues for our time. It means that the Devil assumes as many aspects as there are individuals in the world. It may also mean that the Devil is the mob, and that, being everybody or anybody, he necessarily appears to us to be nobody in particular.

Before achieving this result, the Devil has resorted to a homely device: for a few centuries, he had adopted a medieval appearance—the red-horned demon of the miracle plays—which made him out absolutely harmless and anachronistic. One might say that since the Reformation, since Luther hurled an inkstand straight at him, we have not known how to form a modern, contemporary picture of the Devil. Kierkegaard alone had perhaps recognized him with accuracy in the ink of the newspapers, when he noted that one cannot preach Christianity any longer in a world dominated by the daily press.

Yet the Devil’s incognito became difficult to maintain in the course of the first half of our century, while glaring catastrophes shook the foundations of our faith in progress. And so the Devil resorted to a prudent alibi, meant to forestall any stirring of awareness in the democratic countries. From 1933 on, he made us believe that he was simply Hitler. That was his second trick.

Is Hitler the Antichrist? The question is not a simple one. For my part, I can only give it an answer that is at first sight enigmatic. Hitler is more diabolical than is imagined by those who believe him to be the Devil in person, or the Antichrist. (And there are many who believe this.)

I remember hearing Karl Barth say in Switzerland, a year ago: "This man whose name censorship causes me to forget is certainly not the Antichrist. For he has no power over our salvation. The true Antichrist will only reveal himself at the end of time, as our pitiless Accuser, and then we shall no longer have any other Intercessor but Christ himself. The man you are thinking of is still only a little gentleman, a first forerunner of the Antichrist. And the struggle that he is conducting against the Christian world is but a warning to prepare in earnest for the final Combat."

When we believe Hitler to be the Devil, we obviously do great honor to the Austrian ex-corporal, but what is more serious, we delude ourselves as to Satan’s real stature. Let us not forget that Satan is Legion. The assassination of a dictator would by no means suffice to rid the present world of the evil that torments it.

In fact, the very thing that is diabolical about Hitler is the way in which he persuaded the Germans that all evil came from the Treaty of Versailles, or from the Jews, therefore from others. It is in such tactics that one recognizes Satan’s handiwork among his delegates.

Today, the democrats who sincerely believe that Hitler incarnates all the evil of our time are the victims of an altogether similar tactic, this time promulgated by the Prince of this earth himself. "See, I am only Hitler !" he tells us. We see only Hitler, we find him terrible, we detest him, we weigh against him, with more or less determination, our ancient democratic virtues, and we no longer see our true demons. The trick is played, we are taken in, and it is humiliating to recall that not long ago this trick was considered just good enough for the primitives of Melanesia.

Everyone knows that the so-called primitives are in the habit of personifying or objectifying the evil forces which menace them. Whether it be a sorcerer or a profaner of the sacred, an animal, a cloud or a bit of colored wood, the cause of the evil from which these savages suffer is always external to themselves and must be combated and annihilated outside themselves.

On the other hand, Christianity has striven for centuries to make us understand that the Kingdom of God is in us, that evil, too, is in us, and that their battlefield is nowhere else than in our souls. Still, this education has largely failed, and we persist in our primitivism, holding the people opposed to us, or the force of events, responsible for our evils. If we are revolutionaries, we believe that by changing the disposition of the objects of this world—by displacing wealth, for example—we shall suppress the causes of our present evils. If we are good honest democrats, anxious or optimistic, we believe that by roasting a few dictators, profaners of the right, and sorcerers, we shall re-establish peace and prosperity. In this, we still have the complete magic mentality, and like choleric children, we beat the table we have run against. Or like Xerxes, we scourge the waters of the Hellespont—with great lashes of rhetoric upon the short waves.

We forget that in reality our adversaries do not differ essentially from us. Each man bears in his body and in his soul the microbes of all known diseases. Annihilating the external symptoms of the menace would by no means be sufficient to rid us of it. Those symptoms—Hitler, Stalin, the "wicked" in general—personify possibilities which exist in us too, latent temptations that might very well develop some day, under stress, or fatigue, or some temporary unbalance.

Let us try to avoid here a threatening misapprehension. The intention of these remarks is in no way to justify "the others" and to lump us all together, without distinction, as in 1939 the Oxford Group seemed to do in the pamphlet entitled: "We Are All Guilty." For what I mean is this: We are all guilty in the measure in which we do not condemn and do not also recognize in ourselves the mentality of. the totalitarians, that is the active and personal presence of the Demon in our passions, in our need for sensation, in our fear of responsibilities, in our civic inertia, in our ignorance of our neighbor, in our rejection finally of any absolute that transcends and judges our "vital" (as they always are) interests.

Here is a very simple observation: nobody has ever pretended to act in bad faith. We are all, Hitler included, "men of good will." Yet look at what is happening, and who has brought it about. Is it the Devil? Yes, but with our hands and our thoughts. It is here that we should remember our democratic slogan: All men are equal!

There are degrees of evil. There are inequalities of responsibility. But we are all in evil, and we are all the accomplices of the most responsible in the world. And this much is certain: The true Christian would be a man with no other enemy to fear than the one he lodges in himself.

Not having known how to recognize what is truly diabolical about a Hitler—his manner of localizing all evil in the outsider so as to clear himself—we fell into the same error as he. We turned him into an image of the Demon altogether external to our reality. And while we were regarding it, fascinated, the Demon returned by the back door to torment us in disguises that could not arouse our suspicions.

In the nineteenth century it was believed that automatic progress could replace providence, but when we see today what the blind faith has brought us to, we are forced to recognize that automatic progress was only the Devil’s disguise. Not that all progress is diabolical in itself, obviously not. But if we abandon ourselves to progress, letting things go with the comfortable assurance that all will be well in the end, then progress becomes the most dangerous of soporifics, a veritable Demon’s drug, and one of his new names.

In that age, apparently out of kindliness toward others, we believed in the fundamental goodness of man. But such a view can lead a person to believe in his own natural goodness, then to being blinded to the evil that he bears in himself, then to denying the active presence of the Demon, then finally to granting the Demon free scope to dupe him.

We believed that evil was relative in the world, that it sprang from an unsatisfactory distribution of wealth, from an ill digested education, from inadequate laws, or from pressures and injustices that might be eradicated by adroit measures. Yet, these superstitious beliefs had only one effect—to blind us to the reality of man, that is, to the reality of evil rooted in our essential freedom, in our primary data, "in the human nature in itself" (as Reinhold Niebuhr so forcefully has pointed out).

We were, and we remain, optimists out of principle—almost out of good manners, one might say—despite all contradictions from reality. This optimism is not the naive confidence of the child. It is a kind of lie. Specifically, it is a flight from reality, for in reality, we well know that there is evil, that there is the Devil’s influence. But as this shocks us and alarms, we try to conjure away the evil by denying it, thus using the magic mentality. We think that whoever denounces evil as fundamental must himself be very wicked. We believe that by acknowledging evil, we create it in some way. We prefer not to dwell on it. We "repress," Freud would say. This flight and this lie, within the subconscious, leave us unable to understand what is happening in the world, and deliver us over to the simplest ruses of the Evil One.

Just as we say, in the presence of a miracle of good, "Too good to be true," we say in the presence of certain descriptions of evil, "Too frightful to be true !" Meanwhile, it is true, but that makes us uncomfortable, and irresistibly we dismiss it from our thoughts. For if it were truly true, it would be necessary to act, and if we set ourselves to act, we should very quickly see that this evil has roots in our lives too, and that, in a certain way, we like it! There is the great secret.

The Devil succeeded in making democrats believe that they did not like evil at all, that they in no way desired it, that they were good and others wicked, and that the whole thing was that simple! From that precise moment, democracy became the Devil’s best instrument for duping our good intentions. The proof is that certain democrats are going to think I must be anti-democratic to speak thus, but I am simply speaking, here, as a European who has seen firsthand certain bizarre phenomena of democratic disintegration and of conversion to fascism.

The France of 1939 was on the whole democratic, and almost every Frenchman sincerely called himself anti-Nazi, and believed himself proof against this kind of temptation. He had his good conscience as a democrat. Hitler came, France capitulated, and today the "anti-fascist intellectuals" of Paris suddenly discover that at bottom Nazism is not so bad as all that, that, on the whole, they had always desired something passably resembling it, and that after all, "the Nazis are men like us, so let us work together."

That is the danger that American democracy is exposed to, as were the others. She too believed and still believes that the Nazis are animals of an altogether different race from Americans. She too risks discovering some day that "after all, they are men like us." And it is quite true that they are men like us, in the sense that their sin is also in us, secretly.

It seems to me that the clearest lesson which emerges from European events is this: The sentimental hatred of the evil that is in others may blind one to the evil that one bears in himself and to the gravity of evil in general. The overly facile condemnation of the wicked man on the opposite side may conceal and favor much inward complaisance toward that very wickedness. I suspect a profound ambivalence in certain democratic denunciations of Hitlerism, for in the violence of the tone and the obstinate simplism of the judgments, we betray our bad conscience, our secret anxiety, our unacknowledged temptation. In regard to anti-fascists who wish only to be anti, I cannot help thinking that sooner or later the pro which slumbers in a corner of their soul will suddenly awaken and overwhelm them. I have seen too many cases of this kind, individual and collective. I saw the population of the Saar throw itself into Hitler’s arms in 1935. I saw a democratic Vienna transformed in twenty-four hours into a Vienna delirious with Hitlerian passion. I saw France, or let us say certain Frenchmen, discover inside a few weeks the "good points" of the totalitarian system. I believe that I know whereof I speak when I say to honest democrats: Look at the Devil that is among us! Stop believing that he can only resemble Hitler, or Stalin, or Senator Wheeler, for it is you yourself that he will always contrive to resemble the most. If you want to catch him, I am going to tell you where you will most surely find him—seated in your own armchair. It is in you alone that you will catch him in the very act. And then only will you be in a state to track him down in others. And then only will you be cured of your almost incredible naiveté before the totalitarian danger and be able to escape hypnosis.

I sum up. We were lacking a modern picture of the Demon. We had therefore stopped believing in him. Then we imagined that the Devil was Hitler. And the Devil rejoiced. (Hitler too.) It would be more fruitful, more realistic, and finally more truthful, to try picturing the Devil to ourselves as having the features of a dynamic and optimistic playboy, lacking all thought. Or, if we are liberal intellectuals for example, as having the features of a liberal intellectual who does not believe in the Devil.